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This digital era that we are living in, is presenting opportunities for education more than ever before. As a result today many teachers and schools are embarking educational projects using online tools, with the aim of empowering students to take more part in education. Through utilizing these social media techniques, many studies found that teachers were able to increase students' engagement in education, and that students contributed more to a greater sense of collaboration in the classroom, and beyond.
These New technologies make new demands on learning and provide new supports to learning. In the Past education was based on the chalk and talk strategies, possibly as a result that both the resources and the demands were very limited. Today new literacies and new conceptualisations of education require the use of these constantly emerging technologies. On the other hand despite the positive affects online tools have on students and the essential tools they provide for education in today's digital climate, critics make pressure so that social networking from educational purposes will be restricted, based on the impacts of digital technologies on the processes and practices of pedagogy but also on the effects of students perspective towards learning.
2. Weblog as an Educational Tool
Since the 1990s, educational institutions have increasingly envisaged ICT as a central tool in the learning sphere, especially as a result of its ability to make learning more flexible (Wilson, 2008). This flexibility in learning led to the development of flexible course and learning management, which as a result manifest it self in the growing interest of the use of social media in education.
The potential use of blogs as an educational tool has been highlighted by a number of researchers within an educational context. (Duffy & Bruns, 2006) saw blogs as potential tools, which enable individuals to interact within the educational domain in new systems of learning, a view which is extended through the research of (Rey, 2006) and (Owen et al., 2006) who showed how blogs have been used in a number of educational contexts to develop learning. Owen et al., identified blogs as having important attributes:
Delivery of communication between groups;
Enabling of communication between many people;
Gathering and sharing of resources;
Delivery of collaborative collecting and indexing of information;
Allowance of syndication, and assistance in personalisation of priorities;
New tools for knowledge aggregation and creation of new knowledge;
Delivery to many platforms as is appropriate to the creator, recipient and context. (Owen et al., 2006, pp. 12-13)
2.1 What is a Blog?
The term 'Blog', refers to a web site that is a "log of the Web", indicating a record that points to material available on the World Wide Web, a term that was coined by Jorn Barger in 1997. Sébastien Paquet refers to the term 'blog', in its simplest form as it is a website with dated entries, presented in reverse chronological order and published on the Internet. In a 'weblog' a number of features are commonly agreed to be defining characteristics of the genre. Paquet lists six features that a blog exhibits: personal editorship, hyperlinked post structure displayed in reverse chronological order, frequent updates, free but controlled public access to the content and archived material (Paquet, 2003).
A Blogs differ from traditional websites and provide many advantages over traditional sites especially in education. Mainly because they can be easily created with little or no technical background, new data is entered into a blog usually through a simple form and then submitted by the blogger, after which all data content is filtered. Most blog platforms allow the blog administrator to invite and add other authors, whose permissions and access are easily managed. Blogs also provide a personal writing space that is easy to use, sharable, and automatically archived. Some Blogs have the ability to link and inter-link to form learning communities, also some serve as a digital portfolio of students' assignments and achievements.
2.2 Educational Blogs
Today blogs are being more eagerly embraced by schools, academics, teachers, and students in the education contexts, although one have to say that Blogs are still not used in an exhaustive manner, especially in the Maltese school and educational culture.
The main aim of the inclusion of blogging experience in the educational field is to enrich the learning experience and provide an opportunity for learners to shift from surface to a deeper level of learning. Surface learning is characterised by the approach of the learner to complete only the minimum content necessary to meet assessment requirements, whether that is learning only what may be presented in a test or simply attending and completing activities Conversely, deep learning is how learners stand back from an experience, seek out connections between concepts, and contextualise meaning (Rosie, 2000).
Gilly Salmon in her Computer Mediated Conferencing (CMC) model proposes 'The 5-stage Blogging Process' for learning. Through the these five stages of Establishment, Introspection, Reflective Monologues, Reflective Dialogue and Knowledge Artefacts; students are encouraged to be main contributors to the blog and the lesson delivered by the teacher in the classroom, and secondly to permit the learners to become familiar with the technology. Through this process students move from dictated knowledge to a more personal reflective knowledge, which enhance the learner knowledge experience, as knowledge artefact (Salmon, 2000).
3. The New Approach to Religious Education
In Malta unlike most of the European counties religious education is still based on the Roman Catholic teaching since the Maltese constitution claims that Malta holds Roman Catholic faith and thus Roman Catholic religious education should be thought in state schools. The syllabus reflect the religious traditions of Malta, mainly the Roman Catholic view, while taking account of the teachings and practices of the other principal religions. On the contrary most of the European schools because of the separation between state and religion, religious education is based on a multi-religious approach and more recently, new curriculums are being build only on religious ethics.
In Malta religious education in view of the current educational reform, need to reflect the evolving needs of a differentiated classroom environment within a lifelong learning framework proposed by the National Curriculum Framework (NCF) consultation documents that have been launched in May 2011. Religious education, from its very definition and nature, has to contribute to the holistic development of the human beings by supporting and enabling their personal search for life meaning. Religious education is aiming to make a distinctive contribution to the curriculum, contributions that are conveyed through the ethos and values of the same subject. It has to convey a religious experience, which is distinctive because it has a dynamic relationship with other forms of social and educational experiences.
