Gall’s Law dictates we should create complex systems by beginning with simple ones. It is observed most frequently in certain approaches to developing computer applications, where the task is brought down to its simplest component to create a working system, and then developed as an iterative process. The essential element of the scholarly endeavor is engaging in texts and discussing them. This is equally true for the toddler and the learned professor. If there is a technology that can enhance this process and can be provided to as many people as possible with little difficulty or expense, we should use it.
Intended and Unintended Consequences of Classroom Blogging
I started blogging with my undergraduate courses before I knew there was a word for it. It was the fall of 1999, and although my university provided listservs and forums for faculty who were interested, they tended to obscure discussion by threading conversations. Conversations quickly went off-topic. I used my rudimentary programming skills to create a site where we could post readings or other interesting bits and comment on them. The outcome for the course was far better than I had hoped for and, as a result, I have used blogs in nearly every course since.
This original blog met my needs by encouraging discussion that focused on the texts we were reading and watching, which continued over from our face-to-face meetings to the online world. My intention was to break down the artificial temporal walls that kept thought constrained to the meeting times of the course, but the forum had also, unexpectedly, broken down a lot of other walls.
First, students were much more aware of each other’s work, which had a pronounced effect on the quality of that work. They were perfectly willing, as they told me candidly, to turn in poor work to the professor, but they were embarrassed for their peers to see anything but their best work.
Second, I had made no effort to restrict the site or the discussion to students in my class or my university. On several occasions, I have had students from other courses, and from other universities, virtually “sitting in” on the course blog because they found the content or the discussion interesting. In a surprisingly large number of cases, we have heard responses from the authors of the work we are reading who step in and respond to the discussion uninvited. This can be a bit of a shock to students who tend not to think of these scholars as real people, or at least as people who would be interested in students’ ideas.
Third, having realized that the course is unconstrained, I have been pleasantly surprised by students who, without any structure of reward, contribute evidence from outside the readings in order to bolster their arguments in discussions. They might not link to the most credible sources, but that provides a learning opportunity in itself.
Finally, and in large part because of the outcomes above, the comments themselves become an important part of the text of a course, worthy of continuing discussion and commentary. In the best courses I become superfluous, first among equals. Blogs alone do not do this, of course, but by leveling the playing field between the experts we read, course instructors, teaching assistants, and students, we all became “participants.”
There is no particular pedagogy baked in to blogging, but there are affordances that can be leveraged more or less effectively. Blogs add very little value if they are not connected to the outside world in interesting ways and allowed to shape expectations and teaching. Those who have tried course blogging and had it fail have largely been those who simply “add blogging” without making it central to the organization of the course. In particular, this seems to be the case of “blogging” tools that are placed in the context of traditional learning management systems. Blogging is a disruptive technology, and so one needs to be ready to guide that disruption in positive directions.
As a result of these experiences with blogging, I have adjusted my expectations of students. Most course objectives and rubrics are designed for sufficiency, not excellence. I have a single requirement for an A in most of my courses at this point: teach the rest of the class something about the subject matter we would not already know. There is no single path toward this objective; it is, by definition, a surprise to me. Students have been trained that they are in training, and that this is a game with just one possible win state: an A at the end of the semester. This idea is enforced by multiple choice exams, and by rubrics of assessment that are linear and one-dimensional, clearly indicating what is sufficient at each grade level. Sufficiency is seen as the equivalent of excellence. Many students, no matter their GPA when they arrive at my course, find the open challenge to “surprise the professor” liberating. And I find the work they do, in return, more challenging and interesting.
What constitutes assessment in my courses has also changed. One of the most common concerns I hear from instructors just starting to use blogging is that they will be overwhelmed by the amount of writing their students are doing. One should take a moment to appreciate this as a success before arriving at a strategy for “grading the blogs.”
