Teaching with Blogs and Blogging while Teaching, part 4: Tips and Things to Remember

Note: Today I am giving a talk/workshop on blogging for feminist teaching and research. I have decided to post it as a series of entries on this blog so that it can serve as a virtual handout for those attending the workshop and as a resource for those who couldn’t make it. Another reason I am posting this talk here is that I am experimenting with using the blog, instead of powerpoint, as the format for my lectures and talks. Some of the material in these posts has been posted on other entries on this blog. This is part 4.

Now that I have provided some details about my blogs, I want to reflect on some things that I have learned from my experiences and offer some tips for teaching with blogs and blogging while teaching. Here are just a few tips that help me in my use of the blog.

  • Successful blogs require assignments that are more than just offline assignments posted online.
  • Think about the blog as a location for reading and writing and reflect that in your assignments.
  • Bring blog entries, comments, and discussions into your offline class sessions.
  • In order to get students to use the blog, you must make it worth their while.
  • Spend some time at the beginning of the semester training students on how to use the blog.
  • Spend a lot of time really thinking through all of the details of your blog assignments.
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment with new techniques on the blog.
  • Don’t just assign weekly blog posts to your students that involve responding to your questions.
  • If you want students to be excited about the blog and take it seriously, you need to too.
  • Complete at least some of the assignments that you require your students to do.
  • Blogs work better in the classroom when we read and think more about what kind of teaching/learning practice blogging is (and/or could be).
  • Remember to have serious fun!

TIP: Successful blogs require assignments that are more than just offline assignments posted online.

A blog is a web 2.0 technology. This basically means that the blog is interactive, enabling students to actively connect and collaborate with each other instead of passively reading/receiving information. What does this mean for your assignments?

First, it means that if you want to have successful and productive blogs in your class, you need to think about how to effectively translate your assignments/objectives from the offline (hard copy journals, papers, etc) to the online. How can you add in interactive elements to those assignments? How can students benefit from collaboration and learning from each other?

Second, it means that if you really want to tap into the potential of the blog for your class,  you need to envision new assignments that reflect the three key purposes of educational blogs (which I came across on this helpful site, Weblogs: A Powerful Tool for Educators):

Knowledge centered: Blogs offer students a place to read about new ideas/research and synthesize/articulate their own thoughts about what they have read and what they are studying. This function is central to what I am trying to do with my trouble blog. And it is central to tracking issue assignments in Queering Theory and feminist debates.

Learner centered: A course blog enables students to get feedback from the instructor and other students. It emphasizes the role of the student/s as active participant and learner. And it encourages students to take responsibility for their own learning process.

Community centered: Course blogs foster connection and interaction between students and between students and the instructor. Through participation in blogs, “class members can read postings from their fellow students, comment on the value and relevance of the blog entry in regard to their own experiences and suggest additional resources.”

I think it is important to think about these different purposes and how blog assignments could encourage them: How might I use the blog to encourage students to chart the progress and process of their knowledge development of a certain topic? What kind of assignments can encourage students to read and implement feedback–both from the instructor and other students? And what could I, as the instructor, do to foster a community of learners on the blog?

TIP: Think about the blog as a location for reading and writing and reflect that in your assignments.

If you want students to engage with each other on the blog, you need to create assignments that require that engagement. It is my experience (in my classes and as a writer and a lurker-reader), that students are reading each other’s posts. However, unless you require that they demonstrate that they are reading and engaging, it is hard to know when and if it is happening.  The easiest way to get them to demonstrate that engagement is by building required comments into their blog grade. I noticed that students’ public engagement on the blog and their cultivation of community has increased A LOT ever since I started making comment posts a part of their required assignment.

I believe that comments aren’t the only (or sometimes even the best) way to encourage public engagement, however. In her article, “Defining Tools for a New Learning Space: Writing and Reading Class Blogs” from JOLT, Sarah Hurlburt suggests that required comments (which she calls comment quotas) might not be the only way to assess student-as-reader participation. She argues that comment quotas assess the participation of visible readers–those readers who make their presence known on the blog by leaving a trace (in the form of a comment). But, she continues, they don’t assess the participation of silent or invisible readers (lurkers?) who often read entries/blogs very closely but never leave any comments as proof of that reading. So, how do we address the problem of the “silent reader”? This leads into the next tip:

TIP: Bring blog entries, comments, online discussions into your offline class sessions.

