dan lasota's masters in education portfolio for online innovation and design


Tumblr Review: Educational Tool

7 May 2012

At the top of the review page, post a link (or embed) the product you created with the tool. Provide a thorough review that includes: learning curve, ease of use, time required to create a product, key features, problems you encountered, barriers that might prevent effective use, and possible educational uses. If applicable, post links to tutorials or examples created by others that illustrate how the tool might be used.


Even though products can be extended with additional programming and custom theme development, they are often categorized in terms of what they best do initially, without customization. I elected to review the blogging application Tumblr (tumblr.com) because lately I have been seeing interesting content hosted there and I wanted to see if it could be used for educational purposes.

Tumblr is a hybrid micro-blogging tool and social networking web application. A micro-blog allows people to produce a stream of content with posts like a blog, but it is much simpler to use. It is also a social networking application and it is very easy to set up an account and follow people you already know of, or find content creators whose interests match your own. Tumblr allows users to re-blog material in a very similar way that Twitter users retweet material. Attribution is given to the original author, but the content can then appear in the feed of the person that re-blogged it as well as anyone who is following the person who re-blogged the material. In this way, ideas can spread from one person to another and group to group, if the ideas warrant enough attention.

It is entirely plausible for an instructor to assign students the task of creating a Tumblr account, follow her Tumblr feed, and start publishing content in the form of posts immediately. Tumblr allows posts to be in the form of

  • text (with rich formatting options)
  • images (with captions)
  • text formatted as quotes (with attributions)
  • hypertext links (URLs with title and description)
  • chat (representation of a dialog)
  • audio (uploaded voice or music files)
  • video (embedded external movies, or original files to a limited extent)

Posting in any of these formats is very straight forward. My sample tumblelog, (http://moredesignlessjunk.tumblr.com/), has an example of each kind of post. This kind of variety in media allows many different kinds of student content. Suppose a journalism class was asked to conduct an online interview and post the results. Students would have the option of transcribing the dialog in a chat, using screen shots of typed texts as images, posting an audio file, or capturing a screen video file according to their desire or the assignment’s directions.

While it would be a simple matter for a class community to establish itself by having the members follow each other, establishing a dialog in the same medium of Tumblr would take some effort beyond the capability that is offered immediately after creating an account. If an instructor wanted a class to interact, peer to peer, with comments directly associated with student posts or class assignments, some time would have to be devoted to using an additional service called Disqus (http://disqus.com/welcome/). Disqus is yet another web application that allows one to create, archive and moderate discussions. Unless the instructor was already certain that students were adept at using a Disqus account, some class time would need to be budgeted into building this capability.

I also noted that it is was simple to get content published quickly. It was somewhat more difficult to fine tune the presentation of that content. Tumblr has many readily available customizations in the forms of theme selections and preferences. A tumblelog’s background color, choice of fonts, etc. can all be tinkered with and if one is handy with html and css even more customizations can be made. This possibility of this level of customization depends on several situational factors that are dictated by each class. It is probably not realistic to assume that all the students of a history class would be capable of making all the customizations that students in a graphics design class would feel comfortable doing.

Tumblr blogs are open to the world. With that comes the ability to interact with like minded peers from larger interested communities. Students taking similar classes from around the world, productive mentors from industry, government and academia could easily comment on and participate in content discussions, if that was the design. With that great openness comes the responsibility of FERPA considerations. There are many kinds of Tumblr blogs, some of which contain content that cause Tumblr to be blocked by school districts. One would have to rethink the strategy of using Tumblr for doing school district staff training on site, if the staff were using the school district’s network for access.

One of the very best features of Tumblr is that there is little to no advertising. At the present time Tumblr generates revenue from allowing users to optionally highlight some of their posts and use certain themes which cost money. I found this lack of advertising very refreshing compared to the intrusive related content that is inserted into services like YouTube pages and commercial WordPress blogs.

There are several examples where educational institutions are using the relaxed information flow style of presentation to appeal to prospective students. The following institutions are using Tumblr to promote their campuses:

Below are some examples of collections of student portfolios and discussion point archives from academic classes:

One factor that should be considered when using any commercial service for academic content, especially a service that is free like Tumblr, is that Tumblr does have service outages. Because of the social networking aspect of Tumblr, it can come under heavy load at certain times. If there is some cultural or news event rippling through the Internet Tumblr can take a tumble and it is not uncommon for the service to be down for periods of time. The popularity of the service is growing rapidly and if growth continues it will at some point be large enough to handle even the spikiest of media surges, but for now users should not depend on 100% uptime 24 x 7. I believe that for most college classes Tumblr is well enough stable. It is important to note that unlike some instances of CMS software like Blackboard, or portable open source software like WordPress, Tumblr exists on private servers, run by a company which is subject to the whims of private investment. One need only look at the Technologies of online learning (e-learning) (McGreal & Elliot, 2008) article we read earlier in ED655 to see several examples of commercial services which no longer exist.

Tumblr is available as a web application through any browser, but it also is present on mobile platforms for the iPhone and Android devices and most of the apps used to view and edit Tumblr posts work well. I actually preferred the input method on my iPhone over using my desktop machine when I made the audio file post. I could very well imagine using a mobile phone to leave various voice notes on Tumblr as I went through a work day.

My short summary review for Tumblr is that it is a good tool for building rapid and lasting student peer-to-peer interaction given enough up front training and design time. It can also be used in a more casual manner for the instructor or students to bring external content matter into a class discussion. The benefits of a simple advertisement free environment far outweigh the disadvantages associated with a rapidly growing online community and web application.

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