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.