As I mentioned above, requiring comments as part of a student’s blog grade is not the only way you can ensure that they are engaging with the blogs as readers. You should also try to bring up blog discussions in class. This provides students with more opportunities for engaging with each other, for responding to blog entries that they read but didn’t have time to comment on, or for blog posters to explain their positions to each other face-to-face. It also enables students to demonstrate they are reading the blogs (even if they aren’t actively posting comments or follow-up entries). While I am not quite sure how to assess this in-class participation (make it part of their more general participation grade?), I am trying to do this in my feminist debates class this semester. As a result, we have had some lively, productive discussions. Here are a few ways that I am incorporating blogs into (offline) class discussion:

  • Using blog entries as my “notes” for an in-class activity. This enables students to comment on the notes in class or online.
  • Devoting time to discussing questions/issues that the blog posts are raising for the students.
  • Breaking them up into small groups so that they can discuss a particular post.

TIP: In order to get students to use the blog, you must make it worth their while.

You must build blog assignments into your course syllabus and make the entries worth points. While students might be excited about the prospect of sharing their thoughts with each other on the blog, when the pressure of other course work and readings hits, blog writing-that-is-voluntary is the first thing to go. Students will more often than not prioritize work that is graded and/or that affects their final grade.

For evidence of the need for grading and for student’s reluctance to volunteer entries,  just compare two of my blogs for the same class, here and here. Can you guess which one had blog assignments built into the syllabus? One additional note: Making blog entries as an option for earning points (but not making it the required way in which to earn those points) doesn’t work that well either. When given the choice, students–even the ones who excitedly proclaim on the first day that they LOVE blogs, especially feminist ones!–will pick the other (non-blog) option.

TIP: Spend some time at the beginning of the semester training students on how to use the blog.

If possible, demonstrate how to: log in, write an entry, create a link, upload an image, embed a youtube clip, comment on other blogs, find helpful blogs . You should also spend some time discussing what blogs are, how they can be used, and how/why they will be used in your class. Although this reading is a little dated (from 2005), it might be helpful in getting your students to understand what blogs are and why they are useful. And, it might (but not always) be helpful to have students reflect on blog rules (how to comment on others’ blogs, etiquette, etc). I always struggle with whether or not to provide rules. I sometimes wonder, do rules encourage bad behavior? Does it set a restrictive tone that makes students shut down (they become scared to do anything for fear of breaking a rule) or a hostile tone that provokes them to act out (they resent the restrictions and respond by breaking the rules). Two suggestions that I have tried: 1. Introduce the rules after (and only if) a problem occurs. 2. Discuss the rules after students have been posting for awhile. As a class, you could reflect on how/why following these rules is important.

Giving students information about blogging at the beginning of the semester can help ease some of their worries about not doing it right, etc. I am always surprised to find out that my students (who are supposedly in the generation that blogs/facebooks/emails constantly) don’t know how to blog. They need a tutorial. Spending just a little bit of time early on can save a lot time later (although even if you create a brilliant handout/tutorial that anticipates and answers every possible question about blogs, students will still ask you–usually when the semester is over half finished: “Umm…Professor…How do I blog, again?). Spending just a little bit of time early on will also demonstrate to your students that you think blogs are important and that you take them seriously (and they should too).

TIP: Spend a lot of time really thinking through all of the details of your blog assignments.

Many of my course blogs have been moderately successful, but it wasn’t until I developed detailed and well-thought assignments that I really started to witness what blogs can do for the classroom. Some of the details that you need to think through are:

  • What types of assignments will inspire and energize students?
  • What types of assignments will help encourage students to engage with each other?
  • How can I make this blog manageable? How will I keep track of all of their entries?
  • How will I evaluate them (point totals? feedback?)
  • How do I give them structure without inhibiting them?
  • How can i encourage creative and critical thinking?
  • What types of assignments will encourage students who are nervous about or resistant to the blog?

Spending a lot of time before the semester begins thinking through the logistics of your blog is invaluable. If you don’t have a good sense of how the blog will work, when things will be due, how you will grade it, you can get overwhelmed. I am strong believer in the mantra: worker smarter not harder. You can do this by:

  • Getting students to do some of the work. Have them track their own entries and comments. Then require that they print them out and submit them in a folder several times during the semester.
  • Not creating too many assignments and by thinking about spreading them out in a way that doesn’t make the blog too unwieldy.
  • Not participating too much. It is not possible to comment on every single blog entry that your students post. Experiment with ways to comment that don’t require you to spend every waking minute (and every minute you should be sleeping) responding to their questions, problematic statements, etc. One strategy for dealing with this issue is to make it clear to the students that they are responsible for responding to each other and that they have the opportunity to teach each other through their blog posts/comments.

