Published on 2014/06/02

Social Writing and Learning: Using Class Blogs to Enrich the Student Experience

Social Writing and Learning: Using Class Blogs to Enrich the Student Experience
Blogs create new and innovative ways for students to learn and interact with their professors and other students.
Many of us access blogs in our daily news consumption, learning and entertainment processes. Some of us maintain or contribute to blogs for creating, sharing and expressing ideas.

For our students, blogging also can be a rich environment for deepening and sharing their individual and collective learning. Two different blogging assignments—one private, one public—gave me a glimpse into the educational potential of this creative tool.

Since they are social spaces and generally user-friendly, blogs offer a flexible setting for students to create resources that can be shared with others. Blogs also foster opportunities for interaction with their audiences. In the case of private course blogs, those interactions are with classmates and their instructor. When the class blog is publicly accessible, the audience is quite literally global.

Writing for others heightens the value and the importance of the assignment for most students (engagement theory). It also extends the learning experience when those audiences respond and students interact with them.

Why add a class blog? Here are some of the educational advantages that the platform offers:

  • It provides a space for students to create original content and extend not only their own learning but also that of their peers and other readers (especially valuable in survey-type classes where broad topics are covered quickly).
  • While the typical blog entry is written-word, most platforms also support video, photography and occasionally audio entries. This enhances the site’s interactivity and the potential to for students to adopt creative approaches to content creation and sharing.
  • The blog environment creates opportunities to comment, respond and learn from those reader/author exchanges. The chance to interact with audience members (peer or public), respond to questions, to share additional insights from their research extends student learning.
  • It facilitates development of new, transferrable communication/writing skills that students are likely to encounter in the contemporary workplace.
  • It provides a user-friendly environment for collaboration. For example, student teams can be assigned larger topics for exploration, then collaborate to identify specific subtopics of interest to target audiences, write posts, offer peer reviews, etc.
  • It offers opportunities to reflect, collectively and individually, on learning experiences. For example, a private class blog can be used to post and respond to reflective summaries of unit activities, replacing or supplementing individual learning journals.

Incorporating a blog into a classroom setting does require a willingness on the part of both instructor and students to embrace not only the technology but also a different way of working and learning.

First, while blogs are pervasive in contemporary online life, students may not yet have experience writing for the genre. Blogging requires a more conversational style that can be quite unfamiliar—and occasionally uncomfortable—for individuals used to traditional academic modes. Students must tap into a different way of communicating, especially for a publicly available blog, and the learning curve can be steep for some.

Second, some students may balk at having their work subject to public (or at least class) exposure and critique. Knowing that the potential for hostile reaction exists may create anxiety.

Third, the potential fallout of plagiarism increases exponentially when the student’s work is posted on a public blog. Not only might the instructor discover intentional or incidental copyright infringement, but the original content authors and others might as well.

Even with these major challenges, a course blog offers significant new ways to interact and create group learning. To foster a successful experience for all, a blogging assignment needs:

  • A sense of how blogging is different as a communication medium (specifically, how the writing is different) and support for making the writing transition
  • Tools and structures to support success and relieve student anxiety (e.g., how-to videos, style guides)
  • Mechanisms to not only reinforce and avoid plagiarism but to check work before making it public
  • A network of peers willing to read and respond to public student posts (my Twitter friends were a crucial audience for my students).

To access a set of curated (K-16) Pinterest resources on “Blogging in the Classroom,” click here.  To access curated bookmarks on the topic, click here

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Readers Comments

Karen 2014/06/02 at 12:41 pm

Debra, you said: “Second, some students may balk at having their work subject to public (or at least class) exposure and critique. Knowing that the potential for hostile reaction exists may create anxiety.” I think this is a valid and often overlooked issue; it comes up in old fashioned paper peer review exercises as well. Helping students understand what it means when we put comments out into the online world is a valuable lesson. However, I firmly believe class blogs should be private (encased in a technology shell, so they don’t go live to the web) because many students I see lack writing skills or discretion and frankly would probably be embarrassed later knowing their remarks were available forever via Google.

Despite being more exposed to technology I still find students today lack an understanding of online reputation. As they leave our classes and go into the job market it would be unfortunate to have all their unguarded remarks follow them.

I also find that for students at the community college level writing in a conversational tone is not a problem. These students need to learn to upgrade their writing to include professional vocabulary and tone, so blogging is probably not what most of my students need.

