August 6, 2004

Teaching with Blogs

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 12:00 am

Many people teach with blogs these days, and there are a number of approaches. For example, Liz Lawley’s mt courseware helps one make a cool, faculty-authored blog out of the course website. (A nice example of this in use is Matthew G. Kirschenbaum’s Computer and Text.)

I used blogs with my students in Spring 2003 (I didn’t teach during 2003-04, instead opting for the carefree life of the “Traveling Scholar”). My approach to teaching with blogs was a bit different, organizing the class blogging around a mini-blogsphere (each student having an independent blog, for which the course might be one of many subjects blogged). I’ve never written it up before, but now have in preparation for the Blogging Tutorial that Matt Webb and I are doing in sunny Santa Cruz, CA next week.

My goal last year (or really in late 2002, when we did the technical work) was to create an approach to blog courseware that assumed students were full members of blogging communities. Here’s a breakdown of the approach.

First, Brown installed MovableType (this was before the controversy). Each student got an MT blog. This blog wasn’t tied to the class (under a class directory, or only for the life of the class). Instead, each student was given a blog tied to their Brown username, which it was agreed they could keep until graduation (whatever Brown thought of our blogging experiment).

Second, each student blog was given a set of categories. If students had already had blogs before class began, these categories could have been added to their existing blogs:

Third, an aggregator (Blagg) was used to pull category-specific RSS feeds from each of the student blogs, and my faculty blog. (My faculty blog had a category for “ewriting: assignments” as well as the “general discussion / announcement” category.) Then we created a blog that displayed all the class’s blog posts in that category in one place. So the aggregation-driven blogs, as you might imagine, were:

This approach allowed blogging to be integrated into the rhythm of the class and take up a number of the course management functions. It worked like this:

There was only one hitch, which you might encounter if you try something like this. We couldn’t get the MovableType plugin for Blagg to work. So we had to write to the MT aggregation blogs using Blagg’s Blogger plugin and MT’s support for the Blogger API.

Of course, it might all be done a bit differently these days (different blog software, different aggregator, etc). And I imagine others have taken different approaches to using blogs for courseware which are similar — that is, predicated on the assumption that each student has a blog that can exist independent of the course (so, the course is one of the student blog’s subjects, but not the only one). As I gear up for teaching again in the Fall (and for the aforementioned tutorial) I’d be eager to hear folks’ thoughts.

9 Responses to “Teaching with Blogs”


  1. vika Says:

    A digital theory course I took, also at Brown, also in spring of 2003 had blogging as one of its components. While in… theory it was nice, in practice the person teaching the class did not emphasize it enough — that is, he didn’t comment on students’ journals, didn’t actively encourage us to comment, and didn’t enforce the “you must blog your thoughts on each week’s reading” rule. That kind of brought the entire seminar down.

    Incorporating weblogging into a seminar is a significant commitment on the part of the person teaching said seminar; I don’t think this is common knowledge quite yet. Blogging is so popular now that I think the commitment it implies needs to be made explicit, or the entire class will feel wishy-washy.

    I’m in the middle of setting up a weblog for the project I’m directing, and will require everyone to post to it at set intervals (or more often). We’ll see how that goes! Should be exciting, anyway.

  2. noah Says:

    Hey Vika –

    I agree. Blogs that don’t have a role in the course aren’t much different from paper journals that don’t have a role in the course. Faculty need to understand the pedagogical purpose of anything they make part of a course — and I think it’s best when something like blogging is integrated with how the course runs on a day-to-day basis.

    For example, I didn’t have to “enforce” the assignment to “blog your agenda items” as a separate faculty-oversight activity. Instead, when we started to discuss the student projects for that week (or that week’s outside readings) I’d open the agenda aggregation page and we’d all see if there was someone whose contribution to the conversation was missing. I seem to remember, when that happened, not being too shy about asking where it was (and if, perhaps, they had one to add at that moment).

    The heart of this activity was to have students produce ideas they were ready to make public — first on the blog, and then in the class discussion built around the blog ideas. Having each student come to class with one relatively-baked comment is something I’ve always done in my teaching, and the blog helped in three ways. First, it provided a good place for students to write, and accumulate, and even interlink and comment/build on these ideas over the course of the semester. Second, the two lists of that week’s “idea headlines” were built automatically through aggregation, so I didn’t have to do it by hand, on the whiteboard, at the start of each part of the discussion. Third, because the agenda items could be viewed by everyone as they posted, no one was stuck saying “Tommy took my idea for an agenda item.” Instead, the person posting second had an opportunity to differentiate their idea.

    Not to say it was all perfect — but I’d like to give my students the option of doing things this way again in the Fall.

  3. Dennis G. Jerz Says:

    I’m a supporter of giving students their own blogs, though I recognize that a writing course that examines new media is the the most natural match for a blog-based approach. A significant number of students in my other classes just aren’t excited about blogs.

