August 2, 2013

Using a Blog to Enhance Student Participation

By: in Teaching with Technology

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A sociology professor in an undergraduate introductory social problems course used a blog to “enhance student participation, engagement and skill building.” (p. 207) In the article referenced below, this professor shares her experiences of using this assignment with 263 students across four semesters.

She discusses three reasons why she opted for a blog assignment as opposed to the more traditional journal writing. Because blog writing occurs online, it is public, thereby giving students the opportunity to read one another’s ideas. Responding to one another engages them in the creation of knowledge. They aren’t just reporting their understandings to the professor, but “are presenting their own analysis in the context of analyzing and evaluating arguments posted by their peers.” (p. 209)

The second reason is related. The teacher’s role as evaluator is more holistic. She’s not correcting the same inaccuracies time after time, but doing it once in a summary evaluation provided when discussion of the topic is over. In fact, some of the correcting is actually done by students as they respond to one another. Finally, blogs can allow students anonymity. In this case students created a username that the teacher knew (so she could give credit for participation) but others in the class did not. And the teacher did not reveal identities when she discussed blog posts in class. She hoped this anonymity “would create a virtual space where students who are generally quiet or who might hold alternative or minority perspectives might feel more comfortable articulating their views….” (p. 210)

The structure of this blog assignment is pretty straightforward. Students post responses that connect material from assigned readings to current events. Current events have included the Virginia Tech shootings, Abu Ghraib Prison, the fall of Enron, childhood obesity, and events surrounding Hurricane Katrina. To obtain credit, students must post to the class blog by 7 p.m. the night before the readings and issues will be discussed in class. They must write a minimum of 300 words, address the topic of the week, and reflect on the ideas of at least one other blogger. Casual writing is fine, but the instructor emphasizes that this is an academic assignment and entries should be carefully composed and respectful. “The blogs are a place to ask questions about complex and controversial issues and to solicit assistance in making sense of authors’ findings or arguments. If effective meaning-making is to occur, a level of decorum and respect is required.” (p. 210)

The instructor prints blog posts and uses them during class discussion of the topic. She might highlight particularly insightful responses, inaccurate interpretations, good questions, or lively exchanges. At the end of the course students revisit one blog post of their choice “and consider how the students’ verbal exchange on that post shapes their understanding of the particular social issues under discussion.” (p. 211) This critique is part of their final exam.

Student response to this blog assignment has been overwhelmingly positive. Ninety-one percent recommended that the use of blogs be continued. Students noted and the teacher confirmed that this assignment kept students up with the reading. Beyond that, student comments indicate they value the blog assignment because it helped them understand course content and improved their critical thinking and writing skills.

More than a quarter of the students commented on the benefits of anonymity. They felt they could honestly report what they felt or believed. The instructor noted that several students who remained mostly quiet in class participated at length on the blog, writing strong, well-reasoned arguments on the topics being discussed.

The teacher found that having the blog responses before discussing the topic in class enabled her to assess how well students understood the issue. “I could then use class time more productively to address confusion and/or substantively build on the ideas presented in the blog discussion.” (p. 211) As these experiences and the feedback reveal, this blog assignment successfully connected students with course readings, current issues, and, as the author notes, “even more importantly, with each other.” (p. 214)

Reference: Pearson, A. F. (2010). “Real problems, virtual solutions: Engaging students online.” Teaching Sociology 38 (3), 207–214.

Reprinted from A Blog Enhances Participation, The Teaching Professor, 26.6 (2012): 6

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Comments

David Lambert | August 2, 2013

Thanks for these insights. Your article came today just as I began rethinking my course for our start date in early September. I have had each student use a personal wiki page (not on the internet but which could be viewed by other class members) for reactions. But your case for anonymity is a good on. I may well adopt your approach.

Lisa | August 13, 2013

Jason U. Kim, a PhD. candidate and instructor in Ethnic Studies and History at UC Berkeley, has written an excellent blog post on his use of Twitter in the classroom. It really is a great post; check it out here: http://jasonukim.wordpress.com/2011/08/13/tweetol

Kim points to Twitter as a teaching tool for many of the same reasons discussed in this post on blogging. He describes it is a "discussion enhancer," or as a means for instructors to get a "far better idea of how to facilitate the real world discussion that will take place afterwards, meaning that Twitter is a kind of warm up or opening act for the in-class discussion." I find it interesting that both blogs and Twitter could better prepare not only students, but instructors for class discussion. And I wonder if using Twitter as a pre-discussion platform, rather than a blog, might decrease the marking & reading load for instructors who have other writing assignments on the syllabus, though it would provide less opportunity for students to receive feedback on their writing.

Kim also points out that Twitter, as a hyperlink-friendly and even hyperlink-dependent mode of communication, can get students to make connections with the course material beyond the classroom: "Twitter broadens out the discussion to a level you cannot achieve through traditional discussion. The best tweets are the kinds that share information via links, images, YouTube videos, etc., where you are directed to a related source you weren’t aware of."

Thanks for another excellent post, Dr. Weimer–I greatly appreciate your highly readable reviews of current research & findings in the field of teaching & learning. I especially appreciate the explanation of how anonymity was maintained by the prof for the blog assignment–a very useful tip.

Lisa | August 13, 2013

Here's another example of how blogging might be introduced to course curriculum: http://photosponse.wordpress.com/. The Photosponse is a collection of blog posts & photos by students in a third-year English lit course (specifically 18th century lit).

In this example, the prof has taken advantage of current technology to get students thinking about the rise of technology in the 18th century, and how this affected people's views of the natural world, the body, and the globe. I really like, too, that the prof had students write a response to a photo they themselves had taken–many innovators in education introduce different social media platforms into their courses, in large part because social media is a way in which students are already engaging in public discussion. But cell phones have made photographers and documentarists out of us all, too. Can we not bring this into the classroom, as well?

For a better description of The Photosponse project, here's a trasncript of their "about" page:

"This year, in English 365: Eighteenth-Century Lit 1 — at UPEI — we tried to incorporate various technologies into the class. The class met “face to face” just like other classes, but all the readings were available on a private class blog. In this private blog, students also posted comments, thought, and engaged in discussions about the texts outside of class time. We made use of Twitter — and students completed a variety of “twitter essays” using the hashtag #e365. One of the major assignments was to contribute to public knowledge by choosing a trial from the Old Bailey and providing an analysis of it in a public blog on crime (here);
Another assignment was to choose a text or group of texts we studied and respond to those texts in a visual form (accompanied by some explanation) — these are the “photosponses” — originally posted on the private class blog, but too good, I think, to keep private. Enjoy:)"

Fantastic, eh?

Visham | September 28, 2013

The use of blogs in an educational setting promotes interaction between students and teachers or students and students, offering a mode of interaction more conducive to improved student and teacher relationships, active learning, higher order thinking, and greater flexibility in teaching and learning. As Professor Weimer, I have also used blogs (http://visham.edublogs.org/) to help improve critical thinking, writing skills, increase participation, creation of knowledge and assess how well the students understood the relevant class materials.


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