Student Blogs: Challenges

mi40mFwSome of you have asked to hear my final thoughts on the individual student blogs I used in one of my classes this semester.  I have a lot to say on the matter, but I may wait until I get the course evaluations back from my students before giving you my ultimate reflection.  As all you teachers well know, sometimes our assumptions about how things have gone turn out to be less than accurate from the students’ perspective.

In the meantime, I thought I’d share some PENultimate thoughts.  I put these down in a recent journal entry for a course I’m taking on IT in the classroom.  The journal assignment was to write about the challenges of integrating information technology into the classroom setting.  Here’s what I had to say.

*

This semester, I had my students keep blogs.  I’ve used blogs in a course before, and then stayed away from them for years because they require such a time investment.  This year, I decided to take a stab at them again, and although there were a lot of benefits, I will think twice before using them in another course.

One of the main issues was that the course, as a whole, is brand new.  Although I spent a lot of time thinking about the general topics I wanted to explore, and the assessments that I’m REQUIRED to include in such a course (some sort of research component, an oral presentation, a 1000-word essay…), I was aware from the beginning that my desired learning outcomes were…vague.

I wanted students to think about the concept of “character” and examine how that concept is portrayed in children’s literature (these are Child Studies majors).  I wanted them to come away knowing more about the way we learn, the way we grow up, and the things we can do to make our lives, and the lives of children we know, better.  I also wanted them to think about reading, and whether reading is a valuable activity for children, and, if so, what children should read, and how the things they read will affect their characters.

So that adds up to a whole lot of thinking.  How can they demonstrate to me that they’re thinking?  By writing a whole bunch of stuff making connections between these different ideas.  And then having conversations that I can observe.  So a blog is perfect: they need to write regularly about the ideas we’re discussing in class, they need to make connections between these ideas and things they already know, and they need to comment on what others have written, generating conversations about these subjects.

The potential of these tasks to lead to deep, authentic, long-lasting learning is exciting.  Writing and commenting on a thoughtful blog post requires a high level of what instructional designers call “cognitive complexity”: the students are understanding, applying, analyzing, and synthesizing in order to create their posts.  Writing the posts involves a number of different “types of knowledge”: conceptual knowledge (understanding the theoretical works about childhood character that we are reading), procedural knowledge (understanding how to write a coherent post whose logic, grammar etc. communicate clearly) and a certain amount of metacognitive knowledge (not only are they reflecting on the theoretical material and how it relates to the novels they’re reading, to other things they know and to their personal experiences; but they are also, to a certain extent, recognizing those leaps of understanding when they make them, and recognizing that they are something worth writing about).

Which is to say: BLOGS ARE AWESOME.  They are, like, the perfect learning tool, if you do them right.

And I think, in purely pedagogical and methodological terms, I did them right.  I set out very clear requirements: they had to post at least three posts a month, and spread their posts throughout the month (one per week for at least three weeks out of the month).  They had to comment at least three times a month on others’ blogs, also spreading their comments out throughout the month.  They had to reply to all comments left on their blogs.

I promised to read and comment on every post.  I did my best to keep that promise for a while, and as I read and commented during the first month, I was truly impressed.  Some of them were just banging out the minimum, or not meeting the requirements at all.  Most, however, were writing very interesting things.  They were MAKING CONNECTIONS.  They were HAVING CONVERSATIONS.  It was clear that writing about the seven character qualities that children need to succeed, or the “licking and grooming” theory of parental nurturing, and applying these concepts to other things both fictional and personal, was helping them understand what these things mean.

So what went wrong?

What went wrong was that I hadn’t thought it all through.  Of course I hadn’t – it’s impossible to think a course entirely through before you teach it, no matter how well you plan.  The problem is, if you’re teaching a new course AND using unfamiliar (in this case, technological) tools, problems multiply.

