Using a blog as teaching tool

I am thinking of using a blog in the master’s course on theories of gender that I’ll be teaching next semester. I haven’t done this before, so I am exploring the whys and hows of using blogs in education, and reading other people’s experiences on the web. I am full of questions (especially where the hows are concerned). These are my thoughts so far:

Why?

  • The main reason I would like to use a blog is to get the students writing and thinking critically, also outside the classroom. A course on gender theory invites critical reflection, and active reading. It would be great if students could post their comments, ideas, or questions, to have other students react. Also, it would be a good forum to continue class discussions after hours. I have tried to do this before using the discussion function in Blackboard, but students are reluctant to use it. I think a blog might be more attractive, because it is easier to access, new content is signaled by RSS feeds, and it is just a lot less messy than the discussion board overview in Blackboard.
  • I think the comment function could be very useful for stimulating debate among students, and might give students who are more confident writers than speakers a different way of partaking in the discussion.
  • The blog could be a receptacle for all kinds of links to online journals on gender and feminist criticism, other weblogs and institutions. Students could contribute their own links, explaining in a post why this link should be added to the list.
  • It could lead students to read more blogs on gender and feminist criticism, widening their learning context.

How?

  • I’m not sure which platform to use – I’m used to my WordPress blog, but I have no experience with other kinds of blog. Could I run the blog on the same domain as this one, but in a subfolder, or is that not a good idea? Are there (free) blogs that do not require you to buy server space? I found this useful list of multi-user blog options at Incorporated Subversion, but I’m still not sure.
  • I would like to create one blog with multiple users, so that all students can post and comment. I have read some advice against this, though – group blogs only seem to work with experienced bloggers. Should I encourage students to create their own blogs for the course, perhaps? I still prefer the original idea of one blog for the course.
  • Should I assess entries and comments as part of students’ grades for participation? My gut feeling says no, and an article by Jeremy Williams and Joanne Jacobs on blogs in higher education suggests that the contributions of students who blog only because they have to, “detracted from the overall quality of the experience for some students.” On the other hand, it might just encourage some students to contribute who otherwise would not. Perhaps the solution is to tell them they have to contribute one post, but it will not be graded?
  • Problem: because a blog is public, and will be around in Google for years to come. Perhaps students should choose an alias? Those in the course would know who’s who, but the world need not know.

There’s a myriad of posts on the use of blogs in education out there. Here are some of the sites I read and found useful:

  • A PhD research by Anne Bartlett-Bragg at Sydney University in 2005 suggests that blogging can help students to think and write critically.
  • An exploration guide on using blogs in education by the TLTgroup – many, many useful links.
  • Jonathan Hewett at Hackademic has posted his presentation on the use of a blog to help students reflect on their practical journalism, as a tool to help them learn, rather than to publish presentations.
  • A huge post on blogs as a teaching tool with lots of useful links at Information Visualization. It takes some time to load, but it’s worth the wait.
  • An article on using blogs to teach philosophy at the Academic Commons.
  • Two posts on how not to use blogs in education at Blogsavvy (part 1, part 2). This is one of the sites that advises against using group blogs.
Advertisements

23 thoughts on “Using a blog as teaching tool

  1. I’m thinking about biting the bullet and doing my first class blog this term, but don’t really know how much of my own time, or the class’s time, I want to invest. At this point, using the blog as a platform for distributing assignments, floating discussion questions and course materials, etc. would be plenty. I’ve actually had bad experiences with listservs, so I don’t want to replicate that.

    My idea is that the blog could be public, but only registered students could post.

    DM

  2. The only limitations on how many WP installations you can have on your server are your host’s restrictions – how many SQL databases you’re allowed and how much storage space. The WP codex includes a page on installing multiple blogs, although I’ve never really looked at it:

    http://codex.wordpress.org/Installing_Multiple_Blogs

    But if you can have more than one database installed, it’s easier just to add a new and completely separate installation in its own folder on the server. This is if you go for the group blog option – if you decide on individual blogs, then I’d recommend wordpress.com and avoid all the installation hassle altogether.

  3. I just checked on my host control panel, and apparently I have used only 1 out of 50 allowed SQL databases. So no problems there!

    Just one more question: If I put the blog in a folder on my server, could students hypothetically access the folders of Serendipities as well? Or is that a silly thought?
    Thanks for the WordPress codex link, I’ll take a look.

