Saturday, December 20, 2008

Blogging in the Classroom, Revisited

As promised in my earlier post on this topic (which you can read at Blogging in the Classroom, originally posted in September), I'm back to report on my pedagogical experiment with blogging this semester. You can go back and read the earlier post if you want to know my justifications for trying this, so I won't recount them all here. However, if you're interested in seeing what the actual blogs looked like at the end of the semester, here are the links to my 3 courses: Existentialism (mostly upperclassmen and mostly majors, though I had several sophomores), Power (an topic-oriented Intro to Philosophy Seminar restricted to first- and second-year students, so mostly non-majors), and Search (this is the third semester of my college's three-semester "core humanities" course sequence, the full title of which is "The Search for Values in Light of Western History and Religion"; the third semester spans from the Renaissance to the present and students are able to choose a "track" for their final Search course, so this class was the "philosophy" track of Search). Although there are a few things that I would do differently, I have to say that the experiment as a whole was a success, and I intend to implement it again in my courses next semester.

I handed out a narrative evaluation form in each of my classes at the end of the semester that was mainly designed to measure the students' experience with blogging in the classroom. One of the questions asked: "If you had it to do all over again, would you rather blog or write traditional (short or long) papers?" Out of a total 58 students, only 3 reported that they would not want to blog again. About 8 or 9 of them reported that they might prefer to write papers in addition to blogging, but those students unanimously spoke in positive terms about their blogging experience. Of the remaining students, the overwhelming majority of them were major fans of their class blogs.

But, I know that you're probably wondering about specifics. So, let's start with the negatives:
First, there were a lot of students who had quite a bit of anxiety early on in the semester about exposing their writing to the entire class. So, getting the blog activity going was a bit of a challenge at the start. I had anticipated this phenomenon and I wasn't that worried about it for a couple of reasons: (1) students were required to blog as a (significant) part of their grade, so I knew they would get over their anxieties soon enough if they didn't want to fail the class, and (2) one of the advantages of the blogs, in my mind, was that it forced students to overcome exactly this anxiety. That is, I wanted them to experience both the anxiety and the gratifications of the peer-review process, since I know that this is one particularly effective way of improving both one's writing and one's thinking. LESSON LEARNED: Sometimes negatives are positive.

Second negative: each of the class blogs had stretches of time during the semester when the activity was minimal. There was a mad flurry of activity just before the midterm and the final, mostly by the students who were trying to make sure that their "required" number of posts/comments were satisfied in time to count towards their grade. On the other hand, there were also mad flurries of activity when someone posted a particularly interesting/insightful/provocative entry, so I feel confident that even when the activity was slim, the students were still regularly checking in on their blogs. The problem here was that I gave students very loose and non-specific requirements for their blog participation (1 post and 4 comments before the midterm, 1 post and 4 comments after the midterm). My reason for this was that I wanted them to post/comment when they were interested and had something interesting to say, not just when they were "required" to complete an assignment. (Incidentally, this is one of the reasons I think we professors read so many bad papers-- students write much better when they have some internal motivation for writing about whatever they're writing about. That's what I wanted them to do on the blog.) LESSON LEARNED: Next time, I think I'm going to have to concede the reality that some students just need assignments. When I do this again, I'll make sure that each week at least one student is required to post.

Third negative: It's much more difficult to evaluate/grade blog-writing than it is to evaluate/grade traditional papers. Although the overwhelming majority of the blog posts/comments were quite good, in my view, I still found myself struggling between grading the students on the content of their participation and just grading them on whether or not they comepleted the required participation. Then, there was also the problem of students who did extra posts/comments... I mean, in a regular class, I wouldn't generally give out extra credits to students who independently wrote and handed in unassigned papers. (Though, to be honest, that would never happen, of course!) Students-- especially students at my college-- really crave feedback, and on the end-of-the-semester blog evaluation form, many of them remarked that they wished I had participated more on the blogs. (Incidentally, I made every effort to not do this... my reason being that one of the things I wanted them to learn was how to have critical and engaging intellectual conversations without my saying who was right and who was wrong.) Finally, even though they were repeatedly warned about this, some of the students reverted to very non-formal writing on the blogs. Of course, blogs are set up to be conversational and I was okay with that as long as the "conversational" writing was relegated to the comments section... but, alas, it sometimes creeped in more than I would have liked. So, LESSON LEARNED #1: Next time, I will probably "grade" at least the first "post" by each student in the same way that I would grade a short paper. And I will definitely reinforce (more forcefully) what I expect in terms of the formality of their blog-writing. (The good thing is that next time I will have my former class blogs to refer to in order to make these things clear.) And, LESSON LEARNED #2: I will participate on the blogs next time, at least in the first half of the semester. This won't be a hard adjustment to make, since it was often very difficult for me to refrain from jumping into some of their more interesting conversations.

