The Great Student Blogging Experiment: Some Results

Early last fall, I wrote about my plans to add a fairly elaborate blogging component to my upper-level Latin American history course. This semester-long blogging assignment was, I hoped, a way for me to replace the “traditional” research paper capstone assignment,which I believed had become at best stale, and at worst, counterproductive of the goals I had for my courses. I wasn’t the only one questioning the standard research paper assignment or its structure; in particular, a great, provocative article on the subject by Rebecca Schuman affirmed my thought process and provided the impetus for me to radically rethink the research and writing components of my upper-level courses. So off we went. 

 

So how did it go? Now that the entire academic year is over, I’ve finally had the time to go back over my notes and journal to do some deeper thinking about the assignment and its degree of success. Here are the decisions I made about the blogging component going into the fall term and my reflections after several months’ space to re-examine and re-evaluate.

Students would, for the course’s principal project, create a website organized around a particular theme in Latin American history since 1500.  I did this to allow for some choice in topics, to hopefully ensure a fair amount of diversity in students’ work, to help my students find a research area that held some deeper personal relevance or interest for them. Given the wide chronological and geographic sweep of the course, I wanted to have students posting as we moved through various “units” of Latin American history since 1500; a theme to provide focus and consistency seemed necessary.  My class chose a wide variety of themes around which to build their blogs. An Education major chose to look at educational controversies (e.g., religious v. secular education); one of my students with a deep interest in his Catholic faith chose to look at the role of Catholicism in key Latin American events; a student from the rural part of our state wanted to look at cities and urbanization in Latin American history. Other blogs examined women’s history, indigenous peoples, and foreign relations/global contexts. These were the types of connections and areas of focus I was hoping to see. The students’ freedom to choose their thematic structure did indeed create greater enthusiasm and interest, which was reflected throughout the research and writing that went into their posts.

We would create the online space immediately, and begin creating content in the course’s first module. This was a crucial decision; I had the fortune of being able to schedule the class to meet in a computer lab, so we were able to create accounts and start building during the first few class sessions. I assigned a practice post due the second week of class; I assessed it as I would for every subsequent post, but I told the students I wouldn’t count the score in their final averages. I wanted a low-stakes way to get them writing and experimenting with a format that was, for some of them, brand new. We took a class period and workshopped their posts with both my feedback and peer review. In retrospect, this may have been the most effective part of the blog structure, as it really set a tone for the project, underscored its importance for the course, and allowed students to take risks in a structured, supported space.

There would be a set of basic expectations for the site’s content but, more importantly, room for flexibility and creativity. I provided students with a Blog Rubric I would use to assess their posts before we even got started; it was a part of the course syllabus. The rubric, I think did a good job establishing the basic expectations for the substance of the research and writing I wanted them to engage in. My chief aim was to convey that blogging could–and in this case, should–be an endeavor that embraced serious thought and research for a wider external audience. I wanted students to take advantage of the digital format to include things, like multimedia content, that weren’t as easy to do in a traditional research paper. In future iterations of this assignment, I want to involve the students more in creating at least a few of the rubric’s criteria and make the standards more collaborative. I’ve come to believe that the discussions involved in setting expectations and criteria can be extraordinarily useful for students to sharpen their metacognitive skills.

We would use WordPress to build our sites. We used WordPress.com (the free side of WordPress), as it allows for more customization. Moreover, since so much of the web runs on WordPress, I wanted students to develop proficiency with it; this was an important non-content outcome for the course. None of my students had any WordPress experience, but they all picked it up faster than I anticipated (using class time to workshop their practice posts really helped with this). They played around with custom themes, used shortcodes to embed content, and built a strong, basic grasp of the platform. Overall, I was pleased with their performance here.

This project would be a great way to integrate Information Literacy and research strategies into my course in ways that would serve my students well, regardless of major. Here, too, the course blogs largely accomplished what I wanted. I had built research source and citation components into the rubric, so these expectations were explicit. My institution has an embedded librarian program (and this is an option well worth exploring at yours, if you don’t already have one), and the librarian attached to my course did an amazing job helping my students navigate things like fair use, Creative Commons, the various permutations of digital research and attribution, as well as the more basic content-specific research skills. Less than half of my students were History majors, so the class had a pretty wide range of research experiences. The blog–with its cycle of post/feedback/post–was a particularly effective assignment for me to meet students where they were and build from there.

