Using Blogs in the Classroom

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.[1]

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. [2] 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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. [3]

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?


[1] 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.

[2] Curious to see the sites I developed? I’ve got two: one for a Native American history course, and the other for a course on Media and Communications in American History.

[3] 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.

13 responses

  1. Thanks for this post, Joe–I agree with your rundown of the goals and strategies for a class blog. I do have one strategy that I used in an upper-level English class at Emory that worked pretty well and addresses the issues of time and student engagement you raise: I required a student respondent to each blog day, or thread. So blog posts would be due the day before class, and then a student (every student took one turn) would read all the posts and prepare a short written response to the issues raised by their peers: identifying common concerns, otherwise synthesizing, suggesting his or her own approach, raising questions, etc. The student then presented that response at the beginning of the next class as a jumping-off point for our discussion. This was an effective way of bringing the blog into the classroom (and solving the problem of students who didn’t read the blog before coming to class). I definitely had to think on my feet at times, depending on what the respondent decided to bring up, but that’s not anything new.

    • That’s a really good suggestion, Jenni. It would get around the problem I sometimes faced in commenting where I’d really have the same question to write on each of five or six posts. And put more of the onus on students to think and synthesize. Thanks for sharing it!

  2. Great post, Joe. I didn’t use a blog this past semester, but I did require each student submit a weekly reading response (with a target of 150 words and no more than 250). I designed the questions so that each provided exposure/practice of a specific type of reading, critical and/or historical. For example, one week we read two biographical essays about different founders written by the same historian and they were tasked with writing about how or if the author’s approach to the two subjects differed. Another week, they were tasked with trying to read a primary source from the perspective of a contemporary reader. And so on . . .

    As you noted with the blog, the benefits for them (according to a few students) were that it forced them to be more conscientious in doing their weekly readings and it got them thinking about the material in advance. For me, it was highly valuable because I could see where each student was at in a general academic sense and I could see (over the course of a few weeks) how they were processing and assimilating the readings and the course as a whole. Also, I would combine all the comments into a PDF, highlight interesting comments, and then bring it to class to use to spark discussion threads. It also allowed me to bring in a few of the quiet students and boost their confidence by praising one of their reading responses and asking them to expand upon it. At the start, I planned on offering comments to each post, but it was just too much. However, by having them printed out in front of me in class and referring to them multiple times in each meeting, the students saw that I was reading their responses and engaging with them, so the lack of a website response didn’t have them thinking that it was just a meaningless hoop to jump through or that all I was doing was just checking off that each had submitted their response.

    I used the forum in our internal server, which was incredibly clunky and outdated. However, I think, going forward, that I would be more inclined to just set up my own blog, like you have done. And your five challenges provide a lot of food for thought for when I do make the switch to using a blog.

    • I’m definitely a huge fan of having students do some writing before a discussion, whether that’s in blog posts or brief five-minute reflections at the start of class. It’s a great way to get them thinking and prepared to talk. Plus it lets me call on people (which I usually feel badly about) because I can ask them to say what they wrote down.

  3. Very valuable post, and also some very helpful comments. I used blogging in my Ohio History class last semester, and had students write a blog about the history of their hometown (or, if they were from out of state, pick an Ohio town). I offered a different prompt each week, designed to get them to connect the story of their town to the broader story of the state, region and nation. I was pretty happy with the result, but had all of the same issues you highlighted. I simply did not have the time to regularly and consistently comment on every post. The compromise I settled on was to select a few blog posts each week that I thought were exceptionally good, or raised interesting issues, bring them up on the classroom projection, and ask that student to speak about their post a bit. I tried to over the term make use of each students blog at least once. I also required them to comment on each others blogs (at least two comments a week, needed to comment on everyone else’s blog at least once during the semester). While the level of commentary was mostly superficial, I did find value in requiring this nonetheless. The ability and motivation of students at my university varies wildly. By forcing the weaker students to look at what the more motivated students were producing, I think it encouraged them to “step up their game” a bit. Last thing I have is a question for you and others, and that is the “privacy” concern. When I told my colleagues that I was requiring my students to blog on a public platform (I used WordPress) some raised an eyebrow about the wisdom/legality/ethics of exposing students work to an external audience. But none of the skeptics were able to articulate that concern, or at least convince me that I should restrict access. I have long believed that when you assign students projects that potentially have an audience beyond the classroom, many of them will be motivated to do better work–that they are excited to share that work with family, or in the case of hometown blogs, the mayor and other people in their hometowns. So I am reluctant to eliminate the public nature of these blogs, even if many of them are of inconsistent quality. What do others think about the “student privacy” issue when it comes to required blogging assignments?

    • Thanks for your comments, and I’m glad to see that I’m not alone in facing these issues.

      Your question about privacy is really important, I think. When I first used blogging, that was one of two reasons that I chose to stay in Blackboard (actually three—the others were the convenience of having everything in one place and the fact that I was not at that time familiar with other platforms such as WP).

      When I switched to WordPress, I first asked the university’s ETO about a policy (there is none), so I was in that sense free to do it. I then did a few things with the students themselves:

      First, I remind them that a username need not be their real name, so they can choose to blog under a pseudonym. The only condition is that the class needs to know who blogs under what name for the sake of discussions. So students cannot be completely anonymous, but can add a layer of security for themselves to the outside world.

      Second, WordPress has an option in its administrative menu that allows you basically to suppress search engine crawls (I think the term it uses is “discourage,” but I haven’t gone back to check). That way we can get some of the benefits of publicness, so that for example guest speakers have been able to hop into discussions about their presentations, without having lots of spam etc. (As a side note, I also find it a professional benefit to me to have the course sites up to share ideas and so on.)

      The colleague who presented with me teaches a course in the English Department on writing for online and social media, so she has students making very public connections with blogs, Twitter, etc. I may ask her directly to come weigh in with her thoughts on the question of public/private.

  4. I have assigned blogging in select upper division classes for approximately five-six years and encounter many of those same challenges. One thing I do to manage the workload is put them into groups. So during Week #6 only Group A is responsible for posting original work, but every week the entire class is responsible for commenting and interacting. Then the next week, Group B, etc. rotating through until everyone posts four-five times per semester. This helps cut down on duplication, although they aren’t necessarily writing collaboratively or working together to post. It isn’t group work, so much as an organizational strategy to keep things workable for me as the grader. I have found this works much better than having everyone post every week, and it gives the students a little more time to think about their posts as well. If anyone is interested, I can send around my assignment description. Contact me on Twitter for details, @hist_enthusiast.

  5. Great post! I also use blogs, and rather than have students comment on each others’ posts, I ask them to reference and cite a colleague’s post in their own. Sometimes they find it difficult to draw connections, but overall I’ve found that it’s a way to get them to think historiographically (looking for trends among different sources) in a low-stakes environment. Grading them is a big issue! I’ve ended up doing a check plus-check-check minus system, and then trying to work issues raised by student posts into the lecture, but I’m still very much working out the kinks…

  6. Caleb McDaniel tweeted this very useful link from the University of Oregon which includes a link to a consent form and also a link to an essay making the argument it is wrong and probably illegal to require any student public participation. A lot of food for thought here. But I find myself balking at the idea that the student has the right to opt out of sharing their work with fellow students in the class. Such an argument seems to me a threat to the very idea of classroom learning. Could a student claim a required in-class presentation, or even the very sharing of their ideas in class conversation violated their privacy?

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