TIP: Don’t be afraid to experiment with new techniques on the blog.

One of the things I love most about course blogs are how they encourage me to be creative in my presentation of class materials. I am constantly using them to try out new approaches to the teaching and engaging with the class. Even though I try to spend a lot of time developing detailed (and, in some ways, highly structured) assignments, I always leave room for experimenting with new categories or new ways to post. In addition to experimenting with my entries (I have tried vlogging and posting scans of my hand written notes), I like to experiment with developing new categories. Some of my favorite categories were created as the result of a desire to try some new way to engage, categories like: Queer This! or Who is… or How we Think.

TIP SIX: Don’t just assign weekly blog posts to your students that involve responding to your questions.

I say just here because I continue to assign weekly direct engagements. I see a lot of value in requiring students to critically reflect on the readings in a structured way (that is, in a way that is guided by instructor questions). However, there are many other ways that students can engage on and with the blog that weekly prompt assignments fail to address. Here are just a few. You could require that they:

  • Post examples from the media/their lives/current events that relate to the class and that they want readers to analyze
  • Track an issue or a term by posting informal annotated bibliographies about that term
  • Post youtube clips or news articles that are relevant
  • Post local/regional/national/international events that are relevant to the class
  • Post questions about terms, concepts, readings
  • Provide feedback on the class or on what worked/didn’t work in assignments

TIP: If you want students to be excited about the blog and take it seriously, you need to too.

So, what does this mean? Here is what I have done to demonstrate that I am serious about my course blogs:

  • Devote considerable time to blogs at the beginning of the class (training them, reading about blogs, going over the blog assignment)
  • Write in my own blog so that I could practice what I preach/teach
  • Discuss the blog frequently in class
  • Make it a central part of the course (in terms of assignments, engagement)
  • Participate a lot (through entries and comments)
  • Develop thoughtful assignments which demonstrate that a lot of time was put into considering how to make the blog work for the class

TIP: Complete at least some of the assignments that you require your students to do.

Here is what I wrote about this issue on my “about this site” page on this trouble blog:

Even though I have used blogs in the classroom (and lurked on many a blog myself!), this is my first attempt at my own blog. I developed this blog to practice what I preach (I mean teach). I wanted to know what it felt like to write entries on a regular basis and I wanted to experiment with possible assignments for my students next year and beyond.

While I am really enjoying writing in my own blog, you don’t have to start up your own blog in order to experience what it’s like to post entries (although it helps). You can start by simply posting more of your own entries (beyond class announcements or handout links) on your course blog. Or you can create assignments in which you post an entry too (like posting a response to “who am I?” or “what are your top 5 favorite things?” or “what’s on your playlist?). Here are some reasons why your participation can be extremely helpful:

  • The more you know about how it feels to write on the blog, the more successful your assignments and student participation will be.
  • You can gain the students’ trust.
  • Your participation on the blog demonstrates that you take it seriously and that you intend it to be a central part of the course.
  • In writing your own blog entries and comments, you can model for the students the types of engagements/critical reflections that you want them to post.

TIP TEN: Blogs work better in the classroom when we all read and think more about what kind of teaching/learning practice blogging is (and/or could be).

At the end of her essay, “The Little FemBlog that Wasn’t,” Shira Tarrant discusses the value of blogs in feminist classroom for “open[ing] possibilities for a democratic learning process” and “help[ing]to achieve feminist goals in the virtual world.” She argues that we need to discuss how feminist pedagogy and internet technology can work together. And we need to think about how engaging with blogs (through writing entries and reading/posting comments on others’ entries and blogs) could help to encourage feminist critical practices, develop a feminist classroom, and foster feminist communities.

This is an especially important point. Students and teachers need to explore (and think critically) about how and why to use blogs. Blogs aren’t just online journals that are used to record the “excruciating minutia” of our lives or our thinking about an idea or text. They aren’t just cool and trendy ways to demonstrate to students that we, as teachers, are hip and relevant. And, they aren’t just distractions (and a lot of extra effort) from the real (as in serious, academic, important) work that goes on inside/outside the classroom. I see tremendous potential in using blogs in my teaching, both in the classroom, and as a way to encourage students to think critically. To develop that potential, feminist teachers need to spend some time creating blogging strategies, theories, and assignments. And they need to share their ideas with others. That’s what I am trying to do here. That’s what Tarrant is doing in her essay. And, that’s what these authors are doing here and here.