    Dave, it’s good that you remind me of the time factor. I’ll have to see how that works out. I wouldn’t mind spending an evening reading student posts and comments, but if it is going to be a lot of administrative work, I might regret my idea…

  4. Nope, I can’t imagine any way your students could access Serendipities. The new WP installation wouldn’t just be in a different folder, it would be a completely separate database. If someone tried to log in to Serendipities with a username and password registered for the other blog, it wouldn’t work.

  5. I recommend using individual blogs. Just have the students sign up at one of the free places. Then have students get an account with an online reader (Bloglines, Google, Netvibes, …) so that they, and you, can easily read everyone’s posts in one location. (Or you can get one of the free desktop readers.) Also, consider having the students respond to classmates on their own blogs instead of the classmate’s blog. That tends to lend itself to better responses. Because everyone has a news reader, they will see all the responses instead of having to go to particular blogs and clicking on “comments.” For more resources on blogging and news readers, check out my site at http://www.kean.edu/~cnelson/elearning/

  6. Thanks, Sharon! And no, I won’t use the same password ;o)

    Charles, you have given me food for thought. I was tending towards the group blog system, but this would mean less hassle for me, and more individual creativity for the students – perhaps it would be more fun for them this way. Also, I could still have a course blog with the kinds of things on it that Dave suggested, and then a blogroll with all the students’ individual blogs linked to it. Mmm – I’ll think a bit more in the coming week.

  7. Yes, you could still have a class blog. I usually have what I call a class blog. Students can comment on it but not post to it. I use it not for assignments, etc. (I have a schedule online for that purpose) but for (1) examples of what I expect my students to do (e.g., how to frame a quotation, link to and cite online sources)and (2) bringing current news of interest to the students. I think it would be okay to have students post to it, but I just haven’t worked it that way. My approach has been to try to encourage my students to take ownership of their online space and invest themselves in it. But I’m teaching FYC not a graduate course like you. Mejias, who had a graduate class on social software affordances, kept a class blog that was interesting (along with a course wiki). It’s at http://ssa05.blogspot.com/ You might find it useful.

  8. I spoke to our IT person here, who said that our university almost always tries to get profs to use Web CAT, and blogs are pretty much terra incognita for them.

    I’m not so crazy about Web CAT, because they’ve sometimes provided iffy support for students/faculty when problems develop.

    She did just email me, though, and said she found some stuff with Edublog that looked promising. Anyone here familiar with them?

    DM

  9. I hadn’t heard of Edublog before, I just checked out their website. Their blogs work on WordPress — that sounds good. This forum topic on multi-user blogs gives the impression that it might be rather difficult to have students post on a course blog (if I were to go for that option).

  10. Pingback: Blogs and Teaching, c/o Serendipities « The Long Eighteenth

  11. I got to this site via the link at the Long 18th. I used a blog in a limited way in one of my courses last semester, and it worked so well I’m planning to do it in both my courses this semester. I set up a single course blog on blogger.com, and every week I’d post 2 or 3 questions/reflections on the readings. Students were required to “comment” at least once per week on one of those posts (each of which had a strict deadline). I marked blog posts on a five-point scale (mostly determined by whether or not they supported their claims with textual evidence, avoided repeating material from class or other comments, and wrote grammatically). I also allowed “extra credit” in the form of comments in excess of the requirement that gained four or five points. Periodically I’d copy and distribute in class some “comments” that raised a particular issue or helped me to address a particular writing problem.

    Advantages: students got writing practice without the high stakes of a paper; it turbo-charged discussion (students came to class with ideas they were ready to talk about and often prefaced remarks with, “as I wrote on the blog…”), it allowed me to give a form of extra-credit I could live with (if students posted enough to affect their grade, they were doing work that helped them learn the material), reading the comments before class helped me structure discussion in ways that engaged them, for some reason participation was much more vigorous and consistent than on WebCT discussions that I’d attempted in past courses.

    Problems: some students resisted it; students really didn’t respond to one another much in their comments; I encouraged students to participate pseudonymous;y, but the site is not particularly secure and I could conceivably get into trouble for using a non-university to convey course content.

    Hope this helps! Good luck

  12. Thanks for the plug on the Long Eighteenth, Dave!

    Constantia, your experiences are really encouraging, thanks for sharing them. I am glad to hear that a course blog can really work as a way to engage students with the material, and boost discussion in class as well.

    And it’s true then, that a blog indeed triggers more response from students than the built-in discussion boards in WebCT or Blackboard. I wonder why that is — did they give you any clues?

    The idea to have students comment on questions you post yourself is interesting. I’m curious — was it a conscious choice of you not to let them write their own entries, or was that determined by the technical side of things?

