Teaching with Blogs

Good students all, the class was a seminar on “Designing for Effective Change” for the Honors Program,
but lacking experience in this sort of approach to instruction, the
students wrote to their conception of what I wanted to hear from them. I
can’t imagine a more constipated mindset for producing interesting
prose. For this class there was a need for them to unlearn much of their
approach which had been finely tuned and was quite successful in their
other classes. They needed to take more responsibility for their
choices. While I gave them a prompt each week on which to write, I also
gave them the freedom to choose their own topic so long as they could
create a tie to the course themes. Upon reading much of the early
writing, I admonished many of them to “please themselves” in the
writing. I informed them that they could not possibly please other
readers if they didn’t first please themselves. —Lanny Arvan, Inside Higher Ed

As Arvan points out, bloggers in their natural habitat don’t get
frequency requirements and minimum word lengths. They don’t get prompts,
either, so I very rarely assign them.

I have tried to maintain some semblance of the spontaneous nature of
blogging, and an awareness of the many different ways bloggers can blog,
by assessing blogs via portfolio.

Some students are punctual minimalists (dutifully answering a prompt,
and then stopping). Others are eccentric geniuses (who will occasionally
write long, thoughtful, passionate pieces, but won’t write much at all
unless they feel inspired).

Some prefer to blog after class (to post ideas they couldn’t formulate
on demand in a face-to-face setting), and others draft soliloquies in
MS-Word and copy-paste into the blogging form. Still others do their
best work in the comments attached their peers’ blog entries, or by
making lateral connections via hyperlinks.

While I do occasionally post specific prompts, in general all I ask is
that students blog SOMETHING for each assigned reading (usually a brief
quote from the reading, and a brief statement of what the student would
say about their chosen passage, if called on in class). 

Before class, I skim what students have posted, and thus can start class
by saying, “Jimmy and Sally disagree with each other about topic X.
Jimmy, tell Sally why you say X, and Sally, tell Jimmy why you say not
X.”  (Even if Jimmy and Sally haven’t discovered this disagreement, by
reading each other’s blogs, it’s likely that at least a handful of
students will be familiar with what either Jimmy or Sally wrote.)  I
might, during a lull in a discussion, call on a quiet student and ask,
“Whose blog entry did you comment on this week?”

Two to four times per semester (depending on how important the blogging
is to the course design), students submit a self-reflective blogging
portfolio, where they highlight blog entries that show various
blogosphere virtues such as depth, timeliness, outbound links,
interaction with peers, etc.

The students know about the requirement to produce at least some
examples of more-than-the-bare-minimum blogging, and a certain
percentage will coast through on a week-to-week basis and catch up right
before a portfolio is due.  But the action of catching up, and sorting
and organizing their portfolios, really helps them to synthesize what
they’ve learned during the previous unit.

The portfolio assignment page for my “Videogame Culture and Theory”
(online, 3-week J-term course) is on the following page. Below you’ll
see some comments from students asking about the assignment, and links
to the student portfolios themselves.

http://jerz.setonhill.edu/EL250/2010/01/portfolio_1/

To a certain percentage of students, perhaps even the majority, blogging
is just another kind of homework. But a handful in each class will feel
it’s worth a bit of extra effort, or even a lot of extra effort.  Even
the reluctant bloggers benefit from reading the interactions sparked by a
handful of enthusiastic bloggers.

And when a student wants to make up for missed face-to-face
class participation, the blogs mean that there’s a critical mass of
peer-peer interaction going on, so that it can be meaningful to say,
“Make up for your missed class discussion by posting a comment on every
student’s blog for the discussion you missed, and then write another
blog entry summarizing your participation in the discussions that ensued
from the comments you posted.”

It’s a fairly common experience for student blogs to attract comments
from the authors of textbooks the students are blogging about, or even
people who are involved in the current events the students mention. I
use those incidents to remind students that they aren’t simply writing
for me, that they have a real audience outside the classroom.