Teaching with Blogs

Tomorrow at noon, I am going to be speaking about blogging and teaching at a “brown bag” workshop at the Digital Media Center at Rice. This post contains a rough outline of what I plan to say, as well as links to resources that I will mention at the workshop.

My comments will fall into three categories:

  1. I’ll survey how I’ve actually used blogs in my past courses, to give a sense of the variety of possible formats available with a fairly low amount of technical know-how.
  2. I’ll share some general lessons and tips I think I’ve learned from these experiences.
  3. I’ll briefly talk about the technical side of setting up blogs and maintaining them over the course of a semester, focusing particularly on how to use the WordPress MU installation, Blogs @ Rice University.

Here is my slide presentation for the talk.

Part I: Examples

[PLEASE NOTE: Some of the blogs linked below can only be viewed by users on the Rice University campus network.]

First, let me summarize briefly how I’ve personally used blogs in the classroom. This is not an exhaustive list, and some of these examples work better as warnings than as models, but these illustrate how many permutations are possible even within fairly narrow parameters. I’ll talk tomorrow in greater depth about what worked and what didn’t.

Early Attempts, Mixed Results

Later Attempts, Better Results

  • American Radicals and Reformers (2008), an upper-level history seminar. (Look for explanation of blogging assignments in two places, under “Blog Post” and under “Seminar Contributions.”)
  • American Radicals and Reformers (2010), an upper-level history seminar. (See explanation of comments assignment here.)
  • Legendary Americans (2009), a freshman seminar with the most complex blog set-up I’ve used. In addition to a main course blog where I posted reading questions and general announcements, students contributed to small group blogs (see the links under “Links”). On these group blogs, students made one weekly post responding to one of my posted reading questions and one weekly post reporting on progress with a group project they were working on. (See assignment discussion here.)

In these case studies, using a blog fulfilled various functions, ranging from course management to student discussion and the monitoring of semester-long projects. These blogs varied in terms of how much direction I gave in my prompts, and in how much posting students were expected to do. This list doesn’t contain examples of other possible uses of blogs in the classroom, like having each student create his/her own blog to do free writing or journal-ing, or to create stand-alone webpages.

Part II: Reflections and Tips

These tips may read like directives, but they are really things that I’m telling myself as I reflect on these varied experiences. The “you” in these sentences is primarily me.

  1. A blog is not a silver bullet for sparking student participation. Don’t assume students will be familiar with the medium, or that they will automatically talk more in a blog setting, or that they will “check in” regularly without good reasons for doing so.
  2. A blogging assignment is a type of writing assignment. The same sorts of guidelines that make a writing assignment good (i.e., specific prompts, clear expectations, etc.) apply to blogging assignments.
  3. The more you engage with the blog (posting, commenting, flagging good posts, mentioning posts in classroom discussion) the more students will engage with the blog. If you leave the blog alone and seldom make an appearance, students will tend to do the same.
  4. The compelling reasons for using a blog depend on what learning objectives you want to advance, so be sure you have a clear objective in mind before assigning blog posts. Would another type of assignment work better or as well?

For me, blogs help advance my objective of teaching students to write. The virtue of having them respond to readings online–where other students or non-class members can read what they write–is that it encourages them to think about audience, clarity, and the use of evidence. Writing only for me, the Audience of One (aka The Grader), has its advantages, too. But if I want to teach general habits of good communication that will “export” well to other settings, then blogging has particular virtues. When prompts are specific, expectations are clear, and my engagement with the blog is sufficient, online posts and comments also serve as excellent springboards for in-class discussions.

Part III: Technical Stuff

At the workshop I’ll talk a little bit about using WordPress MU and will even set up an example blog that will appear here once we’ve made it. A few things I want to highlight are: how to manage Users, how to create and use “Categories,” how to change Themes, and how to manage widgets.

I’ll also discuss the management of “privacy” settings. In past Rice courses where I have allowed the blog to be seen by anyone on the Internet, I have asked students to sign a Blog Consent Form (PDF).

Finally, I’ll have some suggestions for how to manage your workflow if you use a Course Blog, including a brief introduction to RSS readers. (Here’s a post I’ve provided to students explaining RSS.)

For some other examples of “how to” posts and technical tips that I’ve given students, click here.

Other Recommended Reading

Suggestions about other resources? Things I’ve neglected to talk about? Questions? Please add them in the comments!


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