Introduction

This article is an investigation of the usefulness of online blogs in university education, particularly business instruction, as set against an English as a foreign language (EFL) learner background, as found in the Arab World. Systems theory is the overriding theoretical lens through which several theories of education scaffold such as Collaborative Learning Theory (CLT) to explain why blogging should be used as an educational tool; computer-mediated communication as an instructional methodology; and the ideas, connections and extensions (ICE) classification model, as a means to assess blog-based learning, as an alternative to Bloom’s Taxonomy. The technology acceptance model, also known as (TAM) explains the role of attitude toward ICT, computer self-efficacy, and perceived usefulness in allaying user fear of adopting new technology.

Coverage of ways in which outside teachers, as well as the principal investigator, are currently using blogs effectively with students, primarily in an EFL environment, demonstrates the feasibility of blog-based teaching and learning—accomplished through a review of recently published research articles. The study concludes with a practical explanation of the steps necessary to set up a WordPress blog using Filezila to upload files to the Web and Bravenet, a premium remote secure server. Triangulation occurs through relevant theory, published academic research, examples of practical teaching using blogs, and a tutorial on how to implement a WordPress blog for E-Business class.

Theoretical Framework

Through an approach advocated by T. A. Brown (2006) for applied research, internal consistency and external validity of theories relevant to using blogs for teaching and learning are explored. It is relevant to choose systems theory as the overriding theoretical concept (Cavaleri, 2005), because of the importance of the human-machine interaction. Systems theory, when applied to technology adoption, including theoretical application to blogs, explains human’s understanding and interaction with technology via appropriate models (Morgan, 1998).

The systems view of Morgan (1998) interprets varying combinations of human and machine interaction, and interdependence systems as living things. “Thus, Morgan (1998) modeled a socio-technical system, in which one part always has important consequences for the other part” (Miller, 2011). This was an extension of earlier research by Burrell and Morgan, (1979) who studied how alignment and non-alignment between subsystems in an organization could create efficiency problems, and the modeling of organizational integrity through subsystem interactions by Kast and Rozenzweig (1973).

The study of systems integrity, with new technology inputs, goes back for nearly a century. Trist and Bamforth (1951) used the lens of a socio-technical system (STS) to investigate that era’s new long-wall coal mining technique, and explored how the then new work technology reduced group cohesiveness of the society of workers. The (STS) perspective recognized the importance of the mutual interdependence of social, psychological, environmental, and technological subsystems. With progression into the modern era, systems theory eventually became accepted by the academic community, including application toward integration of humans and computer systems (Hayles, 1999). Recently, Trochim and Donnelly (2008) described systems thinking being an approach such that “a general conceptual orientation concerned with the interrelationships between parts and their relationships to a whole, often understood within the context of an even greater whole” (p. 350).

Four paradigms align parsimoniously with system’s theory, to display relevance to applied blog research in education. First, the technology acceptance model (TAM) as it applies to information systems, explains how users come to accept and use a technology. (Davis, 1989). Then, Fageeh (2010), based in the Arab World, explored several theories, concluding that the Collaborative Learning Theory (CLT) of Johnson and Johnson (1987), and later explored by Bruffee (1993), explained the viability of using blogs in education. The CLT emphasized group interaction and collaboration as a means to learning, and thus supported EFL learners to share their ideas and emotions in cyberspace via blogs. Furthermore, computer-mediated communication (CMC), an instructional medium which includes not only blogs but also learning management systems (LMS), has gained acceptance and become widespread (Antonietti, Colombo & Lozotsev, 2008). For assessing student performance, the ICE (Ideas, Connections and Extensions) classification model (Fostaty Young, 2005; Fostaty Young and Wilson, 2000) was advocated, as these authors felt it was more dynamic than Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning (Bloom, 1956), and claimed the later was too static and hierarchical.

Literature Review

Fageeh (2010) conducted a mixed method study at King Khalid University in Abha, Saudi Arabia, of fourth year university students. The quantitative focus was through testing equivalent groups and withholding the treatment, which was blog-based learning, as a replacement for traditional lecture. Qualitative exploration of blogs was based on self-reported user perception of interaction with technology.

