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21st Century Learning | Feature

Strategies for Blog-Powered Instruction

Three blog-savvy educators share their best practices for harnessing the unique strengths of blogs to supplement coursework and elevate student learning.

Blogs are one of the oldest components of the web 2.0 toolkit, but their strengths as an instructional tool are still being discovered. It's all too easy to fall into the trap of seeing blogs as a substitute for online discussion boards or a new delivery system for traditional academic writing. As with any educational technology, blogs work best when instructors harness their unique features to supplement learning in the classroom.

"Blogs highlight individual contributions more than wikis," remarks Stuart Glogoff, senior consultant in the Office of Instruction and Assessment at the University of Arizona. "They're more flexible than threaded discussion forums, and they provide more room for expressing ideas than Twitter. Blogs provide an individual space where students can write publicly, where students can comment on each other's work, and where the professor's participation can subtly call attention to the best student work as a way of raising the bar for the rest of the class."

Glogoff has helped implement a variety of blogging initiatives at UA. In an upper-level Spanish course, for example, students wrote Spanish-language responses to the professor's posts on a shared blog. And in a recent Honors College "reading groups" initiative, students posted insights to their individual blogs on a variety of topics, such as ideas for economic development gleaned after meetings with local community leaders. "The blogs create an opportunity for shared understanding and an open exchange of ideas," explains Glogoff.

Blogging the Learning Process
Just as blogs can help foster conversation among students and faculty, instructors are discovering that they can also serve a more personal role, as a tool of reflection and self-appraisal. "The blog's biggest strength is in the development and authentication of the student voice in learning," notes Ruth Reynard, associate professor of education and the director of the Center for Instructional Technology at Trevecca Nazarene University (TN).

Reynard uses blogs as a way to get students to reflect on their coursework--essentially by keeping an online journal in which they track their learning. As opposed to a traditional journal that is read only by the instructor, student blogs are digital, immediate, and published--raising the stakes and increasing the students' investment in their reflective writing.

"Also, visually, you have a track of how the students' thinking has developed throughout the course," explains Reynard. "Students can see where they've changed their minds, or where they became stronger thinkers. By showcasing that development, the blog empowers students to develop an authentic voice and to see themselves as growing experts in that field of study."

When used as a tool for reflection, blogs allow students to write at length about their own experiences as learners, and to read and comment on the insights posted on their classmates' blogs. This type of public, shared self-reflection is difficult to achieve in other forms of collaborative online writing, such as discussion boards. "If the students were to post this type of self-reflective piece in an online discussion board, it would throw the discussion off track," says Reynard. "In a blog, though, it's your environment, your voice, and you can take your time to say what you need to say."

Reynard has also found that blogs are a great tool for helping her graduate students learn to write academically. She requires her graduate students to embed hyperlinks to online sources that are influencing their thinking in their reflective blog posts.

"Referencing the authors and sources is a learned skill," explains Reynard. "Because blogs are naturally a hyperlink environment, they can link directly to articles in library databases. Then, when it comes time to write a reflective paper, they can just cut and paste from their blog, because they've essentially been writing small pieces of that reflective paper throughout the course."

Free-Range Writing
Gardner Campbell, director of professional development and innovative initiatives in the Division of Learning Technologies at Virginia Tech, is also a strong proponent of blogs as tools for academic reflection. But he warns against falling into the trap of having blog posts become term papers by other means or just another kind of assignment that students must fit into their schoolwork.

Campbell prefers "free-range" blogging. In his courses, blogging is a requirement, not an assignment. It is graded as a participation component of the course. Students are given no prompts about what they should write, nor must they fulfill a specific word count.

"Blogs are a place where a student can find his own voice as a learner in an unusually powerful way," explains Campbell. "They offer a chance to get something that really comes from the whole person. They offer a window into the students' cognition. Blogs give you a fighting chance of seeing the work of understanding in its molten state, before it's congealed, before everything is rigid and turned to stone."

Campbell has found that free-range blogging--and the blogging platform itself--is also a great antidote to the tendency of students to write only what they think their professor wants them to write, rather than pushing themselves to discover what they truly understand about a topic. "Blogging seems to short-circuit that tendency and get students past that jam," notes Campbell. "Because blogging is so malleable, it's a wonderful platform for creativity."

At Virginia Tech, Campbell's students build their blogs on the WordPress platform, and he encourages them to spend time customizing the look of their blog, creating their own roll of blogs they follow, and incorporating audio and video elements into their posts.

Campbell, Reynard, and Glogoff all agree that blogging works best when it's blended into the curriculum, so posts are seen both as an extension of the discussions in the classroom and as an inspiration for future classroom conversations. "A student recently wrote a blog post that beautifully synthesized a number of classroom discussions and activities on various topics from the past month," recalls Campbell. "He'd obviously been mulling these ideas over in class, and had spoken up and participated. But it wasn't until he was able to get away and push at it on his own, and then share his ideas in the social context of the blog, that this powerful synthesis came out.

"When something like that happens, it draws from class. It pulls the coursework together in a way that's authentic to the individual learner, and then it is shared on the blog where classmates can comment on it. Then it comes back into the classroom discussion the next time we meet face-to-face. Learning becomes a virtuous cycle where the blog feeds the classroom and the classroom feeds the blog."

5 Tips for Blogging

  1. Have a clear pedagogical purpose for incorporating blogs into the instruction, and clearly state the purpose and requirements of student blogging on the class syllabus. "Students need to see a purpose for the blog, and they need guidelines for entries and comments," explains Stuart Glogoff, senior consultant in the Office of Instruction and Assessment at the University of Arizona. "In the cases where faculty have incorporated blogs without establishing their purpose, student participation has been uniformly low."
  2. Blog contributions and comments should be a graded element of the course. "Your grade is your currency for your course," explains Ruth Reynard, associate professor of education and the director of the Center for Instructional Technology at Trevecca Nazarene University (TN). "If you don't assign a score to blogging, students aren't going to take it seriously or treat it as a priority because they're too busy doing the work that they're earning scores for."
  3. Don't assume that students are familiar with the practical aspects of blogging. Exercises on uploading images and videos, embedding text links, and writing constructive comments on peer blogs should be required before content-specific blog entries are due.
  4. Model best practices by contributing to your own blog and commenting on students' blogs. "There's no shortcut to this," advises Reynard. "If you don't comment, then students feel as if they're talking to the air. Commenting gives you the opportunity to connect directly with each student, and makes students feel as though they're getting direct tutoring, which is actually the best way to teach."
  5. Simplify navigation between student blogs by having students subscribe to each other's blogs via RSS feeds, dividing students into small groups to comment on each other's work, or building a mother blog--a front page for the course that aggregates recent blog posts, comments, updates from course-related websites, and social-networking feeds. "I like the mother blog because it's a great lesson in how to make the web work for you," explains Gardner Campbell, director of professional development and innovative initiatives in the Division of Learning Technologies at Virginia Tech. "Understanding how to create a site where chosen content is aggregated onto a single page is a best practice, not just for the classroom but for living on the web in general."
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