Monday, September 22, 2008

Blogging in the Classroom

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


Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

Dr. J,

This is a really great idea, and I'm very curious to see how it goes. I'm going to look at the blogs a little more later, and will think about adopting something similar myself. One quick question: how do you handle "grading?" for this?

Booga Face said...

Dr. J, I like the way you've managed this assignment. I've always found that integrating new technologies into the classroom requires a lot more planning than I originally anticipate, and it is never as easy as the techno-evangelists pretend. I might steal some of your approach.

Last spring, I required all my into-literary-theory students to create and keep their own blog. They all had to post about once a week, essentially applying a new theoretical point to something they observed in the world (television, movie, news, whatever.) I blogged too, and found this a useful supplement to my lectures. But of course, the difficulty -- as you yourself anticipated -- was getting them to read what their class-mates wrote. My strategy was dividing them into groups of four or five, and requiring them to comment on the blogs of the other members of their group. My idea here was that a small group would be more manageable than a whole class.

What I like about your format -- just having one blog that everyone shares -- is that it creates an on-line community that they will all be looking at and creating together. That's really cool.

Right now, I'm thinking I might combine your approach and mine by having each small group share a blog together. So, instead of your strategy of one class blog and my strategy of individual blogs, I'm now thinking of four or five group blogs.

Meanwhile, here's my sense of how this worked last semester.

Some students really sparkled in this format. One student in particular was shy in class and just competent on the in-class essay exams -- competent, meaning she got A's, but her essays weren't especially interesting. However, her blogs were hilariously funny, always right on target, and rich in orignal content. Other students in the class loved her stuff too and said they learned a lot reading her blog.

Two of my students are still blogging!!! Though the content has shifted from cultural critique to more personal content.

Sometimes some of my students' blogs attracted the attention of completely random internet lurkers, which was interesting. The first time it happened, I explained to the students how to protect their privacy by never using their full name and keeping certain information off the blog-o-sphere.

So, in some ways, it was a success. However, although about a third of the class really liked it, about a third of the students merely saw it as a task, and another third of the students really hated that their blogs were public. They didn't have much to say, were struggling with the assigned reading, and didn't want their struggle to be revealed in a public space like that.

Ironcially, though, one of the students who said she didn't like doing the blog for the class is now one of the students who still blogs.

In sum, no format works for everyone, and I'll probably do it again next year, but only in my theory class, since the format of blogging itself raises theoretical questions relevant to the course.

To answer Ideas Man's astute question about grading, I will admit that it does feel odd at first. I obviously coulnd't post their grade on the blog. So, after some thought, what I ended up doing is this: at the end of each "unit" in the course (a unit being about three weeks, at the end of which there was an in-class essay exam), I would type up a little assessment that included the grade they got on each post and the reason why. Just a short paragraph. The assesment I wrote always followed the grading criteria clearly outlined the syllabus, and part of that criteria was that they not only post themselves but also comment on others' posts.

Anonymous said...

I love this idea. I've been trying to find a way to do something similar in my HS classes, but I'm afraid that regular access to the internet would be a usual excuse. Still, I'm curious. Does blogger tally the data for you or do you have to do all that business manually?

On a side note, U of Florida is now offering a PhD in online/distance education and technology. I finish my MAED in the spring and I'm contemplating an application. It just seems to be a logical outlet in the current environment (and it would be a worthy alternative to the spiral notebook journaling I have to muddle through now with my acting students).

Besides, If I can't afford to stop working long enough to get my MFA, I might as well be called Dr., right??

This is Jen, btw. For some reason, blogger won't let me use my livejournal id