Of course, there were lots of postives about blogging in the classroom as well. So, let's move on.

First positive: On the whole, my experience is that the quality of students' writing (and what they were writing about) was heads-and-shoulders above what I've gotten in the past. I attribute this largely to the fact that they got to write about things that interested them, and not only things that I assigned them to be interested in. But I also think that their writing was better because of peer pressure. I notified each of my classes that their blogs would be viewable to anyone in the world (though only members of the class were authorized to post or comment). So, not only did they have to worry about embarrassing themselves in front of their classmates, but also in front of any-old-body who happened across their little corner of the blogosphere. LESSON LEARNED: Raise the stakes for students and they rise to the challenge.

Second positive: One of my hopes for the blogs was that they would extend our conversations with each other outside of the class, so that my courses were more organically integrated into the students' lives. In that way, the blogs were a total success. On the end-of-the-semester evaluations, several of the students remarked that they were going to miss the class blogs, and a couple of the blogs have even seen activity after the official end of the semester. Also, the in-class conversations in my courses this semster were of a much higher quality, since they spent so much time outside of class talking with each other. Students emerged as real personalities with identifiable commitments and ideological persuasions, and they were able to anticipate each other's possible objections in our seminar discussions. They also raised the bar for each other-- it was a disadvantage for any one of them to come to class without having stayed abreast of the conversation outside of class. In short, they took on the "life" of real intellectuals. LESSON LEARNED: Philosophy can happen in our students' lives more than 3 hours a week.

Third positive: I really feel like my students came to understand philosophy as something applicable to the "real world." One of the advantages of blog-writing is that one can insert links, videos, images, etc. with relative ease. Imagine if your student handed in "papers" with hot-links and images! Well, that's what I got! I think it's really important for us philosophy professors to bring our discipline into the same century that the students live... which, incidentally, is the 21st (not the 20th). For whatever reason, blogging prompted students to think about philosophy in combination with the virtual and real world in which they are most comfortable (and invested), and the result of this fortunate combination was that students were able to see connections and applications of philosophical ideas in ways that often escape them. LESSON LEARNED: We're not dead yet!

Let me say, by way of conclusion to this too-long report, that I also benefited immensely from this experience. I don't think that, in general, my students view me as a stodgy, out-of-touch, dated professor... but there was something about the integration of blogging into the classroom that I think made me more accessible and human to them. They came by my office more often, they stopped me on campus to chat more often, they genuinely wanted to talk philosophy with me much, much more often. (And, not insignificantly, more of them declared themselves philosophy majors!) But, perhaps most importantly, I feel like I knew them better this semester. I mean, I came to know them as young people with real and identifiable ideas, commitments, struggles, questions, and hopes. For what was originally a half-baked experiment in pedagogy, that's one very fine pay-off.


Brooke said...

I am so glad you did this! It may be 1-2 years before I have my own university class, but I definitely plan to use blogging with future students. Knowing what worked and what didn't is helpful, so thanks for taking the bullet on this one! ;)

We did something similar to this in my Research Methods class a few years ago. We had to make weekly posts to our internal class server (OnCourse), reflecting on the readings and responding to others' posts throughout the course of the semester. I agree - it does raise the stakes in terms of writing quality and discussion participation. As you mentioned, to do it on a blog would be so much better - not only because of the potential for a wider audience beyond the class, but also because of the ability to insert hyperlinks, video, photos, etc.

I'm a fan!

DOCTOR J said...

Thanks, Brooke. I'm happy to be the guinea pig (at least in this instance).

I think for those of us who are really, at heart, "technophiles," the blog-format has an added advantage-- that is, we're more accustomed to reading things online anyway, so there is a sense in which keeping up with students' writing on their blogs just feels "natural" to me. My experience was that it felt very much like having class with the students every day, which (if I actually had to do that) might not in itself be something I would choose, but which (because of the blog) gave me a lot more time with them.

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

About how many students were in each class?

DOCTOR J said...

Ideas Man, I had 25 in the Existentialism class, 17 in the Power class, and 18 in the Search class.

Christopher Long said...

Dr. J:

I am really happy to hear about your use of blogging in the classroom. I have had great success with this and continue to look for ways to improve.

I gave a presentation about this at a conference on e-Learning that was held here at Penn State. Here is the link to the post on which the presentation was based: Podcasting and Blogging the Liberal Arts

Next semester I am thinking about having one blog for the entire class with each student set as an editor who can create posts and comment. (Last time I required that students create their own blog.) In any case, I discuss some issues related to how I graded the posts and what sorts of assignments I had.

I look forward to hearing more and continuing the discussion of how to integrate blogging and other technologies into the philosophy classroom.

I agree that the blog offers us excellent resources for relating the philosophical ideas we discuss in the classroom to the concrete world in which we live.

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