Photo of kitten in front of white computer keyboardKelly Hanson is a PhD candidate in English at Indiana University, Bloomington who uses class blogs in her writing class on James Bond. You can find her on Twitter at @krh121910

A big focus here at Gradhacker is how to use technology to facilitate teaching, writing, and research. We’ve written in the past about how to integrate blogs, twitter, or other electronic writing mediums into the undergraduate classroom. But the question remains: how do we integrate these technologies to facilitate learning and accessibility? Basically, I’m starting with  the premise that blogs, Twitter, and other electronic mediums foster discussion and communication. What I’m asking here is how we can best integrate these into the classroom. How, in other words, can we take advantage of these mediums in order to foster discussion? Are there “best practices” for using electronic learning spaces?

I’ve taught with blogs in my freshman writing courses for a few years. Every year I like this assignment, but I also always want to change the assignment. The reason I change it is almost always to try to improve discussion and participation, and to find ways to (more) smoothly integrate the digital and classroom conversation spaces. Because there are no hard and fast rules about making blogs into a useful space for student dialogue. Some classes find them more useful than others, and in some classes the students simply have a better rapport. Some materials lend themselves to blogging better than others. But in what follows, I’d like to suggest some best practices for how to make your students’ blogs into useful conversation spaces.

8 Ways to Make Class Blogs Useful Conversation Spaces:

1. Keep a Course Blog: Keep a central, easily accessibly page with links to all of the students’ blogs (set up your own course blog or use a page within your university’s electronic learning system—Blackboard, etc.) This allows students to easily access classmates’ blogs and offers you a central space to also post short blogs, prompts, and relevant media.

2. Integrate: If you can, schedule your students’ blogs so that you can reference and integrate blogs into classroom discussions. This might be as simple as beginning class by referencing a few blogs, or by using a website like Storify to collect student blog responses each week, either through the course blog or in a short classroom presentation. You might also consider allowing students to cite each other’s blogs in their papers, in addition to  peer-reviewed sources.

3.  Use Prompts: Have specific, but open prompts and assignments that encourage different responses and interpretations. By having students respond to a particular quote, idea, or film clip, you give them a common ground for communication (something a broad question does not allow for).

4. Use Comments: Make commenting part of the your students’ final grade, either by requiring comments every week, or by requiring a set number of comments throughout the semester. Remind students in class about comments being required, and draw on both comments and blogs when discussing blogs in class. Encourage students to do the same.

5. Participate Yourself: Model productive conversations for your students. Make sure you participate in the conversations as something other than an authority figure. This is a more informal space, and you’re trying to encourage discussion, not stifle it. I have found that this is best accomplished by asking questions rather than flat out correcting a student, which can result in shutting down the conversation. (There are some caveats to this, obviously, since being an ethical teacher and keeping the learning space safe and accessible for all students can require intervention and corrections. It is important to balance policing these spaces as you would the classroom with encouraging students by challenging their thinking.)

6. Encourage Accessibility: There are a number of ways to work towards accessibility in the digital classroom. Many of these are small. For example, encourage your students to use the same site for their blogs so they can easily follow each other. Discuss layout and design, which themes are the most accessible, and how students can write their blogs so that those with vision loss or color blindness can still access the information. Remind students that while the blogs are meant for class discussion, they are public and can in theory be read by anyone. Have discussions about universal accessibility in relation to blog format and layout. Of all the blog sites, WordPress in particular is good about accessibility issues.

7. Read and Research: Do some reading on digital pedagogy, or on integrating digital technologies into the classroom. Journals like JiTP (The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy) , JOLT (Journal of Online Teaching and Learning), or even Duke’s Pedagogy all have useful recommendations, especially for teaching humanities courses. Researching digital pedagogies can help you alter blog assignments and expectations accordingly.

8. Discuss Privacy: Besides making sure your blog assignment complies with FERPA, make sure you inform students of FERPA regulations and encourage them to use pseudonyms. Students blogging under pseudonyms often feel more comfortable than those writing under their real names, in part because pseudonyms protect their privacy. To make sure you comply with FERPA, consider having students sign a consent form, or use a blog system already integrated into your campus’s course websites (which are usually password protected). Check with your department or university (usually the Office of the Registrar) to make sure your assignment is in compliance.

These 8 steps offer a first step towards using blogs-and forums, wikis, tweets, or any other electronic mediums-to best encourage student learning and engagement. Blogs allow students to take ownership of their own ideas in a way papers and lab reports don’t. They encourage student dialogue and critical conversations, with peers, instructors, and the outside world.  But this can only happen if we as teachers conceptualize these digital arenas as a productive conversation space for students outside of the classroom, and work to make it so when designing our assignments. In other words, we should think of these electronic mediums not simply in place of essays or other evaluation tools, but as an alternative pedagogical space, where students can work through ideas, raise questions, and engage in meaningful learning outside of the classroom. On the one hand, this kind of just digital humanities 101. On the other, this is a chance to offer students an alternative space to engage with the material and get feedback from instructors and peers. Ultimately, blogs ask us to reconsider what discussion and participation look like in our respective classrooms-and in the spaces outside of their walls.

What about you? How do you use blogs in the classroom? What advice do you have for making blogs into a productive discussion space?

[Image by Flickr user willsisti used under creative commons licensing.]

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