This week Framingham State University held its annual faculty professional development day (known on campus by its chronological moniker, January Day). As part of the day, I and a colleague in the English department put together a session on using social media in the classroom. What follows is an approximation of my half of the discussion, which focused on using blogs in a classroom setting. With the semester looming for almost everyone (though not, apparently, Rachel), it’s a good time to think about course syllabi, readings, and assignments. These sessions are aimed broadly at generating discussion among the faculty across disciplines about pedagogy, so I tried less to talk about how innovative I am (in some ways, not in others) but rather to provide a narrative of my experiences and raise a few questions.
For me, using blogs in a course came from two impulses:
First, I wanted to increase engagement in my courses. I had taught several courses that used reading responses as part of the course. In one course, they were due 24 hours in advance of class meeting, which meant that I got a sneak peek as the instructor into what students were thinking, how they were approaching the readings, what questions they had. So in that sense, blogs that students would share was about a “more is better” approach. If I benefited from seeing these thoughts to prepare class, wouldn’t their colleagues as well?
Second, many of my courses involve a component of media history, and I want my students to be thinking about audience beyond just me (in my role as the instructor) as something useful for them as they consider what historical actors were doing. It’s useful, in other words, both for writing on its own terms and as it relates to course content (though I haven’t done it exclusively in media history courses).
Based on those considerations, I have now used blogging in several courses (all at the 300/400 level with majors; I have not done this assignment in the survey for a variety of reasons). In addition to the above, I have several goals:
- Give students practice with their writing (and I mean LOTS of practice)
- Invite them to think about course readings before coming to class, or to follow up afterwards
- Engage with their fellow students outside the classroom
- Ask more questions
The first time I did blogging as an assignment I used Blackboard, which was the CMS of choice at my then institution, as it is at Framingham State. My logic was essentially to keep variables at a minimum and to protect student privacy. After a semester of wrestling with the Bb blogging interface, I vowed never to return—so I now use WordPress.
From a technical perspective it works quite nicely and is relatively easy to set up. The local Educational Technology Office was a great help in creating a guide for students to sign up for accounts, and the service allows for the creation of free blogs and websites (the latter of which I used to set up materials to accompany the course.  In my Native American history course, I also used the blog as a way for students to present portions of research projects, which allowed them to share with one another the small slices they were examining of a very big chronology and geography.
Obviously my experience is not unique in using blogs as a way to get students writing and thinking. That said, I’ve faced five major challenges that I’m still working to resolve for myself.
- Time: Grading a blog takes time. I’ve adapted a rubric from several other teachers that allows me to assign a number grade very quickly. But I’ve found it to be incredibly time-consuming to offer comments. I tried this past semester to offer a question to provoke further thought to each post, which ate up a great deal of time. In many ways I think the instructor’s engagement is necessary (see #2), but you need to know it takes a lot of effort.
- Student engagement: One area I’ve tried to work very hard on is offering prompts for posts. I want students to engage deeply in a topic or a reading rather than simply offering a summary (you can see a sample of prompts here). As with so many other things about teaching, it’s all about the scaffolding. In addition, I have not had a great deal of success getting students to engage directly with one another. In one course I required comments over the course of the semester but was not generally happy with the results, and so avoided it to get other parts of the assignment working smoothly. In my next blogging experience I will likely move to a system where students write fewer posts (they were doing one each week) with lengthy comments required on other weeks.
- Technological fluency: I read ProfHacker, so I’m not unfamiliar with the challenges that we face in the classroom. Students are very fluent in using a wide range of social media, but they don’t necessarily have technical knowledge. That is, in addition to getting students to sign up for accounts, I also had to teach things like how to create a hyperlink or insert an image or video into a post. It doesn’t take forever, but in a few cases when students posted about their research, there were some pretty long URLs just dropped in as citations.
- Scheduling: I have usually wanted students to write about one post a week. The problem is that with classes that meet twice (or more!) each week, it hasn’t always made sense to do it the same way. My students have told me in evaluations that they value some consistency (I moved to a model of using one day as the default each week for the most recent semester), but it takes work to massage a course schedule so that posts work effectively every Tuesday, for example.
- Topic saturation: This is really related to the time management issue I raised above. Because I’ve had every student (in 20-student courses) writing every week, topics simply get overwhelmed with material, which contributes to making it more difficult for students to engage (and me, for that matter). It’s another reason that I will cut the number of posts the next time I assign blog posts. 
As I said at the outset, I don’t consider myself an expert or to have the final word. So let us know in the comments about what strategies you’ve found to be effective, and what challenges you’ve faced with a blogging assignment. Or, if you’ve never used one, what questions do you have?
 A word to the wise: I can get pretty snarky in my comments about Blackboard, which works just fine in most online forums like Facebook and Twitter. But Blackboard has more support among the general faculty population. Which is to say that my jokes didn’t go over that well. Take note as you talk to people on your campus.
 This, however, will not be the semester. I need a break from it to think about how to do it effectively, and I want to try some new types of assignments. So if any of my Spring 2014 students is reading this, you’re off the hook for a blog.