Not everything was unicorns and rainbows, however. The course blogging varied in quality, and some of the students didn’t quite make it to where I hoped they would in demonstrating a critical approach to research and analysis. Some of the work also failed to integrate the particular theme into the larger historical context we were studying, which was a particularly thorny issue, as ability to contextualize is one of the areas I really emphasize. A majority of the issues here, though, were products of my own decisions and occasional pedagogical lapses, I think. I scheduled one big post for each chronological unit of the course, but I think two smaller posts per unit (or something along those lines) would have worked better. We didn’t blog frequently enough for the post-assessment-post cycled to work as effectively as it could. As the semester went on and things got busier, I struggled to assess the posts in a timely enough manner, which reflected a general lag in my grading turnaround for the course. It was, frankly, the worst semester I’ve had in terms of returning student work and feedback in a timely manner. I strive for a maximum of one week. Last fall, I consistently missed that goal (and as someone who prides himself on a good, effective grading workflow, this was really frustrating). As a result, in addition to students not having enough time to incorporate my feedback into subsequent posts, the blogs didn’t remain in the foreground of the course like they should have. And without that regular presence, it didn’t inform our class work and discussions of course content in the ways it could have, which was disappointing.

The next time around, I’m also going to increase the use of student collaboration on the expectations and the frequency of peer feedback on posts. I was happy with the way this worked for the first practice post, and want to keep that same buzz going throughout the semester. I’m considering more writing workshop days built into the class schedule, for example, or perhaps having students partner with one another as “lead reviewers” on each others’ blogs. Increasing collaboration, adjusting the scheduling, and ensuring quicker feedback are the areas I’ve identified for improvement the next time around.

Despite the areas where I came up short, the assignment still worked basically as well as the traditional research paper. As with papers, I got some websites that were stellar, and some that fell short of expectations. But the potential for even better is there, and it’s maddeningly close. Weaving blogging throughout the semester proved far more effective in building research and analytical skills, I think, than a one-shot-at-the-end research paper, no matter how effectively I’d scaffolded its components throughout the term. And I’m convinced that increasing the frequency of posts and the speed of good feedback can open up even more potential for doing so. So the results of the Great Student Blogging Experiment this year were mixed, but with more positive then negative signs. The potential is there for this type of component to be an amazing way for students to research and write in an interesting, collaborative way for a wide audience. I’m going to be doing my damndest to see if we can meet it.

[Image via GIPHY]

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5 thoughts on “The Great Student Blogging Experiment: Some Results”

  1. I find this interesting. When I read you wee doing away with papers, I was VERY skeptical, especially because the idea was to use a blog to replace it.

    Reading your umm, blog, I found myself intrigued by the idea. I really view your blog idea as more of a “serial research paper” rather than a “weblog.” (the origin of blog)

    I just wonder if you are really going to get the results you want with the challenges of today’s students. I don’t think they are probably all that different than when I was your student… seven years ago. (YIPE!) I remember quite distinctly many students who couldn’t write a paper to save their lives, let alone their grade points. I didn’t read the number or papers you did of course, but I offered my help to a few dozen students in my three years at Grand View and I found that most papers were little more than regurgitations of facts, bereft of meaningful analysis or critical thought beyond the most obvious points. I counseled several students that their papers were obvious plagiarism. If you still have a good portion of students who cannot really write a paper, do not know how to research, data mine bibliographies, structure an argument etc. How will they write a blog that would necessitate these same skills as well as keep that up in a serial format?

    I’m not saying I think it’s a bad idea, but I wonder if more choice wouldn’t be in order? Blog, term paper etc. I didn’t go into classroom teaching after leaving Grand View, to my disappointment. I returned to the business world and I have trained oh maybe a hundred or so employees in the 5 1/2 years I’ve been back in the corporate learning environment. What have I found? That very few people can research, analyze or critically think. Those skills, along with time management and creating effective written communication are probably the most used skills by me on a daily basis.

    I appreciate you trying to bring academia up to a more modern concept. I just wonder what it really teaches them? Web design? Good History research? Academic Skills?