    How did you evalute student weblogging? What percentage of the course grade? How did students respond to being asked to make public statements about their material? Some teachers see classrooms as a protected space, and blogging all classroom discussions would work against that.

    How much did “the real world” affect your local blogosphere? Your approach — which arrives with a fairly complex structure — might overwhelm a student who has already fallen into a personal blogging rythm. Perhaps I erred in the opposite direction… I “sold” weblogs to my students by pointing out that they could write whatever they wanted there, but then got into trouble when I required them to write on course-related topics that their regular readers (friends and family members) found boring.

    Since our new media program is young, I have taught mostly introductory courses rather than seminars, but I’d like to make the introductory courses more student-driven (as your workshop seems to be). Students and recent alumni have been blogging for pleasure over the summer; see blogs.setonhill.edu/nmj for a sample.

    In the one upper-level course I taught(“Media Aesthetics”), I asked students to blog their oral presentations before class, and then during class, rather than read from a prepared paper or recite what they wrote in their blog entry, to just walk the class through the blog entry. That seemed to work well. This year I’m going to organize more student presentations into panels, and ask students to blog their responses to panels. I’ve been slow getting into RSS syndication, but your description is yet another nudge in that direction.

  4. noah Says:

    How did you evalute student weblogging?

    I basically used blogging as a structure for things I would have required otherwise, and evaluated students based on whether they met the requirements. So, blogging was used for turning in assignments, and student were evaluated on whether they got their assignment in on time (you can’t alter timestamps to spoof professors when your posts are being syndicated into a blog your professor controls) and met the other assignment criteria. Similarly, I would have required students to come to class with agenda items for the discussion in any case, and blogging was the mechanism by which they met this requirement.

    So, I think blogging added something beyond these requirements, and made some aspects of the process easier, but the student evaluation was pretty much what it would have been without blogs.

    What percentage of the course grade?

    At Brown, workshops of this sort are mandatory credit/no credit. The students are pretty hyperachieving, and the main pressure is social. So, that moment of everyone staring at you when you don’t have an agenda item is the main negative reinforcement, whereas the “cool!” reaction to really good work is one of the primary external motivators.

    How did students respond to being asked to make public statements about their material? Some teachers see classrooms as a protected space, and blogging all classroom discussions would work against that.

    Well, as it turned out, only a couple of my students had blogs before the class started – and they were the diary/social sort (I think both on LiveJournal). So all the students decided to start new blogs, specifically for the class. Which meant we had the freedom to close our mini blog(o)sphere off from outside links — and students wanted to do that, it turned out. And as far as I know there haven’t yet been any links, and the course blogs haven’t been spidered. This is okay with me, and I’ll respect the wishes of the students from that semester. But I’d also be perfectly happy to have a class make a different decision. In fact, I think I had gone in expecting it.

    How much did “the real world” affect your local blogosphere? Your approach — which arrives with a fairly complex structure — might overwhelm a student who has already fallen into a personal blogging rythm. Perhaps I erred in the opposite direction… I “sold” weblogs to my students by pointing out that they could write whatever they wanted there, but then got into trouble when I required them to write on course-related topics that their regular readers (friends and family members) found boring.

    Well, I basically presented blogging as the way our course would operate. On the most basic level, our blogs were a substitute for the most boring sorts of course mechanics (students photocopying assignments, dropping them in a box somewhere by a certain time, which other students would then go pick up, etc). I certainly talked about all the cool things I thought blogging offered us — but I felt no more need to sell the required parts of it than I would have to sell any other method of getting our basic course mechanics to operate.

    Since our new media program is young, I have taught mostly introductory courses rather than seminars, but I’d like to make the introductory courses more student-driven (as your workshop seems to be). Students and recent alumni have been blogging for pleasure over the summer; see blogs.setonhill.edu/nmj for a sample.

    Cool. I look forward to checking it out.

    In the one upper-level course I taught (“Media Aesthetics”), I asked students to blog their oral presentations before class, and then during class, rather than read from a prepared paper or recite what they wrote in their blog entry, to just walk the class through the blog entry. That seemed to work well.

    Were the blog posts made a set amount of time before class, so that other students might comment before the presentation? If not, did students go back and leave comments online, even after the in-class discussion? Did students ever link to the posts of previous presentations when posting the material for their presentation? I’m interested in the way that class blog posts are both course documents and, well, blog posts.

    This year I’m going to organize more student presentations into panels, and ask students to blog their responses to panels.

    That should be interesting.

    I’ve been slow getting into RSS syndication, but your description is yet another nudge in that direction.

    Will it be primarily to make it easier for students to read all the class blogs, by looking in one place? Or do you imagine other uses for RSS?

