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