by Jerod Quinn, Instructional Designer, CTTL
I warned my students this past semester that there would be a certain level of ambiguity inherent in my “introduction to technology” class. I was not going to walk them through using every application we discuss, but I would instead expect them to “figure it out” on their own. I promised them it would be frustrating at times, but learning is frustrating at times. As it turns out, I too had to eat my own words.
I am a techie by nature, so a course designed to introduce students to gadgets and apps and to prompt their understanding about how those apps can be useful, especially for future educators, is right up my alley. As I began choosing which apps we would wrestle with, I decided early on that I wanted my students to be familiar with blogs and understand how to navigate the backend of a content management system. I wanted them reading and commenting on each other’s work, but I also wanted them writing and publishing their own work. With that in mind, I decided to use a public WordPress blog; www.edi399.com.
While the focus of this post will be about the experience of using a public WordPress blog in my class, I think the topic warrants a quick explanation of why I was using a blog in the first place. A blog can incorporate two of Chickering and Gamson’s “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education” fairly naturally: good practice encourages student faculty contact, and good practice encourages cooperation among students. In keeping with the traditions of a Jesuit university, I also wanted to incorporate a space for the students to reflect on their experiences in the class. Reflection is a very important part of Ignatian Pedagogy and is connected to the Jesuit commitment to the transformational power of education.
“But why WordPress? There’s a perfectly fine blogging tool in Blackboard or Campus Pack!” That’s true. Going with WordPress means more hassle on my part administering an additional website and more hassle for my students in having to access another online tool. But it also means they get experience using a real-world tool that their future employers or graduate schools may be using to manage their professional websites. When their future bosses ask them in an interview, “Do you have any experience navigating a content management system?” I wanted them to be able to give an enthusiastic, “Yes!” I have also gathered anecdotal evidence from other faculty that when students know their writing will be seen by their peers and possibly by future employers, they tend to put a little more effort into it.
Along the way, I encountered expected and unexpected challenges. Of all the things I have learned with this project, here are a few lessons that stand out in my mind.
- Having a self-hosted blog means you are now an instructor and a website administrator. You manage student login info, create how-to-use-this-blog videos, deal with comment spam, and troubleshoot technical issues with students.
- Students will always forget their login name or password, no matter how many times they have previously posted to the blog.
- Blog comments give you another space where you can push the critical thinking of students and challenge their assumptions.
- You need to be clear when assignments are to be turned in as blog posts. And even then, you will get a few emailed to you instead.
- While I required students to comment on each other’s work, I wonder if it would have occurred more naturally if they were writing to the blog more frequently?
- Depending on the questions you ask, you can get a picture of the student’s process of thinking as they wrestle with course material.
- Even though your host company’s servers have never gone down a single time in the five years you have had service with them, they will go down on the exact day and hour your biggest writing assignment of the semester is due, which of course, is submitted as a blog post. True story.
- The more you have students using the blog the better and more useful the blog gets. Commit to it being a major part of your class or don’t use a public blog.
- You spend the semester scaffolding their learning. You cover material and assign projects that build to a cumulative final project that is designed to be an evaluation asking if they have reached the course goals. They complete the project, then reflect on some questions about the project on the blog. You grade the project and then read the student reflections about the final project. As you read the reflections you realize, they get it. Your students understand the things you knew you needed them to understand when you began this course sixteen weeks ago. The blog gives you a place to celebrate that victory.
There’s always a risk when you try something new. There will be unforeseen problems like continual password resets and horribly timed server crashes. But risk is what makes teaching and learning exciting, and it makes payoffs all the more sweet. Trying something new will be frustrating at times, but learning is frustrating at times. With that in mind, I would absolutely use a public blog again for my class. The only thing I know I would do differently is to have it more incorporated into the class. I would want them to write and reflect more, even if that means resetting passwords every week.
Food for thought for those interested in blogging in the classroom:
- Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing
- Using Blogs in a College Classroom: What’s Authenticity Got to Do with It?