At the close of summer, I wrote a post on my plans to use a weblog in my MA course on gender theory in the first semester (see also this later post). I received a lot of very useful and encouraging comments, and took the plunge. The semester ended just before Christmas, student essays are trickling in now: it is time for an evaluation.
“Theories of Gender and Culture” was a 15 week MA course with twelve students who met once a week for a two-hour seminar. Because gender theory was new to most students, and because I put some difficult texts on the Syllabus, I was looking for a way to keep students engaged with the material outside class. I made a group blog on which students (and I myself) could write blog posts, and comment on each others’ posts. I posted a discussion question each week, in which I asked students to apply the theory of that week to a cultural object. (Here is an example of such a discussion question.) Students had to write responses to three discussion questions, they could pick which ones to answer. I also created the categories “queries” (for any questions that students were struggling with during the week) and “gender notes” for observations on gender in daily life, the news, commercials — anything. For more information, see also the document on the Course Blog that I put in the Blackboard module for the course. I also posted “household notes” on the blog, with information on the course, presentations schedules, etc. The sidebar was filled with a “recent comments” widget, a twitter widget with links to interesting websites or online articles that we happened to come across during the course, and link lists to personal websites of theorists, to organizations, databases, online journals and theory sites.
There were several ways in which I hoped the blog could aid the learning process:
- to provide a space for students to tackle the material outside class
- to enhance critical and analytical thinking
- to foster a sense of community
- to enhance class discussion
- to practice writing skills
The evaluation that follows is based on my own experiences as well as an anonymous online survey (via Blackboard) among my students, submitted by 10 of the 12 students.
In response to my previous post, Dave Mazella recommended Edublogs.org, a website that provides free weblogs for educational purposes, with server space. Edublogs uses WordPress, and since I use WordPress for Serendipities too, that was an advantage. I wanted to create a group blog, on which students could contribute posts and comments. Edublogs allows you to create such a group blog, to which students can then be added as authors. What is more, a plugin allows you to make the blog private so than only registered and logged in edublogs.org users can access it. The blog is therefore relatively private, you have to know it is there and be an Edublogs user to read what students wrote. The downside to this is that I couldn’t get the RSS feed to work in my reader, probably because of this plugin. If anyone knows a way around this, I would be very interested.During initial testing with a dummy student account I discovered that the theme I chose for the blog did not display the author of a post, which happens to be quite a useful thing on a multi-author blog. Fortunately Yolande Spoelder, our technology-and-education person here at the Vrije Universiteit solved that problem when she found that the Regulus theme does display author names.
This was one of the few technical problems I ran into with Edublogs. Their server was down once and towards the end of the semester they decided out of the blue to do an update that resulted in the disappearance of the themes and headers of all Edublogs blogs, but this was easily solved by restoring the theme in the Dashboard.
In the first class, I introduced my students to the concept of the blog, showed them how to register, and gave a live demonstration of how to write posts and comments. In the survey, all students either ‘agreed’ or ‘strongly agreed’ that the blog is easy to use, even though 90% of them had never contributed to a blog before the course. They all agreed that my initial demonstration was enough to get them started. One student missed the first two classes, and created their own blog on Edublogs instead of joining the group blog (you need to tick a box that says you don’t want your own blog, just a username). This caused problems throughout the course, because the login would lead to the individual blog instead of the group blog. Next year, I am going to make detailed written instructions, with screenshots of each step of the registration process.
56% of the students in the survey wrote the the required 3 discussion posts and nothing more (excluding comments). 44% wrote more than the required 3 posts. The amount of commens varies per student, but on average is is about 3. 67% checked the weblog twice a week on average, 22% every day or every other day.
Some students turned of the WYSIWG function in the text editor, because their browser could not deal with it. Others copied and pasted from word-documents and found that the editor changed their layout and style. One student remarked in the comments that there should be a “read more” link after a few lines of post, because the long posts made them lose overview. I know you can add the “more” tag yourself, I am going to find out if it can be done automatically for next year’s blog, so that the main page of the blog is more organized.
An added benefit is the ease with which we could link to all kinds of online sources to analyze, and embed videos from You-Tube, to take a closer look at a commercial such as this Bavaria commercial for the session on masculinities.
Ninety procent of the students (strongly) agreed that posting and responding to posts on the blog helped their learning process. Answers to the questions whether the blog made them better critical and analytical thinkers, made them more interested in attending class and kept them thinking about the material in the course throughout the week show more variation, some students picked “neither agree nor disagree” here (even a ‘disagree’ on critical and analytical thinking). In the comment space they wrote that this is because the discussion questions themselves were a source of help, and not the blog per se. Other students comment that it was very useful to see what others thought about the theories, and how opinions differed. They also wrote that it allowed for interaction between students outside of the classroom.
Class discussion and group dynamics
This is one of the most important functions of the blog, in my view. Most students in the group did not know each other beforehand, since some came from linguistics, others from literature, cultural studies or from abroad. Yet from the second week onwards, the group was very lively, they easily engaged in discussions, listened to each other and respected each others’ opinions. It was a wonderful group to teach. All students in the survey (strongly) agreed that the use of the blog increased the level of meaningful discussion in class, and also that the blog increased a sense of community in the group. 55 % (strongly) agreed that the discussion on the blog made it easier to engage in discussion in class, 44% neither agreed nor disagreed. In the comments, students are enthusiastic about the group dynamics in the course, they write that it is reassuring to know that there are 12 other people out there to help them out if they get stuck, that they felt comfortable to participate in the discussions and that it made attending the classes a lot of fun. One student comments that the discussion questions weren’t always fully discussed in class, but that they helped to grasp the meaning of the theory and the use of it. This is true, I soon found that two hours isn’t enough for this course, and I am definitely going to expand the hours next year.
Initially, I also thought to use the blog as a way to practice writing. After the first discussion question, however, I changed my mind. The question was on Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. One student wrote a response to the question in a style that resembled that of the set text. She didn’t make an argument that went straight to the point (ordered into categories A, B & C like the essay of the student sitting next to Woolf in the reading room), but stopped every once in a while to ponder, look back or tell of her doubts. I loved the post, and this made me think. Should a contribution to a course blog read like an academic essay? Is that what I wanted from this blog? I decided that perhaps the aim to make students feel more comfortable with the theory, to make them write about their doubts and questions and to encourage exchange of ideas, did not really go with formal demands on the writing. So I abandoned that idea. I did grade the contributions, but only on their ideas. I commented on a printout of the post, and couldn’t keep myself from correcting language mistakes in the text — but style didn’t count for the grade.
All in all
Using the blog was a great experience, and I am certainly going to use a blog again next year. It cost me some extra time, mainly before the start of the course, when I had to figure out what I was going to do with the blog and how I would do that in technical terms. There were some minor technical problems, but in general the edublogs are easy to use. I don’t feel the blog cost me a lot of extra time. I am online a lot anyway, and I really enjoyed checking the blog to see if there were new contributions or comments. It is so much easier than digging into the discussion board on Blackboard that I really didn’t see it as a chore. The students enjoyed the experience too, and the blog discussions helped to increase the level of discussion in class, and really contributed to the group dynamics in a class that met only once a week.
- “Blogging Across the Disciplines: Integrating Technology to Enhance Liberal Learning,” in the Journal of Online Teaching and Learning (Sept. 2007). A very useful article on the pros and cons of weblogs as a teaching tool.
- Teaching hacks – Using weblogs in education. Wiki entry with useful ideas and links.
- “Weblogs in education” – article from the IT Literature Review, contains a section on the potential of using blogs for educational purpose, and discusses some issues and concerns.
- See also the list of links in my previous post.