The new religious education curriculum is designed and build on the philosophy of the student centred approach-learning style, which encourages the shift in power from the expert teacher to the student learner. In the student centred learning approach, the teacher is the facilitator that spurs the student to think critically. Also the teacher has to trust in the capacity of the learner that can think and learn independently thus the learner should have full responsibility for his learning.
3.1 The Use of Blogs in Religious Education
As a result of this approach that education has embraced, religious education has to find new ways to be conveyed and thought. The new religious education curriculum in chapter 8 specify the importance of using elearning because it makes learning more flexible by providing access to tools that give greater possibilities to teaching and learning. It specify that digital technologies give control over to the users as to when and where they study while allowing them to develop at their own pace. Digital technology has the potential to provide a student centred learning environment tailored to meet individual needs (CRE, 2012).
Religious Education through this new approach needs to construct a new identity on the Internet, an identity that till now is lacking. Although one has to say that recently the Pope started using Twitter and other social media to communicate with the world. The construction of Religious Education identity as a school subject on the social media depends on the approach and the use between the teacher and the social context, that is the class or group interaction. One has to say that through individual's initiative this religious identity is gradually increasing on may social media platforms. On the other hand in the Maltese schools very few teachers are taking the advantage of using social platforms and also weblogs to widen up the discussions and knowledge. Presently educational social media is only limited to the Beta project in the primary schools by the use of Fronter.
In a study done by Paul Emerson Teusner in his Doctorate Theses 'Emerging church bloggers in Australia: Prophets, priests and rulers in God's virtual world' published in March 2010, he found that the students from the Religious Education weblogs expects that these Weblogs create an online environment where both bloggers and readers may express their concerns about modern religious life. Also they expressed the desire to have a place to explore and evaluate what authentic religious and Christian life looks like. Also they insisted on the importance of a Blog where the etiquettes and rules of proper religious communication may be lifted in favor of "getting real", as a result a good Code of conduct must be clear to all users.
He also found that through the use of weblogs in education, the school became more relevant and meaningful for the students and also they connect more to the school and with the subjects were social media is used. He also found out that students build a better communication with their peers and develop a sense of collaboration to the group.
3.2 The Use of a Weblog in my Teaching Practice
In the preparation period for my teaching practice I had planed to use a weblog with particular classes that I knew that they could find it easy to use a blog since they use other social networks such as Facebook frequently. I was planning to use one from Edmodo, Blogger or Edublogs, which all of them provide a very good and flexible blog platform.
The problem cropped out when I asked for permission for the use of Blogs in the Religious education lessons to the school authorities. From the beginning they seemed that they do not totally agree with the idea and as a result they pointed out three main obstacles. The first problem was that they insisted that I need a consent form from all the parents of the students in class, and they insisted that if only one parent would not sign I could not use such Blog because of discrimination issues. Also they insisted that I did not have so much time so that the consent form will be filled in time for the teaching practice period.
Second argument that they brought forward was that I had to keep in mind that not all students have Internet access at home or that some students during the school days they are allowed to use the Internet only for research.
Thirdly they argued that if I am going to use Weblogs only for three weeks, I have to be aware of the student's reaction when they will be back to normal routine with the conventional teacher. They argued that I would be constraining teachers to use such resources in the following lessons, also they added that some teachers either do not have the time to do so because of the syllabus or because they are Internet or weblogs literate.
On the other hand I tried to counter their arguments by claiming that: firstly discrimination is being done to students that have a consent form, which are the majority. Also I do not think that the consent form would take then a week to be returned back, so that I was still in time. Secondly students could use Internet at school in the library in their free periods or in the main break if they do not have access at home. Thirdly I proposed to the school administration that I would explain to the student and parents in the consent form that I would use Blogs only in these three weeks for research purposes, so that both students and parents would not expect that the replaced teacher would continue to use Blogs in her lessons.
Unfortunately although I had discussed these small difficulties with the school authorities they still kept their position and insisted on the school ethics and policies and their bureaucracy. Since I am still a student teacher and thus I did not have such resources to sustain my arguments, and since this teaching experience was only for three weeks, I preferred not to push forward my arguments, but I will try to do another request in the next teaching practice placement because I believe that the use of Blogs is of great benefit for the students.
From the research I had done in the library database of the University Of Malta, it results that in Malta no one before had done any research on the effects and impact on the students and on the educational system of the use of educational blogs in the Maltese schools and further more in the Religious Education subject.
On the other hand this research had been done in various countries and in different subjects, although to be fair I did not any research specifically in the Religious Education subject. Most of these studies all agree that the use of Blogs is of great benefit both for the individual but also for the class environment. This is because students are more engaged to the subject and also results show that students participate more and do better in the particular subject. On the other hand one of the major negative issues that cropped up in almost all research is the dangers that students might encounter on the web, if it is not controlled. Nobody would dispute that the risks of children using social media are real and not to be taken lightly. But on the other hand there are also dangers offline. I think that the best way to keep students safe, both online and offline is to educate them.
As a result I think that both teachers and parents should help students embrace social media, since it is a tool that it is continuously expanding in our digital era. It is a tool that we cannot resist any more, we need to learn how to use it and to explore it, to take all the advantage of it so that we can experience better educational environment and why not, better lives.