The first came from my willful disregard for what I knew, from long experience, about many of my students.  Regular writing, including written discussion, about complex topics is a great tool for students who are already good communicators.  For students who have language issues, who are not habitual readers or writers, and/or who already have an awful lot on their plates, this kind of regular written communication is extremely demanding.

What’s more, they’re working on a platform that is new to them.  Most of them have never written blogs, and it’s not just the technological aspects that are unfamiliar to them, but the communication medium: what should a blog post consist of?  If it’s not an essay, then what does “logical structure” mean?  And so forth.  The instructions I gave them – not just on setting up their blogs but on how to earn a passing grade or 100% – were very clear.  However, because this clarity involves so many facets where blogs are concerned – one can’t take for granted that they know ANYTHING – these instructions were also extremely long and detailed, and students don’t fully understand them.  Even now, two weeks before the end of term, a number of students are not sure why they’re earning 59% even though they put up the minimum number of posts (“But Johnny, you didn’t leave any comments for anyone.” “But I did!  I answered the comments people left for me on MY blog!”)

There are things I can do to improve the evaluation scheme; for example, if I’m ever foolish enough to do this again, I will separate the grade for blog posts from the grade for commenting, and I will clarify and delineate criteria so that it’s possible to earn a passing grade even if you fall short in one area.  Nevertheless, figuring out how to grade this new form that has few formal standards is extremely challenging, and it hasn’t worked very well this time around.

Using a newish tool like blogging in a course has much in common with teaching a new course in general: it’s exciting and full of energy because you never know what happen, but it’s also messy and fraught and doesn’t always work because you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.  I’ll probably take a rest from blogs next time I teach this course (maybe a discussion forum would be simpler and less demanding?)

*

I’d love to hear about experiences, successful or otherwise, that the rest of you have had with blogs in your classrooms.  What could I have done differently?  Is it worth taking another stab at it?

Image by Jakub Krechowicz

About these ads

13 responses

  1. Well I just love the whole blogs idea, especially since it’s much more ‘real world’ than essay-writing. But even just listening to you describe it, it sounds like an evaluation nightmare. I wonder–would a single class blog, made up of a series of ‘guest bloggers’–ie, each student according to a schedule they sign up for — with clear expectations for commenting and responding to comments, would something like that maintain the benefits and bring it more into a reasonable scale for the teacher? I’m thinking I might try something like this in a new course I’m planning — or rather, ‘planning’ :)

  2. I used blogs in a calculus class, which on one hand is a whole different kind of beast (I had the additional resistance of “how does a person even write about math?!?), but on the other hand, I had a lot of similar issues to yours.

    I think you’re right that blogs have the potential to be the perfect learning tool. It’s the figuring out how to do it right. I didn’t give my students enough guidance (I would love to see the instructions you gave your students, if you’re willing to share) and I still ended up with some awesome stuff. I had other students who struggled a lot. I’m going to try again in the fall, with my main goal being to better support the struggling students.

    I do think it’s worth taking another stab at it (obviously, I’m taking my second stab myself). I look at it as one of those “fail better” situations. It was a highly imperfect ‘experiment’ that I got a lot of information from. I’m going to use that information to perform another ‘experiment’, that I’m sure will be highly imperfect as well, hopefully in new and interesting ways.

    It may be something you want to try next in a course you’ve taught repeatedly. I wouldn’t have wanted to do it for a course that was brand-new to me. I also didn’t try again immediately (although that was mostly due to have a baby after that semester) and I think having the time to reflect is beneficial.

  3. As a former student of Leeds Metropolitan University, completing an undergraduate degree in Education, I was given a module, titled: Personal Professional Development Portfolio. All online, of course, in simple-man terms, this in essence was a blog. Which over the course of first, second, and the all important third year, had to be completed independently. Full of evidence of learning, development and critical thinking. At first, myself and a the majority of others despised the module, saw no point in it, and failed to find the time to connect with the module, let alone to sit down and write.
    After a couple of weeks pondering, I found my niche in this module, and fell in love with writing. I found my times of the day where I was most creative, and was impressing not only my tutors, but the programs co-oordinator.
    I think blogs within education are wonderful, and with the right student can work. As a student I found myself connecting more with my studies, and over time developments were made not only personally, but also academically and professionally. Having that space to write and do what you want and to make it your own can help a student, not only find who they are, but to voice their thoughts.