  13. The decision to have the students comment on my blog posts was largely a matter of logistics and time. I just couldn’t figure out a way to have them write their own blog entries that wouldn’t involve a whole lot of hand-holding from me to get them all registered on the necessary site, and since (in my experience) students don’t do ANYTHING they won’t get graded on, it seemed like a system for tracking/evaluating individual blog entries would involve more record-keeping than I wanted to do. None of these matters are insurmountable, of course, it’s just that surmounting them would take more time than I wanted to devote to the exercise, particularly as the blog is a supplement to more conventional papers/exams. If I chose to make the blog a larger component of the course requirements, it might be worth devising some other procedure. I DO give the students the option of e-mailing me a blog post, which I then put on the blog on their behalf.

    I’ve wondered why the blog was so much more successful than similar activities I’ve attempted on WebCt. Lots of the students already read/write blogs, so it’s a format that feels very comfortable for them, while WebCT discussions seem artificial and awkward. At my institution, WebCT has a reputation for being slow and unresponsive and crashing periodically so many students have a sort of knee-jerk resistance to it. Also perhaps the course blog creates a web-based community that seems more connected to other communities that they are a part of. I used the blog to post announcements and occasional non-course-related reflections (on the VA tech shootings, for example) and I found myself in my other course missing that kind of centralized online meeting place.

    Hope this helps! And I hope you blog about how you eventually decide to use blogs in teaching!

  14. [x-posted at the Long Eighteenth]

    OK, I met with Jennifer, our College Tech person, and we decided that Edublog and WordPress were effectively the same, as long as my class size remained small enough (below 35) to stay below the WordPress limit per class.

    So we mocked up two courseblogs, which already look pretty good, and it was amazingly easy and straightforward. So score one for WordPress. I’ll keep you posted.

    DM

  15. Wow, you beat me to it! It looks great, and I think students will click on those useful research resources in the sidebar much sooner than if they were somewhere in Blackboard/WebCT.

    This could be a silly question, but how do you ‘close’ the blog after the 20th of August? One of the things I am worried about is the fact that if I use WordPress on my own server space, students’ writing is out there on the internet. It would be very useful if I could make it unaccessible to the general public.

    Your short response essays – great questions – would make ideal material for the kinds of questions that Constantia posted for discussion on the course blog, to have students answer in the comments. The advantage, I think, is that they could then read each others’ responses before going into class, and you could have a good basis for discussion in the seminar. Added bonus is that students would see others’ writing more than they usually do (in regular Dutch courses, at least).

    I am going to talk to our tech support person on Tuesday, so I hope to build a blog next week. I’ll keep you posted!

  16. I discussed this with our tech Jennifer, but if you go into the Options and privacy bars, you can select different levels of privacy/openness. You can click an option where the site is not accessible to search engines, and where people will have to sign in as registered users to get in. Obviously you need to get them all registered on the first day of class, and the limit of users on a single blog in Wp is 35. So I’m previewing the site now, and then on the first day of classes, will switch it to the registered users only open. I’ll have a few outsiders like the tech and some folks at the library who are helping with some presentations, and that’ll do it.

    Keep me posted on how yours goes. I’m using a mix of formal essays and weekly blogging posts, including posted questions from students/groups and responses to group presentations. Annotated bibliographies, done by groups, and presentation handouts will be put online, too. I’ve been doing this all along in this class, but doing it online seems to make sense now.

    DM

  17. Pingback: Serendipities

  18. What a great discussion. Another excellent example of how blogging is shaping the way we teach and learn.

    I teach Entrepreneurship at a variety of institutions and on a variety of levels. This summer I used student blogs as weekly journal-type assignments for the first time as part of an MBA class. I found it to be quite an interesting experiment.

    I required students to write one blog a week. I was purposefully vague about what I expected but told the students that they should take an entrepreneurial idea they had been thinking about, tie it in with something we’ve been doing in class and add a healthy dose of personal opinion. Typical of any open-ended assignment, I found the results to be mixed (based mainly from the students’ abilities to be creative and think on their own.)

    I created a new blog at wordpress (http://startupsherpa.wordpress.com/wp-admin/) specifically for this purpose and had each of the students sign up. They created their own aliases and I added them as “contributors” which gave them the ability to post and edit their own posts but not touch the rest of the site.

    I have given them a little guidance over the last few weeks and some of them have taken it to a higher level. It was definitely an interesting experiment and I am interested in seeing how well it works out in your own class.

    Best wishes!

  19. Pingback: qzelite » Using a blog as teaching tool

  20. Pingback: Serendipities

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s