I read my students’ blogs the way I read most blogs: I set them up in a feed reader (these days, I use Google Reader) and skim. The same is true for comments when I am grading comments. I do not read each blog entry in detail. When an entry catches my eye, I comment on it. It is especially important to comment on more blog posts at the beginning of the course, but there is no reason to comment on every post a student makes. That sets up an impossible task and would likely lead to superficial commentary.
The students in my courses evaluate each other and they evaluate themselves. As part of their work, they are required to comment on each other’s work. Normally, this means that they are expected to leave three comments each week on other students’ blog posts. I also ask them to post responses to the responses that have most recently been posted: a sort of exquisite corpse of discussion that builds on the “Yes, and . . . ” exercises found in improvisational theater.
Several times each semester, students provide a self-assessment, indicating (among other things), three blog entries or comments they have made that they think are particularly good, with an explanation as to why they were picked. They also identify three comments or posts by others that they think are particularly good, encouraging them to look to peers as models. I use Google Docs Forms to collect these reports, as it makes organizing them easier, but pen and paper can also work. Not infrequently, students will see value in a comment or post that I might have overlooked. I respond to these assessments with indications of where they are doing well and where they might improve.
Although the content is important, and I often use other forms of assessment to gauge their ability to produce good long-form work, the main function of assessing the blogs and comments is to underscore the importance of metacognition. The self-assessment allows students to reflect on their own learning and their own work.
By freeing myself from seeing every blog entry as an assignment, I remain more sane during the semester, and students have more freedom to experiment. I have had more than a hundred students blogging in a single course. I did not always know everything that was happening on every blog, but the students both enjoyed the course more and improved in other measures of learning.
There are a set of decisions surrounding the use of blogs in courses, the most central of which are: How many? How open? and, What platform?
The One or the Many
Many instructors teach with a single, central blog. Particularly if one is only beginning to employ blogs, this is the most appropriate path. Moving to individual blogs for each student, or for groups of students, makes managing the process more complex, and virtually ensures the teacher will become the “help desk” for one or more of the students in the course. There are significant advantages to having students run their own blogs. It allows them to have a place that is a “home” that they can shape and personalize in the way that they want. This space that is both open to others but controlled entirely by the student fosters a certain degree of creativity and personal investment in the course material. Further and more importantly, perhaps, a personal blog is more likely to travel beyond the end of the course. Some (though not all) become part of a long-term personal learning environment, allowing students to collect a portfolio of their learning over time, especially when an ongoing blog is supported by other faculty.
There are difficulties, however, with this approach. The most serious is that the balance can tip too far in favor of the individual. If the intent of blogging is to gather around texts and learn more about them through discussion, individual blogs add a layer of complexity to the process of assembling and making sense of the writing. This can be accomplished by creating a site that aggregates content from all of these blogs and by providing a good listing of all the blogs in the course for people to follow, but the process is less than ideal. The alternative, then, is a single course blog with students both reading and often contributing to a core set of texts that the course is organized around.
Bring Down Those Walls
The next common question is whether to open up course discussion; or, as it is usually couched, how to restrict access to it. I always start with the assumption that scholarly work should be open and only work on closed projects when there are good reasons to do so. Some have argued that making students work in public unfairly exposes their untutored work to future employers, future friends and lovers, competitors, and eventually their children.
Since I try to encourage open and enthusiastic failure in my courses (we learn mainly through failing), I am sympathetic to this criticism. My initial impulse in blogging was not spurred by an idealistic dedication to open discourse, but once I discovered how much it improved my courses, it was difficult to go back. Not only do students do better work and learn more in open courses, but we collectively contribute to the work out there for others to repurpose for their own learning. Being able to follow the “trails” of other novices serves as a sort of virtual apprenticeship for lurkers during the course or after the fact. It also allows my students to return to the site and revisit their work and the texts once the course has concluded.
