How (and how not) to teach blogging

Dominick Chen and Lawrence Lessig by Joi Ito on Flickr CC BY

Photo by Joi Ito on Flickr licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license

I just wrote this post for Rising Voices and thought I’d share it here too.

In Paulo Coelho’s latest book, ‘The Witch of Portobello‘, the character Nabil Alaihi says: “What is a teacher? I’ll tell you: it isn’t someone who teaches something, but someone who inspires the student to give of her best in order to discover what she already knows.”

I love this quote. It really expresses the goal that I have in my teaching – not to see learners as empty vessels that the teacher will pour their knowledge into, but rather as people who only need to be inspired in order to find how to apply what they already know to a new subject.

I know that I’m not there yet – and that I have a lot to learn in order to become a better teacher. The three-hour session that I had to teach blogging to an NGO in Durban, is a case in point. I thought I’d tell you what I learned.

1. Who is learning and who is teaching?

The best teaching that you can do starts with learners who actually want to learn. A good way of weeding out those who don’t want to learn is by getting people to come to you (rather than the other way round).

The lesson? When NGOs design interventions and funders fund those interventions, make sure there is some hurdle that learners have to jump over to indicate their willingness to learn. Sometimes that means paying a fee (however small) to attend the training, or asking people to write a motivation as to why they would be a good person to attend the training. Whatever you do, make sure you don’t produce a situation where people are sending learners who have no interest just to make up numbers and check the ‘outcomes achieved’ box.

2. Focus on measurable outcomes

There’s a very important difference between a goal of ‘training 10 students how to blog’ and a goal of ‘seeing 10 bloggers who are actively blogging 6 months after the initial training’. The first goal will necessarily have a pretty low success rate, even although this kind of training is much easier to do, and probably can be done lots of people. But achieving the goal of seeing active bloggers still blogging after their training will force you to think more about how you want to do the training, what you want to cover, and how long the new bloggers need to be supported for. For example, after an initial session outlining blogging tools, you could go onto teaching interviewing skills and digital camera skills, as well as goal-setting and editorial management – all this if you want to see an actual increase in the amount of meaningful content being covered by a specific group.

On this note, I found some great resources on the site ‘’ on ‘How to grow a blog‘. This covers a lot of great material focusing on how to set long and short-term goals for your blog and how to match those goals with the kinds of habits that will enable you to find success in achieving your goals. Volunteers from the Rising Voices team are also currently working on capturing different curricula and materials for teaching blogging, and they’ll definitely be well-used since there isn’t a lot out there at the moment.

3. Listen to your learners

Another great lesson that I learned in teaching blogging last month was to listen very, very carefully to your learners, and to do as much preparation before your teaching to find out about who the students are. The best teaching starts from where the learners are at, rather than where you’re at. For the Durban workshop, I had planned to spend most of my three-hour session talking about how to maintain a blog, but when I realised that the learners had lost their usernames and passwords from the original training and we had to start at the beginning, I had to ditch my plans and focus on what would help the learners right then and there. I’d have been in a better position if I had known this during the planning stages. The lesson is to ask lots and lots of questions as you are planning what to teach – especially when you only have a limited time with your students.

4. Ask the right questions

The final lesson that I learned was to learn how to ask the right questions from your students. I thought that it would be a good idea to ask the students why they wanted to learn how to blog, but when I told Rising Voices director David Sasaki about this, he offered some wise words:

Sometimes I think people get intimidated when you ask “why do you want to blog” because many people still equate it with having something “so important” to say as to warrant publishing. One of the tough things to convey – even to experienced bloggers – is that when it’s true that they are potentially writing to the whole world, it’s also true that they probably have a very small group of readers that are interested in a very particular topic. To get the conversation going sometimes I ask, how do you explain your job to others? Or, what assumptions do people make about your work that aren’t correct?

If I knew everything I know now about my students, I think I would have done things a lot differently in those three hours that I had with them. I also realise that a lot of the session was out of my control. But the good thing is that it made me think very deeply about how we teach people how to blog and how development interventions need to be designed in order to have the most impact and to get that training to the people who most want to use it.

That’s the funny thing about teaching – you end up learning a whole lot more than you probably teach.

IEC website now available to non-Microsoft users

Great news from Tectonic about the Independent Electoral Commission’s website now being open to non-IE users. Congrats to everyone who made this happen. The hundreds of emails, blog posts and complaints to the South African Human Rights Commission has done the trick.

I love the comment by Friedel Wolff from below:

Writing a feature on this for Global Voices.

Two-year old beaten to get his mother to confess in Zimbabwe prison

A search result from Afrigator for the two-year old yields 3 results. Why aren't we talking about this?