In the empirical portion, although it used a small sample size of 25 per group in a paired sample t-test, experimental and control groups were found equivalent, yet deficient in writing proficiency via a score of 22.36 and 22.32, with a value of t = .130, and significance of p ≤ .898. Cronbach’s alpha was indicated as reliable at .88. A blog-based curriculum was delivered to the experimental group and the control group received traditional lecture-based instruction. The experimental group did produce a value of t = -22.459, significant at p ≤ .000 for writing improvement with a raw score of 40.84, a substantive writing improvement. The control group values were t = -7.993, significant at p ≤ .000, with a raw score of 28.88, showing significantly less improvement in writing.

The qualitative results of Fageeh (2010), from a self-reported attitudinal survey found “interaction with readers (31%), and finding an outlet for their writing (29%)”, to be the strongest motivators for students who used blog-based learning activities (p. 40). A post-blogging survey from another study revealed response rates of approximately 75%, in support of blogging, in the educational context of the study (Wu & Wu, 2011). Chu, Chan and Tiwari (2011) in the context of students completing internships, asserted based on a small mixed methods study, of n = 53 in information management, and n = 28 in nursing field, regular engagement in writing and reading their own blogs, was supported as well as commenting on the blogs of classmates. However, Miller (2011) in a quasi-experimental assessment of technology acceptance in the UAE, sampling over 500 Emirati Nationals at the Higher Colleges of Technology, found greater than 70% of learners were predisposed toward a willingness to use deep packet inspection to block blogs. Findings were in line with state-led telecommunication provider, Etisalat’s policy statement toward the character of Internet filtration, expressed on their website (Etisalat, 2009).

York employed with the Open Net Initiative (cited in Giles, 2009), found that UAE blog filtering was more based on objectionable social content filtration, as opposed to political content. Examples of content likely to be blocked by Internet service provider Etisalat included sex and sexuality topics such as; lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues; and also alcohol and gambling. Some sites, perceived as innocuous by some, however not by Etisalat were parts of social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace and many blogs (Malin, 2010; York as cited in Giles, 2009). Vis-à-vis the political perspective of web filtration, a dichotomy exists, the autocratic states of the Arab World, resist Western-style liberal democracy (The Arab Awakening, 2011) while recent Middle East blogging, particularly related to the Arab Spring, has been a vocal outlet for pro-democracy activists (Malin, 2010).

Comparing online learning outcomes outside the region, from Sweden to perspectives developed organically within the region, online learning may be stimulated by a practical activity (Olofsson, Lindberg, & Hauge, 2011). These researchers have shown how using blogs within the framework of formative-assessment practice in online higher education, have provided opportunities to design “reflective technology-enhanced peer-to-peer learning”. Olofsson et al., (2011), also reported that students demonstrated connections between new knowledge and prior knowledge, and utilized new means of learning in a peer-to-peer practice without direct involvement of a teacher during the course process. Peer-to-peer reflection on the content of the blog helped scaffold productive peer-to-peer learning and also aligned with the CLT model advocated by Saudi Arabia-based Fageeh (2010). The teacher more-or-less remained invisible during assessment practice, and normative responses were not made by the teacher in the blog.

Olofsson et al. (2011) perceived that one challenge for the instructor was how to assess the blog activity. For the context of the study, qualitative assessment of 23 students of varied demographic backgrounds in an online course was by the ICE (Ideas, Connections and Extensions) analytical framework. Ideas refer to a student displaying an understanding of the basic facts or information of the situation, connections are indications of the student going further than accessing the information in the blogs and relating that information to information provided by other sources, students own past experience, and existing knowledge. Extension occurs when internalization of the idea results in a change in perspective or questioning of the learner’s worldview.

R. Hajizadeh (2011), used a grounded theory approach where post-assignment of data to categories, was used in a qualitative study to explore using blogs to encourage reflection in 40 Iranian male and female EFL (English as Foreign Language) learners. Learners kept a voluntary blog of daily activities as well as language learning. Blogs were publically accessible, and according to Ward (2004) Middle East e-learners appreciated having the option to revise their work and edit errors, as well as make decisions about content. Ward (2004) of the American University of Sharjah, UAE, was confident that Weblogs, a new media, could not be ignored by teachers as an important tool for engaging learners, provided the costs remained low. A breakdown of study participants by gender was not reported by either Hajizadeh (2011) or Ward (2004).

