At the behest of my fiancee (who happens to be a superb part-time professor at Grand Valley State University), I’m writing this post about using blogging as an important part of the educational process.
It should also be noted that this post is directly relevant to those outside education as well: every organization should be encouraging employees to blog about work-related content. Not personal gripes or gossip – but about their day-to-day struggles and triumphs, or about their trade/craft/field. Social media engagement is the modern equivalent to networking in trade groups or local business associations.
Why Would I Want to Engage in This Sisyphean Undertaking?
There are any number of reasons why blogging is a great component to add to virtually any course, no matter what grade level one is teaching:
- It’s the New Paradigm: It’s actually irresponsible for educators not to help students become familiar with modes of expression like blogging; publishing online is now the dominant way ideas and information are published. Not teaching blogging is the equivalent of a 15th-century teacher having students write on cuneiform tablets instead of learning a printing press. I’m not being hyperbolic either; that’s how revolutionary social media is in the pantheon of human communication.
- It’s Familiar to Students: As one might expect, the students entering school now have grown up on social media. They don’t know it, but they’ve actually got a lot more writing experience than classes of decades past because of what they’re sharing on Facebook or Tweeting, and some research is beginning to show that they’re more sophisticated communicators as a result. Being a good educator is about making important concepts relevant to students so that they’re willing and able to assimilate them. Using the same communications platforms that students are is an important step.
- It can Make Assignments Seem Easier: Perception is reality, and when students see that they have to write a 2,000-word paper, it’s daunting. Writing ten 200-word blog posts isn’t. Hacking perceptions to help make work easier is an amazing courtesy to afford students.
- It can make your job easier: Rather than carting around the equivalent of six reams of copy paper, you can check in whenever you have time. Frequent, periodic grading is far superior to the usual: walling ourselves into a room to grade towering stacks of assignments for hours at a stretch.
Where Should the Blogging Take Place?
This a more complicated question than it seems at first glance. The basic choice that it comes down to is what’s easiest for you vs. what is most engaging for them.
For example, it may be easiest for you to grade student blogs that are built into the course content management system (like Blackboard or Banner) your institution uses, or to use a platform offered by a textbook manufacturer (as the system is native, keeping track of new submissions and grading them is much faster). You also avoid any issues of compliance with your institution because the system is within its control (think the Missouri ban on teachers interacting privately with students online). The problem is, however, these blog services usually suck ass; they’re clunky to use and don’t offer much in the way of features.
The alternative – allowing students to choose their own blogging platform – may result in more engagement and higher quality work because it allows students to choose what is right for them and gives them opportunities to really push their creativity in publishing content online. Freed from limits imposed by a CMS, they may begin incorporating multimedia content, using images more freely, and generally devoting more time to their work. The problem is, of course, keeping track of and grading these blogs.
How do I Keep Track of Student Blogs?
Fortunately, the infrastructure of social media makes this relatively easy no matter what direction you take on where students publish their work.
If you use a course content system (ala Blackboard) everything is together in one place and synced with the gradebook.
If you don’t use a course content system, here are some tips to make the process easier:
- Use an RSS Feed Reader to Track the Blogs: Virtually all blogging platforms publish RSS feeds and you can use these to track all of your students’ blogs in one place with ease. They’ll be time/date-stamped so you can monitor completion, and you’ll be instantly notified of new content (or revisions). In most cases you can also subscribe to comments on those blogs – so if that sort of interaction is a component of the assignment, you can monitor that easily as well. [Tip: my perennial favorite RSS reader is Google Reader.]
- Stick to Public Blogging Platforms: Don’t post comments/grades on your students blogs; instead email grades or hand them out in class. This will help keep you in compliance not only with FERPA, but also your organization’s standards for educators interacting with students (in the event that they’re strict). Publishing a blog is a voluntary public act by a student – so it’s perfectly legal for a faculty member to view that publicly-available content with no legal repercussions.
- Avoid Facebook: For starters, “Facebook Notes” is a terrible blogging platform features-wise. Another problem of Facebook is that it can create compliance problems if your organization has strict guidelines for contact with students via social media. Also, someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure there’s no easy way to export Facebook Notes: Zuck has your content and he’s keeping it.
What Should I use Blogging for in the Classroom?
The quick answer is “everything.” Here are just some of the ways you can use blogs to replace traditional assignments.
- Make Work Bite-Sized: Given the diminishing attention spans of most students, why not break a long writing assignment into several manageable chunks (or at least offer students the OPTION to do this)?
- Get Them Out Into the World: Interacting with the rest of the world is an important skill to reinforce in any classroom no matter what the subject. Have students write replies to blog posts written by other authors – and make sure they link back to (and source) the original post; that way the author they’re replying to can be alerted of the trackback and potentially create an organic dialog.
- Broaden Their Media Horizons: There are so many amazing tools for creating interactive multimedia presentations that everyone needs to learn how to use. Blogging creates an opportunity for them to practice new media creation beyond the usual (and dreaded) PowerPoint slideshows.
- Help Them Create an Identity / Portfolio: Important to any aspiring professional is creating an identity to which one’s work can be attributed. Anything online is indexable and searchable by prospective university admissions staff or employers. For most students, educators can do them a huge favor by helping them publish more professional/socially-acceptable content online (to balance out unprofessional/undesirable content).
Hope this helps; if you have any questions or comments – I’m always thirsty for feedback or to share insights.
Up Next: “The Less Than Definitive Guide to Incorporating Twitter Into the Classroom”