This morning I woke up to a story on Global Voices about two-year old Nigel Mutemagau who was abducted with his parents three months ago and taken to Zimbabwe’s most notorious prison, Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison where he was held in solitary confinement with his mother and beaten to get his mother to confess. I had just signed a petition on Denford Magora’s blog for the release of two-year old when I read in the Zimbabwe Times that he has just been released.

The release of Nigel follows last month’s order by High Court Judge Justice Yunus Omerjee ordering the release of the child, as well as various MDC members and human rights activists who were abducted from various locations over the past three months

They include former newscaster Jestina Mukoko who was abducted from her home in the town of Norton, 40 kilometres west of Harare.

Although Omerjee ruled that Mukoko, the director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, and eight MDC members must be released to a private hospital for medical examination after alleged torture, the state has defied the ruling.

According to ‘This is Zimbabwe Blog‘:

As Executive Director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, Jestina is viewed as the most high-profile person to be abducted by the State to date. Her role as a human rights activist, and her work in documenting the range of human rights violations and atrocities by the Zanu PF regime, made her a threat to a despotic regime intent on holding onto power at all costs.

The site also gives a list of recommended actions from Amnesty International (download PDF version of appeal here) which includes:

  • expressing grave concern over the abduction or arrest of Jestina Mukoko, the director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, who was forcibly taken from her home by people believed to be state security agents on 3 December 2008;
  • stating that Amnesty International considers that Jestina Mukoko is solely detained for expressing her views, without advocating violence, and considers her a prisoner of conscience. Amnesty International therefore calls for her immediate and unconditional release;
  • calling on the Zimbabwean authorities to immediately end its practice of enforced disappearances and follow international standards on arrest and detention for persons under criminal investigation;
  • expressing concern about continued harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders and political activists by the Zimbabwean security forces;

and a list of fax numbers and contacts to send your appeals to.

I have avoided researching the Zimbabwe situation for too long – it had seemed so hopeless in the past. But stories like this make me realise how important it is to add my voice to this campaign. As an activist myself, I know how tenuous my own situation has been in the past, and how important it is for me to be able to say in the future that I didn’t stand by and let those brave enough to be living in and speaking out in Zimbabwe be tortured and assaulted in this way.

We can’t stay silent any longer.

Open data please!

David Sasaki mentioned the lack of open data in last year’s SA blogger survey in this post, but it was glossed over, I guess, because of his more controversial statements about blogger diversity. Now, after reading the results to find out more information about the South African blogosphere, I’m surprised that no one else (that I can see) has demanded the release of the raw data.

Instead, the controversy has focused on the really weak interpretation of the data. But if it had been open, then this interpretation would have been just one weak interpretation among many others published by a diverse range of interested bloggers. Our fabulous eagle-eyed bloggers pointed out a few errors based on the slides, but what makes us believe that there are no others?

It is clear that we need better data next time round, and as someone who completed the survey before, I for one won’t rest until there is a guarantee for the raw data to be made available to all. I’m also certain that at least some of the companies supporting last year’s survey (, Afrigator, Amatomu, MoneyWeb Life, Bizcommunity) would be supportive of that too.

Next time, let’s see the data.

Writing for Global Voices

I’ve started writing for Global Voices. My first post is about the Donn Edwards libel case. I really enjoyed reading the different perceptions by bloggers about the case – it’s great to look out more than in for a change.

Most importantly, I’m wanting to help set up a more permanent home for bloggers to monitor freedom of expression cases in SA. We’ve learned some great lessons from this case, but until a case like this goes to court, there will be many more acts of intimidation against bloggers in the future. Anyone interested? Please email me or comment below.

Update 14 January 09 from Donn Edwards on his Facebook support group page:

‘Hello everyone, the case has been SETTLED in a way that benefits everyone. The settlement is amicable and we had a meeting at the Protea Hotel in Midrand over breakfast and coffee. All parties win, and I thank you all for your support. I have made some new friendships through this ordeal, and it is good to know that the ordeal is over.’

100 days 100 fears

I’ve had an idea brewing to write a blog next year about facing up to fears. The idea would be to do something that I’m afraid of every day for 100 days and write a daily post about the experience. Being in America brings it gushing to the fore. I realise how much I’m afraid of: looking into someone’s eyes after I’ve smiled at them as I walk down the street, telling someone who I love and admire just how I feel, saying no to a person when it’s clear where the power lies, walking into the city without a map and asking strangers for directions…

Small things, but I realise how big they become when you don’t give yourself the chance to face them.

What I’m interested in is being able to recognise when our fear is protecting us from being hurt (driving on the wrong side of the road, for example) and when it’s just stopping us from doing something because it’s uncomfortable and new (driving on the wrong side of the road, for example).

I’m only reticent because it’s so personal and would expose the my points of weakness (another fear in itself) – but, after reading another of El Oso’s beautiful posts (beautiful because it reflects such a revealing honesty about the author and his response to the world), I’m inspired to give it a go.