  2. Kevin,

    a few thoughts on your experience with having students blog on their research:

    – It’s great to have students create something that documents their work, and I do think that learning how to use a blogging tool is worthwhile (though I probably wouldn’t go as far as to be super technical about the shape of the posts .. and I’d be reluctant to spend a face to face meeting on learning how to set up an account — students could easily learn this by watching a video).
    – The fact that it’s online and that students can use media to support their thinking adds to the appeal and emphasizes that supporting evidence can come in many forms. For some students, this can be really inspiring, though I suspect that others may find it to be a lot of complicated work. It also adds to the reviewer’s workload, because working through multimedia potentially requires more diverse kinds of attention.
    – The blog as an ongoing low stakes conversation is a *fantastic* way to get students into the habit of combining thinking and writing, as it helps them overcome their mostly oral habits and lowers the pain of writing. I would want to question whether this should be in a formal style, as I believe the benefits of having a conversation is that you can take risks, think out loud, elaborate, reflect, question, ponder etc. and feel that someone is listening and appreciating (if the response assignment is set up productively; see next point).
    – If you’re aiming for a learner-centered classroom, I believe you should refrain from responding to every post yourself … and foster communication *among* your students instead. My instinct would be to create diverse blogging groups, so that students can view their own research interest in a wider context. It may, for instance, be more interesting to think about religious education and feminism than about religious/secular education and Catholicism.
    -As to the response assignment: I recently took a class (in instructional design), and we were required to follow a certain pattern when responding to our colleagues’ blog posts: we spoke about the strengths of the post, we asked for clarification or raised questions about parts that didn’t seems clear to us, and we made suggestions for improvements & further thinking. The two last parts can happen primarily through intelligent questioning. Personally, I find stable groups work best, but there may be reasons to shake up groups once in a while.
    -While blog posts could be used to reflect elaborate etc., I believe that they can also be an excellent collection of materials to be *synthesized* in a more “formal” research paper (multimedia or not), but this paper is more of an endpoint, the result of thinking and sorting through the material as they were collected throughout the semester.

    I do not think that doing away with essays is a particularly good idea. Leamnson, quoting Ong, notes that in literary cultures “literacy introduced an abstract, inductive, and syllogistic way of thinking” (p. 27) and that highly complex problems and issues require a sustained effort to put thinking into language. If we do away with formal writing, we will affect the way thinking happens in our society.

    For the productive use of informal writing and reading assignments as well for ideas on how to encourage critical thinking, I have found John Bean’s “Engaging Ideas” (second edition, 2011) very useful. On orality, writing, thinking and language (which lie, I believe, at the heart of students’ difficulties with writing in sophisticated ways) Robert Leamnson’s book “Thinking about Teaching and Learning” (1999) is extremely intelligent and insightful if a bit bleak at times. On language use (also an issue with writing) Leamnson quotes extensively from Walter Ong’s “Orality and Literacy: The Technoligizing of the World” (1982). I have not read this last one yet, but I sense that there are interesting insights into why students find it increasingly difficult to write and think in ways appropriate to the complex issues we ask them to consider. The fact that students find it difficult, does not mean we should do away with it, it just requires us to think more deeply about where to pick them up intellectually.

    Blogging is a wonderful tool, but we need to think about how it integrates with other kinds of thinking, producing, debating etc. we ask our students to do in the classroom.

  3. Thank you for sharing this innovative approach on your blog! I am a nursing professor and we require the students to engage in frequent self-reflection during their degree – in particular, about their clinical experiences. While I’m not sure that they would want to post these publically or even share them with other students, your experience makes me think alternatives to a formal paper might be useful. They could have a private blog or an online diary using a site like Penzu. My biggest concern would be patient confidentiality. They are not supposed to mention patients by name anyway but anything online has the potential to be seen by a large number of people very quickly.

    I agree with the comment above that academic papers should not be done away with completely. I have a broad liberal arts and science background and the essay courses in English literature and theory and criticism that I took were some of the most challenging and useful courses in terms of my intellectual growth. Blogging was not very common in the early 2000s but I would often have a notebook full of handwritten notes and quotes as I was reading and collecting ideas for my final papers. I think I blog could be used in a similar fashion.

    Looking forward to your next post!

    1. Thanks, Emily! I’m glad you liked the post. The nursing department at our institution has students doing a lot of reflecting via journaling and other writing, and they see that as an integral part of their curriculum-and I agree with them! ☺

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