  5. teachnology Says:
    Teaching with blogs
    An article at “grandTEXTauto” describes one integrated use of weblogs in education: I used blogs with my students in Spring 2003 (I didn≠t teach during 2003-04, instead opting for the carefree life of the “Traveling Scholar”).

  6. Dennis G. Jerz Says:

    > Were the blog posts made a set amount of time before class, so that other students might comment before the presentation?

    Not officially. I asked some fairly challenging questions of student presenters, and those students who were motivated to care about their grades realized that if I posted my observations in a comment, they’d have time to think about it and come up with a reply. Those students who got their blog entry up just before class started didn’t have that benefit. I probably will implement something like that.

    > If not, did students go back and leave comments online, even after the in-class discussion?

    Yes, though we were a small enough class that everyone pretty much got their chance to talk during class. We also had comments from students in other classes who were curious about what was going on, and comments from strangers who wandered in via search engines.

    > Did students ever link to the posts of previous presentations when posting the material for their presentation? Iím interested in the way that class blog posts are both course documents and, well, blog posts.

    Not as much as I would have liked. I actually instituted a “blogging portfolio” designed to teach the form of blogging, with open-ended assignments such as “Include in your portfolio one entry in which you make a connection between two other student posts,” or “Post a blog entry in which you cite from a primary text to disagree respectfully with what a classmate has said.”

    (On RSS)

    > Will it be primarily to make it easier for students to read all the class blogs, by looking in one place? Or do you imagine other uses for RSS?

    Mostly for the students in classes where we don’t spend that much time talking about blogging, so that students who don’t feel particularly enthusiastic about blogging won’t have to slog through their classmates’ personal entries looking for their homework. But once I’ve got the framework up, I’ll probably come up with new uses for it.

  7. Lee Simpson Says:

    I’m interested in the unique features that bloggs/computers can add to an English academic study skills and writing program. Many of these uses described above of bloggs can be duplicated in the regular classroom. Any suggestions or hepful ideas?

  8. noah Says:

    Lee, please tell us more of what you’re thinking about. My use of blogs has been entirely aimed at facilitating “the regular classroom.” Are you thinking of extracurricular study, distance learning, personal writing, or something else?

  9. Dennis G. Jerz Says:

    As I was putting my ducks in a row for my annual report, I realized how much this GTA blog entry affected my classroom practices, and I thought it was only fair to offer an update.

    I’ve adapted the “agenda item” approach somewhat for my writing-intensive English classes, but I’ve also tried to retain the value of the gift economy (so that students leave comments because they want to, not because I’m forcing them to) and reduce the amount of words churned out by students who are just “doing their homework” rather than posting thoughtful insights that a sane person might actually want to read.

    I call the new method “Read/React/Respond/Reflect” or the RRRR sequence. (Okay the name sucks, but it was approaching Talk Like a Pirate Day when I first wrote it all down, and it sounded better then.)

    1) Read the assigned texts.
    2) React (about 24 hours before the class meets) by blogging a brief quotation from the text as well as a short statement about what you might say if called on in class to talk about it. (This is the “agenda item,” which sadly doesn’t include an R.)
    3) Respond (at some point before class starts) by posting comments on 2-4 peer blogs.
    4) Reflect, and write a 200-word statement on how your ideas have changed from your initial agenda item. Students are expected to bring this statement to class (where I may or may not collect it), and are invited (but not required) to blog it.

    Those students who don’t enjoy spending a lot of time online can go online just once, posting their agenda item and leave comments on peer blogs and then not bother with their blogging homework at all, if they don’t want to.

    Those students who want to do everything early can post their agenda item whenever the want to, but with the understanding that they’ll have to come back to their classmates’ blogs in order to leave comments. (Previously, eager students were punished for blogging their 200-word reflections early, since few students were working that far ahead, and since students being students, most posted at the last minute, that meant that the reflections that were posted at the last minute were the most visible, and were therefore more likely to draw comments. The change also addresses problems I had with a small core of devoted bloggers who already had the habit of visiting each other’s sites socially, who discussed the assigned texts out of class in detail, and then felt the in-class discussions were redundant.)

    I’ve been working with an undergrad who has been studying how her peers collaborate via IM and telephone, a kind of backchannel networking that they use to coordinate their blogging, much as I use the student blogs as a backchannel strategy for managing the classroom.

    For those who are interested, a recent MA thesis by Ashley Joyce Holms (“Web Logs in the Post-Secondary Writing Classroom: A Study of Purposes”) included an in-depth analysis of how we do academic blogging at Seton Hill University.

    http://www.lib.ncsu.edu/theses/available/etd-03222005-205901/unrestricted/etd.pdf

    There was also recently an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on how students at Seton Hill University blog. (If you want to see what my office looks like after I’ve hastily swept all the loose papers into a box, there’s a photo.)

    http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/05359/627794.stm

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