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Using Blogs in your teaching

This area introduces ways you could use Blogs in your teaching, considerations you need to think about when using them and links to more information.

What are Blogs?

A blog (or web log) is a kind of website that allows the user to very easily update the content by simply uploading a ‘post’ and attaching files to it.  These blog posts can then become interactive because the author can allow readers to post a reply or ‘comment’ below the post. Posts are archived in reverse chronological order so a blog can resemble an online journal with dated entries. Content can also be filtered and or organised based on keywords (tags) or categories. RSS is a technology that allows a blog post on one site to be read by a newsreader like Google Reader. Queen Mary already has a blogging capability within its VLE and there are also a number of free platforms available all of which require little technical knowledge to get started.  WordPress, Blogger and Edublogs are very popular.

Typically a blog is administered through an intuitive web interface which not only allows a user to control the access to content created and comments received, but also allows ‘generic’ designs to be personalised by changing layouts, colours etc. Many individuals and organisations actually use the blog ‘paradigm’ to drive their entire web presence by mixing static webpages with blog type pages. There are also a vast swathe of additional features or ‘plugins’ that can be added to your blog, whether it is another social media tool like a  Twitter feed or tag clouds photo viewers and many more.

Why use Blogs?

The alchemy of a blog lies in its simplicity and the range of content it can profile on the web without a lot of technical understanding. Blogs are being used by educators to provide commentary on topics or themes from modules or subject areas, student or tutor reflections, essays, creative writing, project updates, class discussions directed or non, meeting notes, news and more. They can also contain comments and hyperlinks, photos and other media provided by the writer.

Blogs are a great way for you, your class or your students individually to start reading, analysing and commenting on course-related writing tasks  and because they can be set up to allow different audiences e.g. just the individual, the class or module group or public access  they open up a range of critical feedback opportunities.

The chronological format of the blog encourages users to regularly update them and as such provides a great mechanism for delivering the latest news in a subject area or a group project. You can link from one blog to another and this interlinking can enable learning communities to be formed. In addition other Social Networking formats like ‘facebook’ or the microblogging tool ‘Twitter’ can be integrated with the blog to provide an immediacy that can encourages further interaction.

Blogs are also widely used as spaces for reflective learning where students and/or staff can gather thoughts, collect information and even organise that information into digital portfolios. They can also be effective as knowledge management tools for postgraduate researchers to capture and archive progress in research and establish professional credibility and reputation.

Key benefits

  • Blogs are an easy way for you and your students to get content onto the web quickly and easily, they are also available as part of the college VLE
  • Class blogs can enable students to discuss topics further outside the classroom in a more discursive and thoughtful way and if open widen the discussion to global audiences with similar interests
  • Can enable you as the tutor to guage levels of understanding prior to seminars
  • In many cases students have been found to engage positively in the writing process and discover a ‘distinctive voice’
  • The less formal environment of blogging can allow students to explore ideas before producing more formal work.
  • Blogs can be used as a personal learning space where you can keep notes, references, links, thoughts or a CV thus providing valuable skills in managing information
  • Student groups can get to know each other faster, they can engage shyer students and encourage the more confident students to be challenged
  • Can turn your blog into an ebook using simple converters (e.g. Anthologize works with WordPress blogs)
  • Can enable you as an academic to engage with the public on your own terms and sidestep the mainstream media

  Key issues

  • Blogs are easy to set up but notoriously difficult to keep going, they require commitment, energy and enthusiasm
  • It can be tricky to find the right style when doing educational blogging e.g. flippant and informal? or serious and essay-like?
  • Blogs can often contain extremely biased information and students need to be careful when using or citing them
  • It is easy to inadvertently bypass Intellectual Property/Copyright law when uploading materials to a blog
  • You might consider assessing contributions in a blog particularly if you are having problems getting students to engage or you are expecting a lot of time spent on the blog
  • It can take a great deal of time to monitor and offer meaningful comments for large classes
  • Allowing public commenting can mean managing a lot of unwanted Spam
  • If no one comments on your posts then this can act as a disincentive to blogging regularly

  Is it OK to use at Queen Mary?

There is no reason per se not to take advantage of the technologies that the rest of the world is using for communications.  They move and develop much more quickly than organizationally provided systems typically can, and often do completely different things.  The choice of tool you use to meet you and your students’ learning objectives is your choice. Some practical considerations are outlined below.

Classroom practice

A professional communications course for undergraduate Engineers got the students to create their own blog sites. They were then assigned a blogging group and within each a ‘blogging buddy’ (see practical considerations below). Each student blogged 250 – 300 words on an assigned topic, the buddy reviewed the first draft before live posting. When edited each student then reads and makes comments on at least 3 classmates’ posts.

A history lecturer created a closed blog for each tutorial group of ten. Postgraduate tutors set the tone and monitored the discussion. One student/week was given responsibility for the blog while the rest commented. They were asked to comment on the tutorial text for that week and were given some questions to get them started. The tasks were worth 20% of the overall course mark, 10% for the blog and 10% for the comments. (example courtesy of the former PRS Subject Centre)

Students on placement in a 14 week  3rd year Diagnostic Radiography course were given a weekly task to do on a blog within the VLE. A case study and image were provided and questions were then posed; the relevance of the clinical history, pathological identification etc. Students were asked to post answers and comment on other students’ responses. The tutor added comments or posed wuestions where necessary and feedback was given a week later via  a podcast. The podcast also expanded the discussion presented in the case study and mentioned other newsworthy items. Students noted in feedback that they appreciated the comments of peers, it made them feel less isolated and it helped them in networking with peers.

Business students who are seeking placements and internships used a class blog as an alternative to weekly email updates. The blog entries contained information about placements, job adverts, advice from students currently on placements etc. The blog format meant all the information was archived in oe place and was searchable, and different formats of info were more easily supported. It was necessary to ensure that the blog was well publicised.

Students studying German articulated their reflections on the dissertation writing process in German. They had to write at four points in the academic year. Students commented that it helped them pace their work better and keep an overview of their work.

Practical considerations

  • Be clear about why you want to use them
  • Model activities and exercises with your students so that they understand what is required. Setting up practice exercises has proved very effective
  • Consider having some guidelines for acceptable use. What can and can’t be said, whether the poster owns the copyright to posted content etc
  • Setting up an RSS newsreader can be a great way to bring together and monitor a set of individual classroom blogs
  • Assigning a ‘blogging buddy’ and ‘blogging groups’ can be a useful guarantee that everyone will receive comments about their work rather than just popular students/posts (acts like a first-draft editor)
  • Consider appointing students to monitor and summarise contributions to the blog on a weekly basis, thus saving you time
  • Considered aggregation of blogs into a class RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feed
  • The internet is full of blogs that started with the best intentions but never got off the ground. More successful blogs build a community by blogging on a consistent basis (daily? Weekly?) and  integrating other social media like Facebook and Twitter into your blog
  • When choosing a theme for your blog and customizing it be aware that the simpler you keep it the easier it is to modify in the future

Learn more

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