  4. First, I have never used blogs in my classes of eighth graders, but we did venture into technology with writing all their work using Google shared docs. I have had short conversations about blogs with my students and received nothing more positive than bland somewhat curious questions if not complete rejection from many of my students. My co-teacher, more adventurous than I, had an edublog, a Facebook account, Twitter account, etc. before me, and I had the same reactions to her suggestions. In saying this, I understand the technological divide that births the negative reactions in my students. For many, an adventure into an unknown territory in writing isn’t fun or exciting–it is frightening; however, I now blog. I dove in with the same spirit that I used to share Google docs with my students. It wasn’t easy, but they have come to love it and, I believe, that they will come to love blogging (maybe not ALL of them) as a piece of the total required writing repertoire because I think that they will view it as giving them a greater degree of freedom than they currently have with formal assignments. I can’t take 150 journals home a week to read and respond to them, and they don’t want to use their hands with a pen and pencil on paper to write–yuck! Manual writing. While I enjoy class discussions, I have difficulty in rewarding their thinking with a grade and granting enough class time for meaningful thinking and discussion to happen regularly. I believe that many who already own smartphones will want yet another reason to use them in school (and yes, they use their smartphones to write their papers in Google docs) especially when they get to respond to others’ writing (which at this point, we haven’t required). So, don’t quit–lead the way, please. After all, your students sound like bigger versions of mine.

  5. I’ve tried personal blogs with my 9th graders (I teach English Literature) and the thing that struck me the most is that the grading was just SO time consuming. I wish there was a better system, maybe peer evaluations or something could work, but I haven’t figured that out yet. The one thing I have used for years with them is literature response via a class blog. I set up the post about a section of the text they’re reading for homework, ask a few guiding questions, and then the students discuss them in the comments. They are required to post at least one comment that addresses the discussion questions or responds to something one of their peers has said. I only keep the post open for a certain time window, and the grading is super easy to do.

  6. Here is what would strike me as the main downside to using blogs to generate student writing: the format itself (if they are familiar with it) leans heavily towards opinion as opposed to exposition, narrative, or argument. For that reason, it should be used carefully, because most students have no trouble expressing an opinion but many do have difficulty with using evidence to support their opinions, or to flesh out their expository or narrative writing.

    • While I tend to agree with you, blog assignments could be used to practice bad writing habits, but if approached with a strategic plan, can be used to push students to the next stage. I teach eighth graders, and we make it a point to pair an easy (more desirable) skill with a difficult (more frustrating) skill. Teenagers love to express their own opinion, and so we help them cite evidence to strengthen their argument–which they won’t bother to do at all unless they can do it one step at a time. Kids that age love drama, so we help them learn to elaborate by over-writing in the same way one would “over-act.” In the exaggeration of a skill, we show them how to put it in, and using good models in literature, we then show them well-crafted examples. Not only are they practicing it, they know what the target is. It seems to work for us. For many of our students, just being allowed to write using technology–in a technologically poor area–is incentive to work through the really difficult elements required now in the Common Core curriculum. For struggling writers, frustrated by their inability to find their voice, this kind of strategy gets them over one hurdle, so they can go on to the next hurdle.

      On the other hand, writing blogs gives students an opportunity for several things: idea exchange, peer feedback, and potentially, a real audience where the writer has real responsibility for those ideas. We have to teach students not only how to write, but how to write responsibly.

      • Love your strategy, Yvonneeileen! Especially the part about over-writing. It is not that hard to “tone it down” after the student has had the fun experience of going over the top.

