Posted by: Ellie Kutz | March 1, 2011

Blogging as Pedagogical Practice

The Round Table is an appropriate metaphor for the physical or virtual gathering of students in Alex Mueller’s course on Arthurian literature. It also offers a starting concept for the class blog that Alex asks his upper level English majors to contribute to.  In the blog, students make posts about medieval and later Arthurian literature from the voices and perspectives of a range of Arthurian authors and literary characters (http://roundtableknights.blogspot.com/).  In a recent presentation for faculty about technology and teaching, Alex’s students offered their own perspectives on the usefulness of this activity and the ways in which the understandings they gained contributed to final projects involving complex analyses of difficult medieval texts. Alex’s Chaucer students likewise maintain a blog in which they write from the perspectives of characters in The Canterbury Tales, reinventing with a new medium the exchange of narratives and dialogue that would have taken place among medieval pilgrims.  Here at UMass/Boston, as elsewhere, current web technologies are playing a increasing role in teaching and learning across disciplines. 

What makes blogs useful for teaching?   Like other wikis and other interactive web tools such as, blogs allow material to be posted online and shared.  But the typical blog entry format, with a primary post, like this one, and a linked comment space, lends itself particularly well to the development of ideas by one primary writer who can receive feedback and responses from others.  And the appearance of posts in reverse chronological order with the newest on top (something I’ve had to subvert to create a sequenced series of articles for this newsletter) makes the most current posts highly visible.  A course blog is sometimes used primarily as another option for posting syllabi and course materials.  But its power goes beyond such uses.   (Educause, a consortium of universities supporting technology in education, offers a particularly useful Guide to Blogging, with examples of blog-based pedagogical practices across universities, classroom strategies and advice, and student reflections on blogging.)

  • A teacher’s blog can offer a place for additional commentary on course topics and a place to continue discussions that were started in class.  One of my favorite examples of such a blog was that kept by one of my graduate students, Christian Pulver, for his freshman writing class when he was teaching here at UMass Boston. (http://dcsurly.blogspot.com/). In his own posts, he linked, in an informal conversational way, course readings, points from in-class discussion, and larger course ideas, asking students to respond to these posts.  It’s easy to hear his classroom voice through his writing, and while a few responses are off topic, most students add substantively to the content being explored.
  • A class blog where students share responsibility for posts can support the building of a shared understanding of material from a course.  It may do so even without extended comments and discussion, as in this early example (2002) from a high school class reading Sue Monk Kidd’s “Secret Life of Bees,” where different students posted guides to particular chapters (http://weblogs.hcrhs.k12.nj.us/bees/ ). 
  • Authors and other experts can be invited to answer student questions that are posted on a class blog, as Sue Monk Kidd did for the high school class. Will Richardson, who taught that class, has maintained his own honest and helpful blog about teaching with technology since 2002 (http://weblogg-ed.com ) and has recently published a very useful book about using Web 2.0 tools in classrooms (2008).
  • Blogs can be used to help students take on roles and perspectives relevant to a discipline.  Alex Mueller’s blogs offer one example, but there are many others at other institutions.  For example, students in a history course at University of Arizona maintained media blogs reflecting different media outlets such as Al Jazeera and reported on events in the Middle East in a way that reflected the outlet’s particular spin (Educause Guide).
  • Individual student blogs can offer students their own space for sharing writing of many sorts: reflective writing, research writing, creative writing. When I last taught one of our intermediate undergraduate seminars on Life Writing, students explored blogs as one genre of life-writing and many chose to create as final projects blogs that reflected what they’d learned about that genre, such as this one on a student’s post-Katrina observations in New Orleans. (See http://spdowd.blogspot.com/ for an example using the Blogger tool.)  Students in my graduate course on Teaching English with Technology keep individual blogs sharing their reflections about their explorations of various tools for teaching (see, for example, http://brwadbrook.tumblr.com/, using a Tumblr blog.)

A look at any university blog network shows many other examples of ways in which student blogs are being used:  to report about field experiences, community settings, and practice sites; to write regularly in another language; to report on and share experiences studying abroad; as well as to articulate research processes and findings.  Because there are currently so many rich blogs offering expert commentary by academics, public intellectuals, and experts across many fields, there are many models, in any discipline, for the sorts of commentary students might aspire to in their blogs, and there’s an opportunity to ask students to review such blogs, identify what makes them convincing and valuable (or not), and begin to place their own work in the context of such public conversations. 

A recent study of students’ perceptions of blogging for a course (Kerawalla et al, 2009) showed that students found blogs to be valuable because they could be personalized, making a space for a learner’s own thinking, planning, and reflection (in contrast to discussion forums) and thus, for some students, were more intrinsically motivated than discussion posts or other course writing. At the same time, student blog writers also considered the need for an audience, for community, and for comments from their peers.  Reflections from my own graduate students echoed these findings.  As one graduate student/high school teacher wrote on her own blog for our course:

I find that blogs allow for people to write in an entertaining/fascinating way while still getting important (or sometimes not so important) information across . . . in a way that feels more personalized then a book, due to the nature of blogging – which is consistent and updated. . .[and] interactive due to comments and responses.

And having used blogs for an independent reading project in her own classroom, she found that “the personalized nature of blogs” made students more comfortable sharing their opinions while allowing them to add more creativity to their writing about the books they read. (http://michellesreflectivejournals.blogspot.com/2010/06/journal-3.html)

Will Alex Mueller’s  students continue to blog for their own purposes?  A few of my students have.  But whether or not the blog post becomes a social media writing genre that they adopt (vs. Facebook wall posts and Twitter tweets), if blogs have contributed to rich reflection and sharing of ideas within a course, as many have found, they’ve earned a place in higher education.

Educause (2007).  ELI Discovery Tool:  Guide to Blogging.  Retrieved from http://www.educause.edu/eli/GuideToBlogging.

Keralla, L, Minocha, S., Kirkup, G., & Conole, G. (2009). An empirically grounded framework to guide blogging in higher education. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 25(1), 31-42. 

Richardson, W. (2008). Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks CA.

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