I'm trying out a new pedagogical technique in all of my courses this semester. I've set up a blog for each course and have required students, as a part of their grade, to contribute regularly to those sites. In one of my courses, blog posts and comments are the only writing students are required to do, though the total amount of writing (in word-count) is equal to what I would have them write anyway. In the other two courses the blog contributions are supplements to more traditional writing assignments (like a seminar paper). I will admit that at least part of my motivation for experimenting in this way was to try to bring philosophy coursework into the 21st century... but that wasn't my chief reason.
My real justification for this experiment is two-fold. First, I think one of the chief advantages of a "class blog" is that it provides a space for maintaining a consistent and uninterrupted conversation about the subject matter outside of the regularly scheduled "class time." I'm sure all of us hope that our students carry their reflections on the course material with them when they leave the classroom and, if we're really hopeful, we probably imagine them talking about these sorts of things in their dorm rooms, over lunch or beers, at parties. I suspect that some, maybe many, of them do this... but the truth is that students today are overburdened with extra-curricular activities and commitments (at my institution, they're called "co-curricular" activities and commitments), so there are numerous artificially-imposed limits to the attention students can direct at any one particular subject. So, my requirement that students participate in and keep up with their class blog is a bit of a ham-handed way of forcing them to see their work in my class as extending beyond the 3 hours that they spend with me every week. Also, and not unrelatedly, I have learned over the years that students often spend their time in class absorbing and attempting to process new material, which means that they often can't formulate something reflective to say until after class is over. How many times have we all had that experience where a student comes and speaks with us during office hours and says something particularly astute and relevant, prompting us to ask why didn't you make this comment in class??!! The blog allows for just this sort of lag-time, giving students a chance to come back and make that comment that didn't occur to them until class was over. Philosophy is best done in conversation, and no "natural" conversation has a 50- or 75-minute time limit. The blog also allows for semi-tangential or moderately-relevant contributions, which we often need to squash in class but which make for a deeper and more comprehensive consideration of the material.
Second, the more you write, the more you write. Because blog-writing requires not only "posting" (equivalent to "essay" writing) but also "commenting," students end up writing more often... and just plain more. I'd like to say something like "the more you write, the better you write," but of course that is not always the case. Nevertheless, developing the habit of writing regularly is one particularly effective way, in my view, to improve one's writing. An added advantage of blogging is that everything that students write for the course is subject to the scrutiny of the entire class (rather than just me, as the "grader"). My experience so far this semester is that students' writing is of a higher quality because they know that everyone will be reading it. There is less misspelling, less sloppy grammar, less weak argumentation. And, in a sense, everyone must "edit" his or her ideas in response to the comments of his or her classmates, which is another invaluable writing skill. Although I was initially worried that blog-writing, because of it's shorter length, would result in incomplete or merely pithy essays, I find that this limitation in fact forces students to distill and focus their thoughts into the fewer words they are allowed. So, gone is all of the "fluff" material that we often find in student papers (biographical information, long quotations, irrelevant opining, repetitive argumentation). And finally, students at last are allowed to view their writing as a manner of engaging ideas and other people, as another way to have a conversation, rather than some purely utilitarian tool in the service of a grade.
For those who are wondering about the "nuts and bolts" of this practice, here's how my class blogs work: Each course has a blog (here, here and here, on Blogger) that is "public" in the sense that anyone in the world can view it, but "private" in the sense that only members of the class are authorized to post or comment. Students have a set number of posts and a set number of comments that they are required to complete before the mid-term, and another number of posts and comments that must be completed after the mid-term. Participation above and beyond the minimum requirement is rewarded. There is a minimum word-count for posts. Post authors are responsible for responding to any direct question or challenge that appears in the comments to their posts. And, finally, I don't grade each post individually, but rather I give a "blog participation" grade at the midterm and again at the end of the semester based on the quality and quantity of the student's writing.
So far, I'm happy with the results of this experiment, though I intend to evaluate its effectiveness again at the end of the semester, as well as distribute a "student survey" to gauge students' experience with the blogs. Even if this fails, we at least will have saved some trees this semster!
UPDATE: Read the post-semester follow-up post: Blogging in the Classroom, Revisited