Monday, 10 June 2013

Improving the Blogging Experience for Students

This past semester I encouraged my students to blog, as a way to make their thinking visible.  Back in March, I posted my first reflections about the endeavour.  Check them out here.  As the semester winds down, I have been reflecting about blogging and how to improve it for next year.  Below I detail the drawbacks I experienced and how I hope to address them.

Drawback #1: Lack of ownership
This year I set up one blog for each class and made each student an author.  This is a collaborative or multi-author blog.  Students didn't own their space.  I fear that this lack of ownership didn't allow them to feel a connection to what they were doing.  They were just contributing to something that the teacher created.  Additionally, as a multi-author blog, only the blog owner (me) got notification emails when people responded.  One of the best parts of blogging is having someone respond and the ensuing conversation, but the students never got that satisfaction.  They would have to go back to their post to see if anyone responded.
Improvement #1: Independent Blogs
For next year, I will have each student open their own blog via UG Cloud.  Students can then customize their  blog, which I hope will create ownership.  Furthermore, students will get notification when people respond to their blogs.  I will set up an RSS feed so that students have an easy way to connect with their classmates' blogs.

Drawback #2: Rigidity 
I set aside specific times to go to the library to blog.  Upon reflection, this made blogging very forced and the students often thought that only had to blog when there was class time dedicated to it.  I want students to blog when a topic strikes them and I want them to blog outside of specified times.  From my own blogging, I find it hard to blog "on demand".  I wanted the students to blog at least 10 times and respond to at least 20 posts.  I focused too much on quantity, when what I really care about is quality.  This made the task cumbersome and similar to a countdown.  I heard myself telling students, "You only need to respond to three more posts."  This wasn't authentic; blogging became just another assignment.  I also had blogging prompts, but students thought that meant they had to write about one of the prompts.  This took away from their ownership.
Improvement #2: Flexibility
I am slowly moving away from teacher-centred instruction.  I have experimented around with student-directed activities, and I think that by regularly having students direct their learning they will have more flexibility to blog during class. Hopefully this will give them more ideas about what they can blog about.  The blogs would also operate as a way to provide formative feedback. Next year I won't have a minimum number of blog posts to write or to respond.  I feel as though the number creates too much pressure and quality suffers because of the need to get x-number of posts done.  Additionally, right from the beginning, I will encourage students to create their own blogging ideas.  Hopefully, this makes blogging more personal and relevant.

Drawback #3: Lack of Feedback and Conversation
One of my biggest concerns was the quality of the students' comments on their peers' blogs and the lack of conversation.  Despite providing students with stems and conversation starters, comments were often of the "Nice post" quality.  Students saw commenting as something they had to do and get over with. There wasn't much evidence of deep thinking.  Furthermore, I modeled effective commenting for them.  I gave students feedback on their feedback.  I need to do more than that.
Improvement #3: Practice Face-to-Face and Model
Before I have students blog, I am going to have them practice giving each other feedback and having a conversation face-to-face.  In class, we will have discussions and dissect why the conversation was able to continue or why it stalled.  Additionally, I will dedicate some time to specifically responding to each others' blogs.  Students will not focus on creating their own posts.  Their focus will be on responding to each other and carrying on an online conversation.

Alanna King (@banana29) tweeted out a blog post by Kathleen Morris, an educator in Australia.  The image below, from Kathleen's blog, really spoke to me and will help me to frame blogging with my classes.

For some reason, I didn't think that it was necessary to explicitly teach the mechanics of blogging.  I discussed WHY we were blogging, but I never went into the details of HOW to blog.  Next year I will take time to discuss feedback and continuing conversations.  Additionally, as previously mentioned, I had a specific number of posts and responses I wanted the students to complete.  These expectations aren't high enough, nor do they reflect what I really want the students to get out of blogging, which is deep thinking about their learning.  By providing regular feedback, students will be reminded of the high expectations they are to be meeting.  Authentic motivation is so important, but I think can be difficult, especially when students aren't interested in the topic.  Unfortunately, some topics can't be helped...they are part of the curriculum.  I see it as my job to try and make topics relevant and help students to make a personal connection.

Additionally, I will share this blog post, by Doug Peterson (@dougpete), which details tips for successful blogging.  One of the points that stood out was the fact that blogging takes courage.  I will share with my students how difficult I, as a teacher, find it to post my thoughts.  As I was writing this post, I hesitated if I would even publish it.  I also liked the point about being positive.  When I started this post, I wondered if I was being negative, but then I thought some more about the purpose.  My  purpose was to explore the drawbacks I encountered and find ways to improve blogging.  Ultimately, I don't think I am complaining; rather, I like to think that I am being constructive.

I have quite a lot of work ahead of me to make blogging work for my classes and I am always looking for ways to improve the experience.  I truly believe that blogging can be powerful for students and teachers alike and I am not willing to give up.

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