Blog Post

Using Blogs in the Classroom

I am curious what others think of using a blog in the classroom. Specifically I mean treating the blog as an assignment, which asks students to reflect on what they’ve learned.

We’ve been talking about this in the teaching seminar I take at the School of Information & Library Science at UNC Chapel Hill. A fellow doctoral student is using a blog in her class. I have mixed feelings about this.

When I asked my class what they thought about blogs and diaries, most indicated that they felt it was busy work. In my own experience, I too have felt it was busy work. This does not mean that I do not reflect on what I’m learning. I do this continually; but usually I do written reflection by writing out bullet points of key things I need to remember and then organizing them by need. So for instance, I have a schedule that plans out the entire semester. After each class, I edit that day’s entry in the schedule by including notes on what I covered in class, what we didn’t get a chance to finish, what questions students might have asked that need more of my attention, etc. This is more professional note-keeping really; not quite the same kind of reflection.

For deeper, more personal reflection, I chat with various mentors and spend time meditating. As a result of a conversation, I might again jot down bullet points but I do not do this after meditating. The meditation is the most personal form of reflection I do. It is a commitment I make to sit still with myself for so much time each day. It in itself IS the reflection. So I don’t believe that all reflection must be done in ink.

Additionally, I consider much of my personal reflection private. Many insights I have really aren’t suited for public consumption; and so writing them out feels phony to me in some way. Taking something very genuine, very personal, very tender, often messy, and dressing it up in structured, well-formatted, standard English feels very contrived and artificial to me. It also seems to suck the heart-felt truth out of what I learned.. This is also another reason I prefer oral reflection with a mentor. For me, the immediacy and intimacy of face-to-face conversation is better suited to sharing personal reflections.

However, blogs in the classroom may not need to get this personal. Maybe they are more like writing a literature review, explaining what you learned from others and how it has shaped your current thinking.

I can see value in using a blog or some other type of journal in a class for those students who tend to need to organize their thoughts on paper before discussing them with others. So using the blog to ask students to reflect on the readings before coming to class and participating in discussion could be very beneficial.  For more quiet students, it might be a better way to get to know them and the way they learn and think. However, I would still argue that these students need to work on being able to express themselves orally in public because being able to do so is frequently required to be successful in most jobs.  So a blog/journal should not provide a safe escape from public expression for more quiet students, but should help them develop more self-confidence in expressing themselves and provide a means to translate that self-expression into face-to-face, group settings.

I also think that blogs/journals that are structured are probably more helpful than free form ones, especially for the student who tends to view this kind of exercise as busy work. Simply asking a student just to say what they think is vague and consequently difficult for many of them. “Think? … About what?” Pointed questions can jumpstart thinking. Another benefit is that a structured blog helps to direct the student’s thinking in ways that I, as the instructor, need to see in order to assess their critical thinking competency with the material. It also indirectly indicates to the student how to organize their thoughts and gives them clues as to what facets of the topic are the most critical. I think that without clear guidelines, students could waste their time and mine by inadvertently talking about something completely irrelevant to the course or topic. Yes, it’s good that they are thinking and writing something at least; but school should also be prepare them for real world. Being able to understand how to frame your contributions so that they are on-topic and in-scope is a valuable skill that employers and future colleagues will appreciate. There’s nothing like a project deadline getting pushed and pushed and the company losing money and wasting resources because time spent in meetings and via written communication was not effective, not on-topic, not in-scope.

There are a few nice things about a blog over a MS Word document. One is that it introduces a new/different technology; and such exposure is always helpful when sending students out into a technologically evolving world. More and more people are communicating online and blogs can be used to teach what self-presentation means in an online world and how to manage it. It also allows for chronicling multiple thoughts and pulling them together to show a stream of connected thinking about multiple topics rather than disparate musings on singular topics. If the blog is open to the student’s classmates, it helps students write for a larger audience than just the professor, possibly receive feedback, and gives the student a sense of still being in “class” (among peers) even though not in the classroom. A closed blog (professor eyes only) however is better suited to more private musings.