  7. Hi Sioban,

    First of all, let me say how much I LOVE the topic of your class: the concept of “character” and how that concept is portrayed in children’s literature. “I wanted them to come away knowing more about the way we learn, the way we grow up, and the things we can do to make our lives, and the lives of children we know, better. I also wanted them to think about reading, and whether reading is a valuable activity for children, and, if so, what children should read, and how the things they read will affect their characters.”

    It’s a class I definitely would want to take if I were in college again! Actually, it’s a class I would take this very moment–it’s that intriguing and so worthy of exploration.

    Adding in the blog component is a genius move as well. Maybe it was too much for you for the first year of your new class, though.

    As a 7th grade English teacher, I remember carrying home 125 heavy black and white composition books so that I could read and respond to my students’ writing. Like you, I promised to read and comment on every entry. And, like you, for a while I did. Just the excitement generated when I returned the journals each week—students flipping through to see what I had written—was very rewarding. I loved reading their personal thoughts, opinions, reactions to topics, responses to literature, etc. I very much enjoyed the dialogue we were developing. But the workload just for the journals became overwhelming.

    I think it would provide valuable info to you if the students don’t blog for the course next year. Then you can truly compare, and go from there.

    You’ve made such a great point about students who are great communicators naturally, and those for whom, for different reasons, writing is difficult. But perhaps those are the ones who benefit the most if they can unlock the writer within? The ones most in need of cognitive complexity? (or am I being too optimistic??? :-)

    Looking forward to continuing reports from you—admire and respect your reflection on the whole process, and your inclusion of your blog followers in it!

  8. I’ve tried blogging in my own English classroom of ninth graders this year. Our school is a one to one school where each student has his/her own laptop. As teachers we’re encouraged to utilize technology in our lessons. However, I didn’t try the blogs until the last month of school.

    Throughout the year my students have been reading books of their choosing for the first ten minutes in class. Four times in the nine-week period students are required to write about what they are reading in their Reader’s Notebook. The notebook is simply a composition book that they keep in my classroom. They have topics they must choose from on which to write in regards to the book they are currently reading. They hand write their essays in their notebook.

    During the last month I asked my honors English class to create a blog and write their final essay, which was a book review, as a post on their blog. My students spent several class periods working on their blogs and book reviews. I noticed students had more conversations about writing and revising their work. It was reflected in their grades.

    I asked them what they thought about using the blog for their Reader’s Notebook instead of the composition book. They unanimously agreed that next year’s freshmen should create the blog instead of using the composition book. They liked the idea that a “real” audience read their work. One student commented that someone in Germany had accessed his blog. He thought that was incredible. My students took more time with their writing because of that audience. It wasn’t just their teacher reading and grading their assignment.

    In the end my students enjoyed creating their blogs and sharing their writing with an authentic audience. They want next year’s ninth grade English classes to use the blog for their Reader’s Notebook and any other writing we do in class. Now I just have to figure out how to organize the blogs and assess the blogs. I’m reading all of the suggestions here and will try to implement some of the ideas in my classroom for next year.

    Thanks for such a great post. Thanks to all of you who have also shared your ideas in the comments. This is a great conversation.

  9. HopeAnn—It IS a great conversation! I loved hearing how much the kids enjoyed writing to an authentic audience! That reason alone should be the spark to start blogging in every English class—and—in every subject.

  10. I’m not a teacher. But I am professionally until recently a trained librarian..for adults. However matters of literacy cross over between teachers and librarians.

    I’m wondering if blogging might be of particular value for discussing current events and requiring the student to develop a more analytical approach on information sources by them testing each other on validity of their opinions.

    Or use simply 1 blog that becomes a collaborative effort on 1 particular subject/project …especially for activities that involve outdoor education / short out of school trips. I would also encourage posting children’s art and maybe learn to critique each other’s art…from other local schools. :)

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 11,783 other followers

%d bloggers like this: