Blogging in the Classroom: Three of My Mistakes

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While in graduate school, I have taught three classes at William & Mary and I used a WordPress-powered blog in all of them.  My failures, and successes, as a teacher felt pretty personal at the time and sharing them publicly sounded like a heinous punishment.  Because a few years have passed since I taught those classes, I feel like I can finally reflect on these classes without too much pain and I figured that someone might benefit from my mistakes.

Mistake 1: Expecting a Community to Appear

The first time I taught, I was teaching a class that put a handful of William & Mary students in a classroom and linked them to several students at Hong Kong University.  Every week we met as the W&M class and then joined our HKU counterparts via a video conference (I will save the stories about this use of technology for another time).  Because we weren’t all in the same place, I figured we could all use a blog to communicate.  I imagined a great “community of young scholars” (the quotation marks are to reflect the strange rhetoric I had developed in my head), posting and commenting on each other’s work and getting to know each other.  Many sites on the Web have this, so why couldn’t it happen for our class?

The difference between this class and the rest of the Web (although your class might be totally different):  sites that foster active communities don’t normally require users’ participation.    I am assuming that the people commenting on my favorite sites get a lot of enjoyment from posting.  I don’t think my class offered this.  Instead, students posted and commented because 1.) I asked them to and 2.) they knew they would be graded on it.  Could this blog have met my expectations?  I don’t know, but as someone new to blogging and teaching, I had pretty high expectations.  Perhaps I should have looked at other classroom blogs to see what made those successful rather than using non-academic blogs as models.

Mistake 2: Not Thinking Through How to Grade Blogs Posts

I thought I would be able to grade blogs posts easily because they were writing assignments.  And that wouldn’t be too hard because I had done that before, right?  I also thought blogging assignments would be great because it would get students writing more.  However, the more they wrote, the more I had to grade.  I asked students to treat the posts more as formal academic writing, which they did, but that meant that I had to grade their writing accordingly.  I committed to a A-F grading scale when I should have graded them more like discussion posts in order to stay on top of the amount of writing that they were producing.  If I were to use blogging in a class again, I would spend a little more time thinking about what I wanted students to get from blogging and what I wanted to value in their writing.  I might decide not to change anything, and just try to improve my grading, but the important thing for me would be to actually go into the semester having considered different options. I would also ask myself, “how is blogging different than writing short papers and should the grading of a blog post differ from other forms of writing?”

Mistake 3: Failing to Integrate the Blog into the Class

I actually think I got worse at this over the course of these three classes.  With the first two classes, I made an attempt to bring the students’ blog posts into our class meetings.  We discussed their posts and I devoted class time a few times to reading each other’s posts and had students comment on each others blogs (I didn’t repeat this as it was no where near as productive as just talking about each other’s work and it didn’t magically create any sort of community — see mistake 1.)  For the third class, the blog basically just became a repository for student assignments.  If I remember correctly, all of the students, at least once, wrote a really interesting post and on those days, they would often bring up their own blog posts.  Some of the students who were quiet in class also excelled on the blog.  However, the blog in this context seemed just like a medium we used for assignments and I don’t think it added anything much beyond that.  From what I can tell, students didn’t read the posts besides their own very often.

Would I Use a Blog in Class Again?

Absolutely.  But, I also enjoy all things related to blogging.  I think some of the problems came from being a new teacher, but I think the above problems, and a number of others that I am not writing about, could have been solved if I had asked more questions before committing to using blogs in the classroom.  Also, I think that if I had sought out other blogs created from classrooms and asked the professors who managed them for advice, that would have gone a long way.

Have you used a blog in your class?  Have any advice or questions?  Please post a comment.

[Photo courtesy of Flickr Commons (no known copyright restrictions): http://flic.kr/p/65C7c3]

About Evan Cordulack

Evan Cordulack is a Web Applications Specialist for Academic Technology. He helps faculty members with Web-based projects related to their research and teaching. He earned his PhD in American Studies at William & Mary in 2013. Find him at http://cordulack.net/

Comments

  1. Cortney Cain says:

    Evan, having just completed the first phase of a wonderful ePD class on blended learning right here at W&M, I’m ready to incorporate blogging into my Thesis/Dissertation Writing course this fall. I have to thank you for posting your lessons learned, even though doing so was a heinous punishment, because your comments have tempered my expectations for a self-generating community. I’m thinking of making the blogging mandatory, but only as participation, and only so that I can see what they’re thinking; if students read their peers’ posts, even better. I intend to use wikis for students to provide feedback on each others’ work (the intended purpose of the writing group, after all). Any advice there?

    • Hi Cortney,

      I think using a blog would work great in your class. I am wondering, though, if you need to use a separate blog at all. For example, if your goal is for students to reflect on their writing (a fantastic goal!), does a blog offer them something that, say, the discussion tools on a Wiki doesn’t? I prefer using blogs/WordPress to most tools, but if you are comfortable with Wikis and going to use one anyway, I wonder if you might lose something by asking students to use multiple tools? At the very least, you will have to help them navigate two different Web applications and that can be a headache.

      Depending on how your class is structured for the fall, I could see you using technology in a number of ways. I am in a writing group that met in person for about a year, and then communicated via the Web after that. Since moving to the Web, We have tried a number of different solutions for staying in touch and commenting on each other’s writing. Ultimately, the most important for us was to use a technology that got out of the way of writing. We decided against a Wiki only because it offered a lot of features that we didn’t need. We tried Google Docs at first, but at the time, it often messed up the formatting of Word documents when you uploaded them. (However, Google Docs allowed someone to comment on the document and another reader could then reply to that comment–that was a nice feature). After some experimentation, we just started to upload our writing to a shared Dropbox folder. I think it took away from discussion of the writing (it became more about individual comments than group comments), but it was technically easy.

      In case you haven’t seen them, we have some collaborative writing resources on the Academic Technology blog that can help with managing collaborative writing.

      Whatever you decide, we would love to hear about how it goes–keep us posted and if you need any help, just let us know.

  2. Thanks for this post, Evan. I’m working on a web relaunch for a college of arts and sciences and we’ve been brainstorming about the use of social to get to the academic experience. I think higher ed has (mostly) figured out how to do PR and communications with social but we still need more thinking—like your post here—about how to enhance the academic experience and allow that to come to life on an academic website.

    • Hi Susan–thanks for the comment!

      I was in a meeting the other day and we talked a little bit about the ways in which academic work makes its way on to different colleges’ websites. One of the issues is that a lot of content strategies in higher ed stress the individual more than the community. So, for instance, you get feature articles about individual faculty and students. This is okay, depending on your goals, but what I would like to see more of would be sharing the collaborative parts of the learning experience. Is it possible to promote an academic environment without crafting a narrative that hangs on a series of individual faculty and students? I am not sure, but it is something that I have been trying to keep in mind lately.