I’d be curious to hear others’ experience with using blogs/journals as well as examples of how you used them. Did you think they were effective? Were there any drawbacks and if so, how would you redesign the assignment to mitigate those drawbacks?

 

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19 comments

Blogs, like all "homework," seem to me to be only as useful as their design and purpose.   That is, blogs are busy work if they are simply another assignment to be ticked off by the teacher.   I find that the only ways blogs are useful is when students write them before class discussion, when other students are responsible for responding to them (peer leaders have this responsibility in my course, and each class has two peer leaders assigned), and when I, as the teacher, respond.   Often, I find we are working out exceptionally complex ideas before we get into the classroom.  By the time we enter, the conversation is already in full swing and often quite profound.

 

I've also had the shocking experience of reading weekly blogs 1000 or so words long, thinking my students were superb writers and thinkers, adn then being disappointed by the actual term papers in the same course.  I more and more think the problem isn't the students but the genre of the term paper.  What is it for anyway?  How is it useful? What is its audience?  I find many of the Labovian mistakes of "I" when "me" is correct, "whom" when "who" is right and so forth, overcorrecting grammar to impress and getting it wrong.  Same with vocabulary, convoluted syntax, and jargon. The blogs tend to be far more about communication and quite eloquent.

 

You raise so many great issues in your post.  I ask students about public or private, and they usually choose to keep it limited to the class in order that they can write more freely without worrying if some future employer will hold their views against them.  I then require them to post two "public" comments during the term, as a contribution to public knowledge.

 

Thanks for writing.  I hope we can get some other comments on the blog as assignment.  This is very valuable.

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"I've also had the shocking experience of reading weekly blogs 1000 or so words long, thinking my students were superb writers and thinkers, adn then being disappointed by the actual term papers in the same course.  I more and more think the problem isn't the students but the genre of the term paper.  What is it for anyway?  How is it useful? What is its audience?  I find many of the Labovian mistakes of "I" when "me" is correct, "whom" when "who" is right and so forth, overcorrecting grammar to impress and getting it wrong.  Same with vocabulary, convoluted syntax, and jargon. The blogs tend to be far more about communication and quite eloquent."

Cathy, I've been using a class blog in my introductory writing course this semester and I've found exactly the same thing. The writing they do for the blog is both more insightful and more confident than the writing I get in their actual papers. I've tried to embrace this by putting more emphasis on the blog in class discussion and encouraging them strongly to revise their blog posts into their major assignments.

Like any other sort of journaling the blog assignment can feel purposeless if it's never taken up in class. I always try to use the blogs as a centerpiece for our discussion, or at least a jumping-off point. When they're integral to what happens in the classroom, they don't feel like a waste of time.

 

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Ah yes, what you and Cathy say is very interesting. The idea that blog is the "centerpiece" of class discussion, that it must be integrated into actual class times somehow.

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I've tried using blogs in class as a place for informal writing and extended discussion several times. I used it last semester in my sophomore English lit course and again this semester. Last semester, few people posted, except when I required them to. Then, it was clear that students viewed it as drudgery and merely another requirement to fulfill. As a result, discussions rarely started, few, if any, students ever posted spontaneously, and the overall quality was disappointing. This semester I've changed my grading model (I'm using the Learning Record now) and the change in the interactions with the blog is striking. Students are now posting long, interesting, insightful posts and continuing discussions in the comments far after we've moved on in our class discussions. I'm no longer requiring them to post, either. I attribute this change to the more open-ended nature of a Learning Record-based course vs. a traditional "grade the product" course, which I did last semester. Because they're able to use basically anything they write as evidence of learning now and then to use that in making the case for their grades, they seem to have realized that the more they interact with the blog, the more evidence they'll have and, hence, the better a grade at the end of the semester. So, for me, it seems like giving the students more freedom to choose how they express themselves and provide evidence of their learning and then simply pointing out the usefulness of the blog in this function has caused the dramatic turnaround.

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This is really fascinating. I've never heard of the Learning Record. Is this URL a good place to start learning about it: http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu/~Syverson/olr/contents.html?

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It is. Peg Syverson is the champion of this model here at UT. You might also check out the Scholars Forum on "Grading 2.0".