Vera Matthews 2014/06/02 at 4:44 pm

While more interactive learning sounds great in theory, I think it’s worth taking into account the culture professors would be exposing their students to. Comment culture, or “trolling” online is known to be vicious and irrational. Studies have shown that that ability to comment on factual information online makes people mistrustful of that information. By having blogs, you’re risking exposing students to attacks that may or may no have anything to do with their work, and they need to be prepared for that.

Skepitcal 2014/06/02 at 8:12 pm

I would worry about what this would do to the quality of student work. Educators spend years teaching students to write in academic style, and as the writer of this post pointed out, blog writing style is very different, mainly in that it is much less rigorous. While a new platform might be what higher education needs, we need to make sure the quality of the education doesn’t suffer.

Ewan Philipps 2014/06/03 at 4:56 pm

This is exactly what higher education needs. The world is changing and the demands on graduates have become drastically different than they were in the past. Regardless of profession or discipline, students needs to know how to navigate the world of online writing and content creation, and teaching them how to engage intelligently with online platforms and audiences is a crucial skill.

Debra Beck 2014/06/09 at 4:23 pm

Thanks, everyone, for your thought-provoking feedback on the article. I’ve had most of the concerns raised here as I implemented this project in my courses. Some have been fairly straightforward to address, in reasonably satisfactory ways (even quite successfully). Others remain somewhat problematic. For my courses and the learning goals that I have set up for them, the blogging format has been a major step in the right direction vs. other platforms for this work. Still not perfect, to be sure. But there is great potential for meeting my learning goals and my students’ learning needs.

A few thoughts that may be of value:

Blogging is not intended to replace academic writing but, rather, to offer an additional option for engaging students in the research, writing and sharing processes. My students are primarily headed to professional work environments, where being able to communicate with a broader audience is essential and inevitable. (Many of those environments may include writing for organizational blogs or similar online sites [e.g., The EvoLLLution], actually.)

The blog format requires that they communicate succinctly, making the most of each word, each sentence, for a practitioner audience. For most of my students, that is a style of writing that will serve them well down the road.

My courses tend to be survey-type classes, where single units are, quite literally, entire courses in other academic programs. Writing a blog post that requires them to identify topics of critical concern to practitioner audiences, research one of those topics, curate resources that they can share with readers, and write an informative summary accomplishes at least two things. First, it deepens their knowledge on one of those topics. Second, it extends their learning via the posts that their classmates write and share as well. Because they choose topics that interest them (with my okay, of course – but they have wide latitude), they have a chance to own a part of their learning in a different kind of way.

Blog platforms offer a range of options for privacy and for moderation of comments. For example, one of blog assignments is open only to the class members. The other assignment is public (with multiple checks before posts are published). For public blogs, most course platforms have moderation options. This offers the opportunity to capture any trolls before they have a chance to stir things up in unproductive ways. Moderation, and the platform’s spam filters, offer that safety net. That has never been a problem for either my course blogs or for my own blog (which, by the way, began as a doctoral class project in 2007.

After the initial jitters wore off, my students seemed to enjoy (or at least had no problem rising to the challenge of) responding to comments left by their classmates and others. It was a friendly crowd for the most part (e.g., my Twitter connections from around the world, who saw a chance to support students just learning about our common expertise areas). It was a bit of a collective rush last spring, when the first comment to the first post came from someone in Arizona and the first retweet came from someone in London!

The diligence in heading off plagiarism – inadvertent (I was shocked by how little some knew about what they could and couldn’t do) or intentional – cannot be overemphasized for a public site. But then, I had those same issues when this particular assignment was done via class wiki (the last wiki never went public because the risks were simply too high on that front). But I also saw that as an (additional?) opportunity to educate them about issues they need to be clear on across their academic careers (and beyond).

We did have discussions about online reputation. I could have expanded that a bit, actually. Leaving a digital footprint is almost inevitable today. Creating an online reputation, for many to most of my students, certainly will be a part of their professional lives. I’d like to think that at least a handful of these students will be able to look back on this experience sometime down the road, when they either decide to create a blog on their own or are asked to contribute to an organizational blog.

It’s also likely that many future students will find blogging to be old hat by the time they get to us. As many of the resources I shared at the end of the article show, many elementary students and their older siblings are now blogging (even vlogging) as part of their classroom experiences.

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