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Integrating, Evaluating, and Managing Blogging in the Classroom

Some examples of course blogs. (See more at http://umwblogs.org/courses/)

In a previous Prof. Hacker post, Jason Jones linked to Hillary Miller’s “Lessons from a First-Time Course Blogger”, which contains great advice such as making sure not to forget about the blog and not assuming students know everything about technology. This advice (and do read Miller’s entire post for an honest description of some lessons learned) meshes quite nicely with the roles of role model, tech support, and cheerleader we should play when implementing technology in the classroom.

But you should make several informed decisions before your class even begins, not the least of which is asking yourself if you already have enough familiarity with the concept and structure of a blog and a blog community before embarking on creating the same for your class. If you are reading this, chances are good that you are familiar with the paradigm of reverse chronological narrative and the presence and importance of comments as well as using links within blog posts. That’s a good start. You should also have a clear sense of how blogging:

  • will be integrated into the classroom
  • will be used to evaluate student work
  • will be hosted and managed

Blogging can be integrated into the classroom in several different ways. Of course, you can take time from class discussion or lecture to have students literally blog at that moment—but only if you have access to computers in the classroom. You can also remind students they can continue an in-class discussion on their blogs, thus giving everyone a chance to “speak.”

More often, the integration of blog content happens by way of in-class discussion starters. At the beginning of class, remark on some of the trends you see happening in student responses—does everyone have the same question about the plot of a novel, for instance, or did someone have an insightful comment regarding a useful theoretical point of view? Try to address the content of both the most committed and least committed of your student bloggers, and if you have access to technology in the classroom you might even show a blog post on the screen so that everyone has a chance to read and comment on it in person if not online.

Even if you commit yourself to weaving blog content into class discussion, your efforts will fall short if your students do not provide that content consistently—or if only a handful of your students provide content for discussion. The need for consistent content plays right into the decision between forced blogging (requiring a certain number of posts and comments by a certain time) and voluntary or serendipitous blogging (post when you want, when something of interest arises).

There’s no easy way to counter student resistance to blogging, just as there’s no easy way to counter student resistance to writing papers or taking exams. When blogging is part of the course requirements, it clearly plays a role in meeting the goals of the class, and you support and provide feedback to the students with regards to their blogging to the same extent that you would their essays and exams, you are likely to find that students who would complete traditional assignments will still complete the “non-traditional” blogging assignment, and students who would slack with traditional assignments will do so with their blogs as well. As with any assignment, students are likely to follow your lead with regards to valuing its overall importance. If you forget the blog exists, so will they—and I wouldn’t particularly blame them.

But evaluating student blogging is tricky—how do you “grade” a blog, and should you? If we tell students that blogging is an informal space for them to work out their thoughts among a community of their peers, how can we justify one post being a “3″ and another a “5″ on a 5-point scale. If we tell students that blogging is a formal space in which their posts should be brilliant and grammatically correct, such that a post could be assigned an A, B, C, and so on, then why exactly are they blogging and not writing an “essay”? If we tell students that blogs are credit/no credit—you “do it” and you get the credit—how do we decide what “doing it” even means? There is no right answer. I don’t even know if there are wrong answers. You will find people who are vehemently opposed to both qualitative and quantitative grading methods. What matters is that you decide what you want ahead of time and support that decision through your actions and responses as the course moves along.

Personally, I fall somewhere in the middle; I look for informal but thoughtful work that I can “grade” as credit/no credit and that is produced on a consistent basis. I’ve been lucky enough to see a lot of different types of blogging in the classroom, and the successes and failures of many different evaluation methods. I’ve learned that it’s not necessarily the evaluation method that matters—it’s the way in which the blog assignment is introduced and integrated at the beginning of and throughout the course.

In the Dept. of English at Washington State University, Donna Campbell has given students a blogging option in her undergraduate courses for several years, and it is an option that the majority of students seem to take. However, she frames the option as one that takes the place of another assignment—an oral report (and how many students like doing oral reports?). Her very thorough and helpful assignment sheet informs students that choosing the oral report or the blog option will involve about the same amount of work, but that work will be concentrated differently during the course of the semester. Dr. Campbell’s blogging assignment offers students numerous possibilities for their posts—she lists 14, ranging from traditional analysis and reader response to “Stop, fool!”, parodies, and re-writing endings, and also notes that students can go beyond that list—but also a schedule they must adhere to for both posts and comments. The mix of freedom for students to write what they want but a schedule by which they must do so is likely to produce consistent content that can be integrated into the physical classroom.

As if it isn’t enough that you should know ahead how time how you will integrate blogs, and how you will evaluate student blogging, there are also the technical considerations: should you have a group blog, should all your students have individual blogs linked from a course “hub”, should you require certain blogging platforms or allow students the freedom to choose? Assume you will be playing the role of tech support at least in the initial week or two, so determine for yourself what you can handle. Remember that the free and popular blogging platforms such as Blogger and WordPress also have a great deal of online help, tutorials, and an active community of people ready and able to help new users—leverage those options.

The additional option of obtaining web hosting and managing your own domain and blog installations will be the subject of an upcoming Prof. Hacker post. In the meantime, consider the following possibilities that you can implement for free, all available using blogging platforms such as Blogger or WordPress.com:

  • Group Blog: if you create a group blog with Blogger or WordPress.com, you will have to take the time to create the individual accounts and grant access to users. If you have thirty, sixty, a hundred (or more) students, plan for this time during the first week (and also plan for account failures). After that point, however, the group blog gives you and everyone else one centralized location for reading and responding to content.
  • Course Hub: if you create a course hub, be sure you know how to create links in the sidebar to the students’ individual blogs, and think about whether you want to introduce students to the wonders of the RSS feed reader. Also, treat the course hub as your area for online participation, and update it frequently either with announcements, “round up” posts, or both.
  • Individual Student Blogs: Give students options with regards to platform, but recommend those with which you are most familiar. Take time before the course begins to give yourself a working knowledge of three or four blogging platforms so that you can cover all the tech support bases if necessary.

Integrating blogging with your traditional classroom pedagogy can be intimidating at first, especially if you yourself are not fully comfortable with it. Take some time to carefully and honestly consider how you can integrate blogging with your class, and be prepared to support your students a little more than perhaps you are used to. With a good action plan, blogging can provide your students with the opportunity for more consistent and thoughtful engagement with course material; the start-up costs (in time if not money) may be a little high, but once you have that plan in place, you can re-use it as you do any good assignment that has a permanent place in your syllabus.

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