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Several years ago, I was encouraged by colleagues' presentations at conferences and by fellow teachers' anecdotes about the successes they had with blogs in the classroom.  As writing teachers, the ways that blogs allow for an authentic audience beyond the classroom was definitely something to be excited about, especially since students seemed motivated to write them. I've used blogs in my classes for several years now, and recently spoke about them at a writing across the currculum seminar I was leading. They more or less work well, with students writing reading responses and reflections on their work, even though I did have a hard time getting them to regularly comment on classmates' blogs. At best, I think blogs can be great commonplace books for students. Not only should they be places where students post required assignments, but also where students can post things they come across that have relevance to the class. Sort of a "hey, look at this Youtube clip. It's a great example of that thing we talked about in class last week."  I always have a few students who end up using their blog this way, but really only a few per semester.

I'm not teaching this year, but I've heard colleagues complain that they've had more problems with blogs this year. A friend teaching an upper level class, mostly juniors and seniors, noted that the initial interest/enthusiasm has worn off, and most students came into his class having already used blogs in several other courses.  For his students this semester, blogs are over. No longer an innovative teaching tool, blogs have become no different from any other required part of the classroom, and many do see them as busywork, as Laura suggested. I think the challenge here is using blogs not just because they're supposed to be fun/different, but because they are an integral part of the class. Somehow encouraging students to use them as a commonplace book for class ideas might be a way to do it.

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It's so interesting that you talk about blogs as being sort of a fad in teaching/learning and that students can become disenchanted with some seemingly glitzy thing. The friend I have who is using a blog currently in her class says that their postings started to drop off a week or two ago (midterm). I think what you say and what all others have shared - about incorporating it into the class, having it linked to learning outcomes, being an incentive to learn and demonstrate that learning is very important.

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Thanks so much.  One other thing to keep in mind is that recent studies confirm this generation of students consider blogs old hat.   So that means if we use them, we must make them meaningful intrinsically.  They are not cool anymore but standard, for classroom use, so unless they really are for conversation, they aren't very exciting.

 

On the other hand, I tried to coax my students into using Twitter this year and found them reluctant.  Most already have their hands full managing (and sometimes mismanaging, in the case of inefficient fraternity and sorority mass emails to the tune of dozens a day) all the media they can.  I'm sympathetic to that.  So we've stuck with a class blog but, like all work, if it isn't meangful, then  . . . it isn't meaningful!

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Although I love the thoughtfulness and surprise of my students' blogs each week---they are the best refutation of Digital Native overgeneralization ever--there isn't much interaction in the form.  I'm tempted to go to a wiki next time, but then that loses the lengthy indept introspective response.   Both?  Too much?  What do you think?

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I think blogs are easier in terms of technology. With most wikis you have to install the database and the php (or whatever language); and content contributors have to learn a set of command code. (Or at least this is how it was the last time I used/installed a wiki.) I have found that trying to write on a wiki requires me to divide my attention too much - between coding and figuring out how to make it look the way I want AND actual thinking/writing. Most blogs are freely available online and don't require you to install databases and code. And blogs are more WYSIWYG.

Blogs also seem better than wikis for this sort of thing because you can see one student's entire perspective chronicled over several days, weeks, etc. So you can get a cohesive view of the student's growth more than what you might get in a wiki (because of the content having the outward appearance of being so distributed across the site). So the way the media is structured has an impact as well.

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I've toyed with the idea of having my students do some collaborative writing via wikis, but haven't actually written up an assignment for it. I might try that next spring, when I teach this course again. I know some of my colleagues have had students put together wikis for new terminology they've encountered in the course, key concepts, etc. That also seems interesting. But, as you note, blogs and wikis are pretty radically different formats. The collaborative nature of wikis seems more useful for building knowledge resources, not for extended discussion. But just thinking about it now, I'm convinced I want to try giving my students both avenues without requiring either. It seems like it could be helpful for them to have a place to find key course concepts explained or to try to explain them themselves.

