Whether your teaching is moving fully online or taking a HyFlex approach, using blogs in your course can help you teach students writing, foster deeper engagement with concepts and mitigate some of the isolation students felt in the spring when their courses went online. Blogs can be personal, accessible, responsive and strategic -- an ideal online teaching strategy, as Jessie Borgman and Casey McArdle describe.
But as with any teaching technology, blogs are not automatically successful. The key is to get students writing regularly to each other about ideas connected to your course in a positive feedback loop that you set in motion and can then step back from.
After years of trial and error, I now use the same basic blog format for every class, which helps my students make the most out of the class blog while keeping the workload manageable for all of us. My prompt is open and the same every week: a 250-word post on ideas or readings from the class or a 150-word comment extending those ideas. Each week, two groups of students trade off posting or commenting. I read the blogs weekly, highlighting especially good observations in our class discussion and noting what students get (and don't get) from the material for the week so that I can adapt to their interests and needs. My assessment is essentially nonevaluative and accomplished through a student portfolio or checkmarks for completion.
Blogs work beautifully in writing courses because students get regular practice in low-stakes writing for an authentic audience. In content-focused courses, I sometimes provide specific guidelines for posts, asking students to, for example, use a nontextual medium like an audio recording or a series of images, to pull a quote from a text, or to focus on a concept they don't understand. Writing is a mode of learning, so blog writing helps students more deeply engage with the material in any course.
Perhaps the greatest advantage of blogs is that they enable an asynchronous mode of interaction among students about ideas in a course. The time and performance pressures of synchronous discussion can be difficult for students with anxiety, hearing disabilities, shyness, different learning styles or a need for more time to process material. By providing a space for students to write on their own time and engage with their peers without such pressures, blogs encourage such students to be more engaged. And meanwhile, students who thrive in synchronous discussions can also benefit from taking time to process, write, reflect and consider their peers' ideas before introducing their own.
Blogs also allow students to grapple with course material in a space that is less mediated by an instructor's agenda, especially if you have a light touch in prompts and assessment. For me, reading students’ thoughts without kicking off the conversation means that, each term, I can stay fresh and open to a particular group of students' interpretations and then tailor my approach to their specific needs.
Tips for Using Blogs
What goals might blogs accomplish in your course? And how might you set up blog interactions to meet those goals? Here are a few tips.
- Consider some potential goals of blogs. Are they to balance voices in a course, enable multiple modes of engagement, allow students to consider course material with less mediation from you or give students practice with low-stakes writing? Which goals are more important to you?
- Decide what blogs will be replacing from your previous course design. Given the work involved, don’t add blogs to students’ already-existing course workload. Instead, swap them out for other assignments or class activities.
- Use your college or university's course management system if you're trying out blogging for the first time. Any major one -- including Canvas, Desire2Learn, Blackboard, Moodle -- has a workable option for student blogs. The advantages of using a CMS-based blog are campus IT support and documentation to help you set them up, a closed community within the class, student familiarity with the platform, and streamlined assessment and accountability to make your life and theirs a bit easier.
- Tell students why you're using blogs in the course. Explain how it will benefit them, what your expectations are, how you’ll award credit and how their blog writing will interact with other aspects of the course. Your students may have experienced blogs in other courses and not have found them valuable. Show them how blogs will be an integral part of your course at the beginning of the semester and throughout.
- Establish a regular and dependable rhythm for blogging and commenting, and allow for flexibility in that rhythm. Blogs should be an ongoing conversation, repeated throughout the semester, so that their process is iterative. Make expectations clear for when students should post and comment. You could split them into two groups and have them alternate posting and commenting every other week (which can work well for writing classes). Or have them sign up to post on particular weeks of interest to them (which can work well in content-focused classes) or ask them to post five comments by midterm. Whatever format you choose, let them know and follow up to help them learn the rhythm.
- Provide guidelines and models of good posts early on. Especially in undergraduate courses, word-count guidelines can be useful to help students understand what level of engagement you're looking for -- for example, at least 250 words for a post and 100 for a comment. Highlight models of good posts or conversations in class discussions, star them on the blog itself or share them via email.
- Let students bring in their own ideas for the blog. Establish your expectations, but avoid writing detailed blog prompts. Writing detailed weekly prompts not only requires you to do more work, but it also curtails student expression, engagement and community formation.
- Don't treat blogs as mini essays to be revised. While posts may serve as generative, raw material for later assignments in the course, asking for revisions can detract from the blog’s role as a low-stakes space to write and circulate ideas. It's often best to treat blogs as one and done.
- Give students the option of emailing you directly instead of blogging online, no questions asked. Just as students can opt out of synchronous discussions by being silent, students should be able to opt out of asynchronous discussion. To further protect student privacy, encourage students to keep their conversations within the class by discussing class confidentiality.
- Let students know you're reading their blogs in supportive ways. Refer to ideas from the blogs in conversation with students individually or in class discussion. Help students see connections between their own ideas and those of their peers, quote blogs in your written communication to students, or leave nonevaluative comments on individual blog posts. Avoiding regular evaluation is key to managing your own workload and also for supporting peer connections and independent writing on the blog.
- Give students credit for their posts or comments. Count them as part of the work for the class in a low-stakes way, but avoid evaluative grading. You can give credit on a check-mark basis or through a blog portfolio that asks them to do metacognitive reflective work on their own writing.
For example, for a portfolio worth 15 percent of a final grade, I ask students to choose their two best posts and two best comments on someone else’s post and to paste those texts into a document. Students then write a 300-word mini cover letter addressed to me in which they introduce their posts and comments and describe their thoughts both upon posting them and now upon reflection. I ask them to tell me what they’ve learned, what they’re still curious about or are still learning, and how they might change their blog writing in the future. I weigh my assessment of the students’ portfolios equally between the quality of their chosen posts and their general participation on the blog.
Ultimately, providing an online space where students control the topics of discussion is a leap of faith. It requires students to respect each other in discourse, which instructors can encourage through course policies and modeling. It also requires instructors to let go of at least part of the narrative of a course. Especially in graduate and upper-level undergraduate courses, I’ve found that students often get comfortable enough in the blog to push back on readings, the course and even their peers' ideas or my framing of material. They also support each other in novel ways, offering similar experiences and concerns or references and links for further exploration.
Through this peer feedback -- both the critical engagement and support statements -- blogs help students feel heard. By learning more about their peers' interests and experiences in blogs, students often tell me they feel a stronger sense of classroom community and attachment to the course. In an online, hybrid or HyFlex teaching environment, especially in a time of significant stress for students, these connections may prove vital for student engagement, retention and learning.