Hajizadeh reviewed the blog postings of learners in the study and subjectively assigned the postings to categories. Multiple category assignment was possible due to writers’ postings speaking toward multiple topics. The researcher evaluated the postings as being 10% related to learning activity, and 16% toward language reflection. Hajizadeh (2011) concluded that decision-making, detachment, critical reflection, and opportunities for students to become autonomous learners, were features of blogs expressed by Middle East learners from the targeted groups.

The results of studies taking place in the Middle East can be compared with other EFL environments. H. Wu and P. Wu (2011) took a group of 49 university year 1, Taiwanese EFL learners and divided them into 10 groups and required students to blog collaboratively based on articles posted on the teacher’s blog. Gender was reported and bias existed with respect to 71% of participants being female and 29 % being male. H. Wu and P. Wu (2011) found most students perceived the use of the blogs over the four weeks of the study as positive, although several responded negatively. Furthermore, Wu and Wu (2011) asserted that students felt blogs were easy to use, supported the collaborative learning of English, and had the potential for literary advancement, particularly in reading and writing. A majority of students claimed that they would continue to blog in the future (Wu & Wu, 2011).

Yang and Chang (2011) engaged 154 graduate and undergraduate students in a quasi-experimental study across two semesters. The study employed equivalent groups and the control group blogged in solitude, while the experimental group blogged interactively. Results suggested that collaborative blogs were preferred, and associated “with positive attitudes and academic achievement, in comparison to isolated blogs”, and that “a statistically significant difference in student academic achievement versus perceived attitudes towards educational blogs was achieved based on the data analysis” (Yang & Chang, 2011, p. 132). Furthermore, according to empirical results of Yang and Chang (2011, p. 132), “academic performance related positively toward perceived attitude toward blogs (c2 = 9.57, d.f. = 4, P = 0.048; Fisher’s exact test P = 0.047)”.

Yang and Chang (2011) used confirmatory factor analysis (CFA) to empirically assess the convergent validity of the instrument for determining blog preference, and obtained goodness-of-fit measurements where “CFI > 0.9, GFI > 0.9, NNFI > 0.9, and RMSEA < 0.05” (p. 130). According to Fields (2009), a typical use of CFA is to validate a scale. A chi-square difference test was used to assess discriminant validity. Cronbach’s alpha values exceeding .80, established reliability (see DeCoster, 2009).

Perceived ease of use (PEOU), a measurable construct, describes a person’s experience with using a certain technology, and the degree to which it is free from effort, and thus supporting the adoption of the technology (Davis, 1989; Hayashi, Chen, Ryan, & Wu, 2004). Davis (1989) and Hayashi et al. (2004) stressed the importance of perceived usefulness (PU) in acceptance and adoption of technology. Perceived usefulness is a technology user’s perception that a particular technology will make them better able to perform their job, hence leading to that technology’s adoption (Davis, 1989; Hayashi et al., 2004).

Wu, Tsai, and Chen (2006) measured self-efficacy, behaviors and attitudes, in an educational setting, demonstrating structural equation modeling (SEM)—to integrate the expectation/confirmation model (ECM), which was previously validated for both marketing and information systems, with Compeau and Higgins’s (1995) computer self-efficacy (CSE), toward defining the continued use of online technology in 187 management information systems (MIS) students. Wu et al. (2006) concluded, “A well-designed system might reduce learners’ frustration and attract them to continue using the system” (p. 8).

