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]