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.

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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?)

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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

Ongoing Open Call: What Should Change About School?

I’ve just begun reading Nikhil Goyal’s One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School.  Goyal is an American high-school senior who has made a name for himself talking to the media about educational change, and although I’m not far into his book yet, I am already intrigued.  I’ll write more on his ideas later, but for now, I’d like to reopen a discussion on his pet subject: the need to hear from young people about what could make school better.

Last year, I asked for student responses to the question “What needs to change about school?” The answers that flowed in were diverse and enlightening, and I feel like there’s still lots more to be said on this subject.  So I would love to hear from more of you.  What have you encountered in your time in school that you think really needs to change?

You can go to the permanent page devoted to this open call  in order to get more details and to see some previous responses on the subject.  Most of the essays I received last year concerned the administration and requirements of school, things like the usefulness (or not) of Pell Grants and the over-emphasis on grades.  I would be delighted to hear more of your opinions on these and similar matters, but there’s another side of the question that is preying on my mind.

The seemingly endless current stream of cyberbullying scandals, a couple of personal teaching experiences over the last few days, and a second listen to This American Life’s fabulous podcast “Middle School” have combined to make me think more about the strange social environment that schools create.  We pile a bunch of people of approximately the same age together in one building, one classroom, one playground, and we ask them to negotiate so many things.  Is this working?  What are your personal experiences of the way “school society” works?  Is there anything we could change about it to make it work better?

To address this or any other topic on how “school” could be improved, please visit the open call page, or leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Image by Michal Zacharzewski

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