From the perspective of the Middle East, Fawwaz (2008) dissected the social fabric of e-learning technology adoption of in the UAE, and asserted existence of an Arab World bias toward distance learning. Arab culture is primarily an oral culture rather than written, and predisposed toward preference for face-to-face interaction (Fawwaz, 2008). Sultan Qaboos University in Oman was the site of a study by Al-Busaidi and Al-Shihi (2010), for a TAM-based qualitative study which advocated organizationally supported, and teacher-based collaborative learning management system. Both studies highlighted the growing awareness by regional educational management of the topic of e-learning as Fawwaz (2008), and Al-Busaidi and Al-Shihi (2010) proposed both computer self-efficacy and attitude toward ICT, as being important variables leading to adoption of a new technology. Hassani (2006), investigating whether or not a digital divide existed for the Arab World, found socio economic factors less important than attitude and actual behavior toward technology adoption, i.e. blogs. For comparison, Hassani’s findings are in agreement with another empirical study by Tien and Fu (2008), sampling over 3000 university students, and gaining a greater than 88% response rate, applicable to Taiwan.

Weblogs have become ubiquitous in education. In EFL environments they have encouraged students’ self-expression in English, and thus induced writing engagement. Practical implementations include group developed web pages, peer-to-peer learning spaces, updateable web diaries, online journals, and media posting such as videos. Nevertheless, there is some apprehension toward blogs and this is portrayed by a willingness to support both student self-censorship as well as institutional-level, overt censoring of objectionable content.

Method

Participants

The principal investigator assessed the effectiveness of blogs used for teaching and learning in a Middle East context where students developed an e-commerce website based on a blog platform (Miller, 2012). This qualitative project was completed with 20 third-year E-business Management students at the Fujairah Women’s College, part of the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) in the United Arab Emirates. Students at the HCT campus system were comfortable with technology, as shown by the results of a prior quantitative technology adoption study (Miller, 2011).

In the prior study (Miller, 2011), n = 443 HCT students’ self-assessed high scores on their own computer self-efficacy, attitude towards ICT and perceived usefulness of e-commerce (see Table 1 below). These findings correlated with a number of other studies of e-learners (Eastin, 2002; Aboelmaged, 2010; Van Slyke, Lou, Belanger, and Sridhar, 2010; Siddiqui, 2008), thereby demonstrating that these students were well prepared for a project built around e-commerce.

Table 1:

Student self-assessment of specific areas related to technology acceptance

Self-assessment area Score (out of 5)
computer self-efficacy 4.092
attitude towards ICT 3.939
perceived usefulness of e-commerce 3.850

Note: n = 443, from A. H. Miller, 2011

Blog technology implementation

Thus, at Fujairah Women’s College in December 2011, a for-charity, entrepreneurial e-business venture called e-Lailam was launched. The project required student interaction with a range of technologies. In setting up the blog-based project for the first time it became obvious that there were several technological obstacles which needed to be overcome.

First, WordPress, a large and highly capable open source (free) online-blogging and Website building platform is proposed. File size was 3.8 MB in zipped format and over 10 MB once unzipped. WordPress is available at http://wordpress.org/download/. A subscription or license to the WordPress compatible auction technology, WP-Auction is available from http://www.weborithm.com/ for 35.00 USD at http://www.wpauctions.com/download/.

This project was run on an external server, as after a review of available technologies, it was recommended to have access to a state-of-the-art Apache web server, as neither campus servers were adequate; the ELES server ran Internet Information Server (Microsoft); and it was not possible to install the current edition of WordPress on the PLESK server, due to the installed older version of PHP (a hypertext preprocessor), believed required to work with legacy software of particular HCT systems. Domain name masking, limiting search engine submission to web crawlers, and opt-in registration as a user by the customers to verify they were from within the Fujairah Colleges system helped overcome the need to secure data at a women’s college, where external access to the site by society was not desirable.

Wix was the branded application selected by the students used to develop the site and is externally hosted on their proprietary platform. The online auction technology chosen by the students required a WordPress blog installation in order to run the WP-Auction Plug-in. WP-Auction was not compatible with Wix and this was overcome via a link placed on the Wix-based website. The external host chosen was BraveNet Professional/Premium which included the required MySQL Database (Version 5.0) and required PHP (Version 5.2.4 or greater) that met the needs of WordPress.

Because WordPress has a large file size, employs the dynamic server side scripting capabilities of PHP, and uses MySQL database technology to enable storage of data on a secure remote server, a higher powered hosting service capability was required. Such capability is available with a Professional or Premium Bravenet Hosting Account, available at http://www.bravenet.com/webhosting/, and a representative standard of server hosting requirements. DreamWeaver was used as the HTML editor.

The Bravenet server provided their own FTP utility (file transfer protocol), however Filezila, an open source third party FTP which handles larger file sizes such as found with WordPress was recommended, available at http://filezilla-project.org/. A tutorial on using Filezila to upload files to the web was found online at: http://resources.bravenet.com/tutorials/ftp/filezilla.php. Please see the Appendix for a detailed procedure on how to set up a WordPress blog

Web Development Outcomes

The completed site for the online Auction is shown below.

Figure 10. Screen capture showing the appearance of the Lailam Auction Website.

By logging in through the site owner interface, not by visiting the site as a customer, the WordPress Dashboard allows for customization of the Website. This includes the installation of additional plugins, configuration of the MySQL Database, and Web design, which can be introduced on the backend platform. The student’s creative product is displayed on the front-end or part seen by the public.

Figure 11. Screen capture showing the appearance of the site owner interface.

Figure 12 is a close-up of the auction facility embedded into the Webpage. The auction updates in real time as bids are made—while email notices of bid status, such as “You are now the highest bidder” or “You have been outbid” are sent to customers.

Figure 12. Screen capture depicting details of the auction facility as seen by the public.

Full access to WordPress and WP-Auction through the dashboard controls was only given to some students in the class—those charged with web development. These students were not given full server access. They were only given access to the WordPress dashboard, which was sufficient to conduct all web development other than set-up of the account and the MySQL database. The Lailam.net auction originally was linked to from e-Lailam.com, a storefront created by the students and hosted on Wix.com. There was an instance where a change made by a student to the coding of the WordPress, General Settings, changed the Web address for the site. While accidental, this caused the entire site to crash. This data entry error occurred within WordPress, highlighting the importance of cautioning students against making certain changes if they are given site owner permission. The location in the WordPress, General Settings dashboard, where the error was made is shown in Figure 13.

Figure 13. Screen capture depicting location within the General Settings dashboard, where changes made to the auction facility caused the site to crash.

This was repaired via access to the database through the Bravenet account, making a correction to a table referencing the correct Web address. It was necessary for the instructor to enter the database through the server, identify the error, and correct the address (see Figure 14).

Figure 14. Screen capture that depicts entering the Bravenet/Bravehost database table and making correction to the URL reference reversing changes made to the auction facility that had caused the site to crash.

The online auction blog project in WordPress was a rewarding project for the students, as demonstrated by the positive and collaborative two way feedback between auction site owners and their public (Miller, 2012). The project demonstrated that current Higher Colleges of Technology students have the capabilities to learn both the technical and collaborative skills necessary to successfully run a blog-based e-business project. Ultimately, learners felt that Wix suffered from cross-platform compatibility issues. Ideally, the blog model used for the Lailam online auction using WordPress could be used as the basis for succeeding e-business or perhaps other blog projects. However, there is a need for further evaluation of the model.

Analysis

A deeper analysis of Miller’s (2011) quasi-experimental study showed that while data collected was not normally distributed, by using the maximum likelihood estimator with confirmatory factor analysis, a method robust to non-normality, results suggested an acceptable goodness-of-fit for a revised application of the technology acceptance model (TAM). Reliability of the UAE-based instrument, developed specifically for the study was evaluated as satisfactory, with Cronbach’s α for all constructs> .80. Individual factors loaded as follows: .792 for computer self-efficacy (CSE), .707 for attitudes toward information and communications technology (ATICT), .770 for perceived usefulness of e-commerce (PUEC). Indices defining goodness-of-fit of the model were as follows; Normed Chi-Square, (c2/df) = 2.602, Comparative fit index, (CFI) = 0.918, Tucker-Lewis Index, (TLI) = 0.905, and Root mean square error of approximation was (RMSEA) = 0.060.

The study established significant positive correlation between CSE, ATICT, and PUEC. Most strongly correlated were CSE and ATICT, at r = 0.537. Reported threshold values for goodness-of-fit were in accordance recommendations by Garson, 2009; Pham & Jordan, 2009; Ramayah et al., 2009; and Schermelleh-Engel et al., 2003. These student-based findings largely agreed with the teacher-based collaborative learning management systems (LMS) study, based on research from the same region by Fawwaz (2008), and Al-Busaidi and Al-Shihi (2010) where computer self-efficacy and attitude toward ICT were important variables leading to adoption of new technology.

The triangulation approach is suggested by T. A. Brown (2006), of alignment of theoretical lenses, where scaffolding of research results seem to validate paradigms evoked by theoretical and literature review. The human machine interaction suggested by Cavaleri (2005), Morgan’s (1998) modeling of socio-technical systems and Hayles (1999) model of human-computer interaction with Davis’s TAM, was applied for the UAE by Miller (2011). Student online learning about e-commerce was stimulated by the practical activity of developing and operating the auction blog and storefront in alignment with the findings of Olofsson, Lindberg, & Hauge, (2011), toward the employing blogs as an ideal formative-assessment practice, in online higher education. This aligned with Fageeh (2010), who advocated the Collaborative Learning Theory (CLT) of Johnson and Johnson, (1987) and later explored by Bruffee (1993), who explained the viability of using blogs in education. The CLT emphasized group interaction and collaboration as a means to advance learning for all members of the class, and thus supported EFL learners to share their ideas and emotions in cyberspace via blogs.

The activity provided the instructor with the possibility to employ the ICE model to design a reflective technology-enhanced peer-to-peer learning opportunity. The students developed the sites collaboratively and a high grade was achieved by all 20 participating learners in reflection of Yang and Chang’s (2011) demonstrated student preference for interactive blogs. Students’ ideas, connections and extensions, the ICE model of Fostaty Young, 2005; and Fostaty Young and Wilson, 2000 was displayed in all learners grasping the basic online storefront/auction website concept. Going further with external sourcing of products and attempting varied marketing approaches to display connections, while interpreting, analyzing and responding to feedback through the site along with critical evaluation of factors, either obstacles such as some of the shortcomings of the Wix platform, or success factors, such as evidence of full involvement of all learners, demonstrated connection.

As mentioned, there were some technological problems with the implementation. However, based on the blog technology implementation and outcomes achieved, overall the computer-mediated communication system (CMC) (Antonietti, Colombo & Lozotsev, 2008) was well designed. Meeting the technological obstacles head-on ultimately reduced student frustration and attracted them to use the system they developed. This demonstrated the validity of Wu et al. (2006), for management information systems (MIS) students, and subsequent integration of the expectation/confirmation model (ECM), with Compeau and Higgins’s (1995) computer self-efficacy (CSE).

Conclusion

The theoretical basis of systems thinking is an ideal paradigm to assess e-learning. Systems theory has grown to encompass human interaction with technology and for the use of blogs in teaching and learning, learning management systems (LMS) and computer-mediated communication (CMD) are two such models. Evolutions of the technology acceptance model (TAM), which included computer self-efficacy (CSE), perceived usefulness (PU) and attitude toward information and communication technology (ICT), govern motivation toward technology adoption. Quantitative research supports TAM as applicable to the Arab World. Collaborative learning theory (CLT) validated through qualitative, quantitative study and examples of teacher practice explained how blogs enabled English as a Foreign Language (EFL) learners succeed toward language acquisition. The ideas, connections and extension (ICE) assessment model provided a means to assess learner achievement. The Lailam auction website, where the students used a blogging platform to collaboratively build an e-business presence online was an Arab World example of blogs being extended beyond English language acquisition to business skills such as customer relations management (CRM) and online marketing. A technical review of an open source WordPress blog implementation using proprietary WP Auction plugin, BraveNet server and hosting, PHP preprocessor, MySQL database, DreamWeaver HTML editor, and Filezila an open source file transfer protocol (FTP); used to upload the blog files to the Internet, provides an instructional tutorial for those inclined to seek greater proficiency in implementing their own blogs. In summary, through literature review, research, theory and practice: blog-based teaching and learning is recommended for EFL and business learners in the Arab World. This model can be extended in a general context to other teaching and learning environments, where teacher and learner epistemology prioritizes interaction with modern media.

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