I urge my students to blog publicly under a pseudonym in order to encourage risk-taking. This draws in many of the advantages of public blogging without as many dangers. In particular, when I have students who are journalists or work in the media, they often are forbidden by contract from public writing. But even those who are not journalists can benefit from a “trial identity” in their blogged work. Though I sometimes have students fill out a roster to share with one another to identify their peers, it is often more fun to allow them to remain pseudonymous and they spend the semester trying to link the blog and in-person personae.
Lately, I have protected some course blogs. The reason for this is mainly one of intellectual property. Since we are commenting on copyrighted texts, there unfortunately needs to be some barrier to openly accessing that material. In the past, I could separate out the texts we were reading from the discussion, but now that I’ve integrated side note commenting, the two are usually inseparable.
Choose Your Weapons
The essential element when choosing a blog platform should be to keep it simple. It is important to avoid the constricting tools found in proprietary Learning Management Systems (LMS). If the aim in using a blog is to allow students to be more self-motivated, to allow them to explore and to make learning personalized, monolithic and closed platforms like that provided by Blackboard tend to negate these aspirations.
There are a number of open commercial blog services that can set you up with a blog within minutes. Blogger is the most popular, though there are certain advantages to using something like Posterous, which makes the process of blogging very simple. Unless it is a course on social media, as little time as possible should be spent learning to use the tool, and as much time as possible using it.
Despite all of this, I encourage or require students to use WordPress. There are a number of reasons for this. WordPress is the most popular blogging software today, and is increasingly used in corporate settings. Even Microsoft now uses WordPress. As a result, students’ efforts in learning how to blog on the platform will pay dividends beyond graduation, something that cannot generally be said for a LMS. WordPress is also a powerful tool that is easy to use. If students decide they want to gain a greater depth of knowledge about blogging or web publishing, a WordPress blog is a good place to start. If you have a specialized need for your course, or just want to try something new, WordPress has thousands of plug-ins and themes ready for use.
There are a number of ways to set up a WordPress blog, either for your class or for individual students. By far the easiest is to go to http://wordpress.com and set up a free blog. The biggest advantages to doing so are the ease of setting up the blog, the lack of expense, and the convenience of having it maintained for you. Particularly if you are just starting out with educational blogging, or with WordPress, this is the obvious choice.
Unfortunately, WordPress.com does not provide the same degree of flexibility as hosting your own copy of the WordPress software. You will not, for example, have access to some interesting plug-ins or extensions to the system. If you require a bit more from your system, you might turn to one of the inexpensive shared web hosts, many of which provide “one-click” installations of the WordPress software.
Thanks to Edward Tufte, I am a great fan of side notes. I am surprised it has taken me so long to apply them to my teaching. Most blogging systems provide some means for leaving comments, which normally appear beneath each entry. If your teaching involves reading and responding to texts, this ability to comment on a work is fairly essential. But there are advantages to being able to comment not just on an entire text, but on a particular part of that text.
There are a number of tools that allow you to highlight and comment on the web and then share those comments in various ways. Diigo holds some exciting potential here, though in practice I have found it to be a difficult tool to use and fussy about certain kinds of texts. Like many tools in this category, I think, it fails to scale well, lulling you into complacency with the first few comments, then becoming more and more bogged down as multiple comments are added to the same document.
The Commentpress plug-in for WordPress was created precisely to allow for scholarly comment on texts. It has been used so far mainly by academics commenting on each other’s work, but it is also an excellent tool for teaching. Students read carefully, comment on the text, and on each other’s comments. This is a different sort of interaction with the text than you might find when assigning a response paper; students pay closer attention to individual paragraphs, since they know that is what they are commenting on. This approach can be used effectively along with longer review essays and responses, since students can rely not only on their own marginalia, but that of others.
The move to peer-to-peer learning and open access to materials and methods is not something new; it is only rediscovered. The question has to remain not, “What can these tools do for me?” but rather, “What tools do I need to support good learning communities?” However imperfectly, convivial tools like Commentpress support what we have known for centuries is conducive to learning.
 See <http://www.diigo.com/>.