Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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Using blogs in class

Posted: Dec 15, 2013 15:12;
Last Modified: Mar 04, 2015 05:03

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I’ve used blogs in most of my classes for the last seven or eight years. I find them to be a superb teaching tool, both as a way of teaching students to research, think, and write about the subjects they are studying and as a means of modulating my instruction to match a given class’s strengths and weaknesses.

I’ve been told by some colleagues that they’ve found it difficult to integrate blogs into their classes effectively. They’ve find it difficult to get decent participation, find the blogs to be not very informative, and wish that their students would engage with each other’s work more deeply.

I’ve not had any of these problems (well, perhaps the participation rate has been weaker that I might wish in one or two classes). On the whole, I find that students participate regularly in the assignment, that they are enthusiastic about it and understand its relevance to their learning, and are willing to engage with each other’s work. And, at their best, my students’ blogs contain some of their very best writing—in some cases far better than they hand in other contexts.

I believe that some of this success comes from the way I handle blogs in my classes. And, since I haven’t come across anybody who does exactly what I do, I thought I would explain my technique here so that others can use it.

1) Allow lots of freedom

Students in my classes are told that the blogs are a part of their contribution to the development of the community that is our class. For this reason, they are given no set topic, minimum length, or specific model or rubric they have to follow. They are told that the point of the blog is to participate in an ongoing discussion about the class material and that appropriate blogs make a good faith effort to be part of that conversation.

This means, for example, that a good blog could be an essay or a reflection on something that came up in the previous class, or it could be the draft of an essay. It could be a detailed discussion of some event in a given work or theme or question that ties several works in the class together, or it could be a link to a YouTube video.

As in real life, the important thing about blogging in my classes is that it is a way supporting the development of the community, and anything that does that is acceptable.

2) Mark pass/fail

If you don’t mandate any specific length or topic, then it becomes very hard to grade blogs on anything but a pass-fail basis. Is a link to a very relevant YouTube video more or less “excellent” (and hence deserving of an A) than an interesting discussion of the pros and cons of some point raised by a student in the previous day’s class?

For this reason, I grade blogs as pass-fail. If you post your blog on time, it looks like it was done in good faith, and it seems more-or-less relevant, you get a 1; if it isn’t all of these things, you get a 0.

Initially, this actually scares students: how will they know if I will consider a blog to made in good faith or more-or-less relevant before they submit? My answer to them is that they can’t. And so, as a result, I won’t give something a 0 (except for late postings) without prior warning.

What this means in practice is that I promise students that I will warn them if it begins to look like their blogs are not meeting the minimum standard for getting a grade and will only start taking marks away if there is no change in their behaviour after we have discussed that warning and what they can do to improve things. In actual practice, I have never, in the seven or eight years I have been doing this, had to warn a single student that their work was consistently off topic or failed to show that they made a reasonable effort.

Not all my students complete all their blogs on time (or even at all). And some students end up completely very few or none (though most students complete most blogs). But I have yet to have a student who has participated in the exercise post anything that looked like a less-than-good-faith effort. In my experience students either participate in good faith or they don’t participate.

3) Don’t sweat the comments

A common complaint I read from facuty who use blogs in class is that it is difficult to get students to comment on each other’s blogs.

I have the same problem, if by “comment” you mean “add comments using the comment function to another student’s blog posting.” In the course of a year, indeed, I suspect I would be lucky if we get five comments from students in that sense of the word.

If by “comment” you mean “read and respond to the other students’ postings in any way,” however, then I have no problem with getting students to comment on each other’s work. Instead of writing comments at the foot of each other’s postings, my students seem to prefer to comment on their colleagues’ work in the main body of their postings. As far as I can tell, most students begin their weekly blogging by reading the positing that have gone before. Certainly they commonly attempt to situate their own opinions in the context of the other students’ work.

Since the point of blogging is to encourage students to see themselves as belonging to a community that is exploring the topic of the course together, this type of response seems to me to be, if anything, preferrable to a simple comment.

4) Use the blogs in class

I make a point of reading the blogs before I go to class and referring to them in the course of our discussion. Indeed, increasingly, I structure our in-class time around what the students have written in their weekly postiings. I try to draw my questions from things they have said and, if the discussion begins to lag, I try to move it along by raising comments or arguments made by students in their blog postings.

Occasionally I do this by showing one or more blogs on the projector in our class. But more commonly I just do it by simply mentioning what I have read. As part of this process, I usually ask the author of the posting I am referring to to identify themselves for us—and then often take the opportunity to probe the question more deeply with them

Another way that I use the blogs in class is by encouraging students to post their essays and drafts to the blogging site. This encourages them to see this work too as being less about assessment and more about contributing to the community as a whole.

The important thing here is that this approach reinforces the communal nature of our endeavour: that research, writing, and learning are a community endeavour and that what we think about things is interesting and useful—even if only as a springboard for other’s ideas.

5) Keep them behind a firewall

I find the blogs my students write to be so interesting, I wish I could share them with the wider world. But having done some surveys, I know that the students themselves tend to prefer posting behind a firewall. Since the goal of the exercise is to encourage them to speak out, I do what seems to make my students most comfortable and keep them inside the walled-off section of our Learning Management System.

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