“It is my impression that no one really likes the new. We are afraid of it. It is not only as Dostoevsky put it that 'taking a new step, uttering a new word is what people fear most.' Even in slight things the experience of the new is rarely without some stirring of foreboding.”
--Eric Hoffer, Between The Devil And The Dragon
I tried the new in fall 2009, teaching with student blogs, (look in sidebar and scroll down) out in the open where anyone who wanted to could see what the students were producing. The blogging wasn’t new for me. I’d been doing that for almost five years. Having students blog was a different matter. I had no experience in getting them to overcome their anxieties, relaxing in writing online, learning to trust one another that way. Normally I believe what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If I could blog comfortably and get something from that, so could they. On reflection, however, I was very gentle with myself when I started to blog. As an experiment to prove to myself whether I could do it, for three full weeks I made at least one post a day, 500 to 600 words, a couple of times 1,100 to 1,200 words. I didn’t tell a soul I was doing this. There was no pressure on me to keep it up. It was out in the open, yet nobody seemed to be watching. After those three weeks I felt ready. In the teaching, however, at best I could ask the students to blog once a week. I gave the students weekly prompts on the readings or to follow up on class discussion. (See the class calendar for fall 2009. The prompts are in the Friday afternoon entries.) If I let them blog quietly to get comfortable as I had done, the entire semester would expire before they were ready to go public. There seemed no alternative but to have them plunge in.
The uncertainty about how best to assist the students once they had taken the plunge created an important symmetry between the students and me; we both were to learn about how to do this well, often by first doing it less well. Though it was an inadvertent consequence, of all my teaching over the past 30 years I believe this course came closest to emulating the Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education by Chickering and Gamson. I learned to comment on the student posts, not with some pre-thought-through response based on what I anticipated they’d write, but rather to react to where they appeared to be in their own thinking. (This post provides a typical example. The student introduced time management as a theme. My comment aimed to make her think more about time management.) As natural as that is to do in ordinary conversation, I had never done it before when evaluating student work. Indeed, I didn’t think of these comments as evaluation at all. I thought of them as response. In the normal course of my non-teaching work I respond to colleagues all the time and they respond to me. This form of online interaction in the class made it more like the rest of my interactions at work.
Most of the students were quite awkward in their initial blogging. Good students all, the class was a seminar on "Designing for Effective Change" for the Honors Program, but lacking experience in this sort of approach to instruction, the students wrote to their conception of what I wanted to hear from them. I can’t imagine a more constipated mindset for producing interesting prose. For this class there was a need for them to unlearn much of their approach which had been finely tuned and was quite successful in their other classes. They needed to take more responsibility for their choices. While I gave them a prompt each week on which to write, I also gave them the freedom to choose their own topic so long as they could create a tie to the course themes. Upon reading much of the early writing, I admonished many of them to "please themselves" in the writing. I informed them that they could not possibly please other readers if they didn’t first please themselves. It was a message they were not used to hearing. So it took a while for them to believe it was true. In several instances they tried it out only after being frustrating with the results from their usual approach. This, as Ken Bain teaches us, is how students learn on a fundamental level.
I'm crustier now than I was as a younger faculty member. Nonetheless, I find it difficult to deal with the emotion that underlies giving feedback to students when that feedback is less than entirely complimentary to them. Yet given their awkward early attempts at writing posts that’s exactly what honest response demanded. It’s here where having the postings and the comments out in the open so all can see is so important, before the class has become a community, before the students have made up their minds about what they think about this blogging stuff. Though both the writing and the response are highly subjective, of necessity, it is equally important for the process to be fair. How can a student who receives critical comments judge those comments to be fitting and appropriate, rather than an example of the insensitive instructor picking on the hapless student? Perhaps a very mature student can discern this even-handedly from the comments themselves and a self-critique of the original post. I believe most students benefit by reading the posts of their classmates, making their own judgments about those writings and then seeing the instructor’s comments, finally making a subsequent determination as to whether those comments seem appropriate and helpful for the student in reconsidering the writing.
A positive feedback loop can be created by this process. The commenting, more than any other activity the instructor engages in, demonstrates the instructor’s commitment to the course and to the students. In turn the students, learning to appreciate the value of the comments, start to push themselves in the writing. Their learning is encouraged this way. Further, since the blogging is not a competition between the students and their classmates, those who like getting comments begin to comment on the posts of other students. The elements of the community that the class can become are found in this activity.
Since on a daily basis I use blogs and blog readers in my regular work, one of the original reasons for me taking this approach rather than use the campus learning management system was simply that I thought it would be more convenient for me. Also, given my job as a learning technology administrator, I went into the course with some thought that I might showcase the work afterward. Openness is clearly better for that. However in retrospect neither of these is primary. The main reason to be open is to set a good tone for the class. We want ideas to emerge and not remain concealed.
Yet there remains one troubling element: student privacy. Is open blogging this way consistent with FERPA? As best as I’ve been able to determine, it is as long as students “opt in.” (I did give students the alternatives of writing in the class LMS site or writing in the class wiki site. No student opted for those.) My experience suggests, however, that is not quite sufficient. If most students opt in, peer pressure may drive others to opt in as well. More importantly, however, students choose to opt in when they are largely ignorant of the consequences. Might they feel regret after they better understand what the blogging is all about?
Based on my discussion with the students on this point, essentially all their reservations about blogging would have been eliminated were they to have blogged under aliases. One of my students figured that out on her own, for self-protection. A few others took out any mention of their name on their blogs partway into the class. I’ve been thinking of the next class I will teach and how I’ll adopt aliases in that setting. My current plan is to assign aliases generated by concatenating the names of famous economists (I teach microeconomics) with the course rubric and number. Then in the bio section of their blogs I’ll have the students post a little about the economists who are their namesakes. The actual aliases will be a little long and clunky this way, but in the colloquial way students are apt to communicate with each other, I’m sure they’ll embrace shorter forms. And this way they’ll become acquainted with some of the giants in the field, not a bad byproduct from satisfying their privacy need. I had briefly considered using something considerably shorter, say a number. But that conjured up thoughts of The Prisoner and that’s not the ambiance I’m trying to create for the course.
I wonder if partway into the semester, after having established some confidence with the blogging, students might choose to reveal their true identities. I’m curious to find out.
Lanny Arvan is CIO and associate dean for e-learning at the College of Business of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.