Prompted by a twitter conversation with Miriam Posner about the need for a really basic introduction to using blogs in the college classroom, I’ve been reflecting on the ways that I’ve come to use public writing in my own teaching over the last fifteen years or so — both on the level of changing technology, and on the level of the scholarship of teaching and learning.
First, some background….
As an undergraduate at Georgetown University, I had the good fortune of working for and with Randy Bass, who even in the very first years of the web was leading the charge to encourage faculty to use technology to improve their teaching. (It is no surprise for those of you who read his blog and Profhacker posts that Mark Sample, aka “The Naked Professor,” then a masters student in the English Department, was also an integral part of those conversations and that work.) Randy often used to begin conversations with teachers by asking them what kinds of things they would like to change about their teaching. What would you like to do better? And, what tools can we use to help make that happen? To me, this is the essential heart of the right approach to using technology in teaching. It begins with an issue with the teaching and learning and then turns to the the task of implementing an appropriate intervention. These are the basic building blocks, regardless of the content focus or the digital tools at hand. What could be going better in your teaching? What do you wish your students would do more of? Do better? What do your students need to improve their learning?
These conversations coincided with work on several really important efforts at Georgetown. Mostly, I was marking up things in HTML, but Randy and Mark and other were working with faculty around the country on Engines of Inquiry: A Practical Guide for Using Technology in Teaching American Culture (1997), published through the American Studies Association’s Crossroads Project. (Sadly both of those projects are no longer available on the web, but Mark is working to resurrect the essays from Engines of Inquiry.) This work rolled into the first summer gathering for faculty interested in technology and pedagogy, where the main conversation was about deepening student engagement and increasing their ability to communicate the complex ideas that might result from that deepened engagement. That meeting has continued to be held summer after summer, eventually coming to be institutionalized in the Teaching, Learning, and Innovation Summer Institute. So, as I was making the transition from being an undergraduate who worked on some basic web projects to beginning a graduate student who was developing my own approach to teaching, my thinking was infused with the findings of these scholars who were committed to doing research on how to improve teaching and learning.
In Fall 1997, I arrived at the American Studies Department at the University of Minnesota with a graduate research assistantship that called for me to help implement some web elements for the department, particularly with respect to the core curriculum. Over the course of that year, I built a bunch of websites (by hand, using tables) that offered support for those courses, some of which had six recitation sections. That spring we installing threaded discussion boards to support the small group work in a large American Indian Studies course. I wasn’t in the classroom on a regular basis to see how the asynchronous discussion supported engagement, but from what I did see students seemed to be in conversation with one another and the materials. It was a good lesson about priming the pump, but in my own teaching at the UofM I mostly used websites as a way to deliver the syllabus and course materials.
I returned to the DC area in the August of 2004 to start work at CHNM. That return coincided with the closing meeting of the Visible Knowledge Project, begun by Randy Bass and his colleagues at the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship in 1999, to encourage research on teaching and learning. So Roy Rosenzweig and I spent several days absorbing the research and work that the project scholars had been conducting on the pay off of asking students to externalize their cognitive processes. My own thinking on teaching has been heavily influenced by the project’s resulting findings, which eventually were published in January 2009 in a special issue of Academic Commons: “New Media Technologies and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.”
The biggest take away for me from the VKP research was that students need to see their own process in order to repeat it in an independent way, and that the more they can think of themselves as being part of a larger public conversation the better their work will be. I took these two principles into my teaching with undergraduates and graduate students in subsequent semesters. To this, I added the goal of having the students significantly process and question the course materials before they came together for our face to face meetings. Unlike most teachers, I have only very rarely taught classes that met more than once a week, so making the most of a single almost-three-hour block is essential to running a successful course.
Now, onto the details…..
I have approached using blogs as a way to encourage engagement with course materials and peers in two ways over the last five or six years: with a network of individual blogs, and with a single place for shared writing. Both approaches have advantages and disadvantages, but generally, I find that using a single blog with lots of student authors works well with undergraduates, and that asking each individual to create an separate site works better for graduate students.
Regardless of whether the students each have their own blogging space, I always set up my course materials in WordPress. I provide the course schedule, required readings, general procedures, and a description of major assignments. For several years, I used the ScholarPress Courseware plugin to facilitate the mechanics of plugging the readings into the schedule, but for the last couple of semesters I’ve been using a newer version of WP, so I just created pages using basic HTML.
One approach to integrating public writing with a course is to ask each student to set up an individual blog. This has the advantage of assuring that they leave your course with the skills necessary to set-up and use a blog should they need to do that for another situation. While there are many platforms available, including Blogger and TypePad, I usually suggest that students go to WordPress.com for an account. It doesn’t get much simpler than that, and they learn the administrative interface for the most common stand-alone blogging software. Once the students have set up their sites, I use Google Reader to create a bundle of their RSS feeds so that I can follow their work through a single feed rather than having to check many different ones (thanks to the PressForward staff for the tips on doing this). Then, I post the bundle to the main course site so that everyone can subscribe to it. I find that this method is good for the graduate students who seem to have more willingness to maintain their own space over the long term, and to put a little bit more effort into the interaction of commenting. I ask the graduate students to blog each week in response to the major questions raised by the assigned materials.
Alternately, everyone can blog in the same site. This has the advantage of making for a single source of work. When asked this semester if they would rather set-up their own blogs or work within the course site, my undergraduates opted for using the main blog suggesting that a stronger sense of conversation was easier when everything is together. I generally agree with them. The only exception may be for undergraduates who have established an e-portfolio for their major and who might want to concentrate their writing in that space. When we all work in the same blog, I set up categories for each major author or thematic concentration so that we can easily navigate the large quantities of writing produced during the semester.
Whether using a network of blogs or a single course site, I don’t ask the undergraduates to blog each week. I divide the students into groups of four or five. Each week the students in one group are responsible for writing a blog post that engages the reading for the week and the larger questions of the course, which is due by 5pm two days before class. Then the rest of the class is responsible for commenting on at least one post (due by midnight the day before class). This results in students having to write at least two major reflections and to comment six or seven times during the semester. By requiring comments, I am forcing conversation and a sense of public accountability. Some semesters students do get into the spirit of conversation, but even if they are just fulfilling the requirements, we end of with a solid base for a conversation when we get to class. I’m happy to enter the conversation at that point, but I very rarely enter the space of the blogs, in part because I would like the students to feel like they can offer their thoughts and engage with one another without the sense that I’m waiting swoop in and turn the conversation or correct them. I do, however, read all the posts and the comments, and that writing significantly shapes the approach I take to the materials when we get to class. Finally, I grade all the main posts, and two randomly selected comments from each student. The random selection process of grading was suggested by Mills Kelly many years ago, and has, as he promised, generally guaranteed a reasonably high quality of response from the students. That isn’t too much writing for them, and it isn’t a ton of grading for me.
Of course, I’m neither the first, nor will I be the last, to write about this. One good place to start are the many useful posts on Profhacker in the teaching category.