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I'm teaching again this semester after a few years off. My first class blog was in... 2005, I believe. It was a great experience and I've used them in many courses since then. So I expected my students this semester to be familiar with blogs, Tumblr, Flickr, writing online, wikis, the works. I was expecting some ennui in response to the blogging assignments, and at the very least, a facile response to it.

And of course - it's been the exact opposite. 

NONE of them have ever even regularly followed a blog, let alone written in one, let alone for a class. They were all inherently suspicious of the requirement, picked pseudonyms that are so hard to decipher that I can't remember who's who, and it's been a struggle to get them to take the leap to writing as a way of learning and thinking. Whereas my former classes were largely blog driven - we'd open conversations based on what was happening online, and I relished the various voices they each tried on and learning from the various students who felt more confident online than in the classroom. This semester it's been inordinately difficult and frustrating because they keep reiterating that they're 'private' and don't like sharing working writing with others.

The difference, perhaps? For one, they're mostly science students and very new to writing for various audiences and for each other. I don't fully understand it, but it's been a great reminder that just as education and learning styles are nowhere near universal, even in 2010, that interest and experience with new forms of writing and thinking are still evolving -- 'even' at a well-funded and fairly innovative (in terms of technology and course options) sytem like Duke.

 

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Yes so interesting. As I was reading the earlier posts, I began to wonder if there are differences between undergrads and grads in terms of how they perceive and use the blogs. But it appears from what you said, that subject domain also leads to some variation in response.

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I don't have much to contribute to the conversation on blogging and pedagogy -- it seems right to me that enthusiasm and passion for a given topic, rather than the medium in which that enthusiasm is expressed, will drive the quality of student responses -- but I have increasingly noticed how my own blogging practices are impacting my writing. It took almost a year for me to become comfortable with blogging -- with presenting my half-baked ideas in a public forum. As I became more comfortable with the medium, though, I found the colloquial "voice" I had developed as a blogger bleeding into my academic writing -- and that "voice" not always being so welcome there. In fact, I've struggled a bit to "re-learn" all the boring writing rules that were drilled into my head in high school and as an undergrad!

Blogging and blogspeak certainly isn't more "natural" than other forms of writing -- how one chooses to communicate online is entirely open and variable -- but I would like to see the colloquial tone of most academic blogs infiltrate our research writing. Disciplines are communities of like-minded folks; making our research more of an in-process conversation (a la blogging) seems like a good place to go. 

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LOL! I love it. It's so interesting how we get attached to certain writing styles and assign personal qualities to the writer based on their use of language. (So level of formality leading to some sort of impression of how serious or intelligent someone is.) I have to agree with you - I think this casual "hey let's just talk" approach is so needed in academia. I think we need to be able to speak plainly about our work. I think this improves our ability to share knowledge and generate a dialog so we can all (academics and non-academics) learn more from each other.

 

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Today I'm reading a book that makes an extended apologia for just this style in the Preface:

The style and tone of my study may also diverge from the traditional. This book is by design informal, straightforward, and, I hope, unpretentious. First, I am intentionally writing for the student and generalist no less than for the professional medievalist. My style furthermore reflects not only my audience, but the subject as well, and my own tastes. In previous essays, I have found an impersonal academic style to be a less than entirely congenial vehicle for dealing with the humor, not to mention the frankness and sexuality, of the fabliaux, and I have felt most comfortable with a more informal style. Humor is necessarily personal, and accordingly I see no justification for writing impersonal and formal prose about texts characterized by the quest for entertainment, humor, and good fun. -Norris J. Lacy, Reading Fabliaux

So far as I can tell, though, the primary marker of his informal style is simply the use of the first person, which is increasingly common in academic writing. This book was written in 1993, though, so perhaps that was far less common then. Otherwise, the writing is simply clear and not otherwise noticeably informal. Or maybe it's because my own style is fairly close to this that it just seems normal to me.

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Classroom blogs are quite helpful in improving student's confidence. It is like exposing their learning and ideas to the world and receiving feedback and other forms of interpretation of the same facts of learning.

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Anonymous (not verified)

Blogs can play a very vital role in terms of online larning. I have learn a lot of things from blogs and I love to do blogging.

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