The street finds its own use for things

by Henry on September 15, 2003

Today I came across John Palfrey’s blog for a class that he’s teaching in Harvard Law School on the Internet and the global economy. Interesting stuff; all the more so for those of us who are beginning to take the first, wobbly steps towards using blogs in the classroom. Dan Drezner used Blogger to put together his syllabus last semester; John Holbo runs a couple of class blogs, and I’ve recently installed Movable Type on the university server so that I can do so myself. Palfrey is pushing his students to start their own blogs as part of the classroom experience – I haven’t had the courage to do this myself. But it seems to me that there are a variety of different ways that you can use blogs in the classroom, each with their own pros and cons. Discussing them in order of increasing ambition …

(1) Standard class web pages. This is the least exciting way of using blogging software, but also, for many purposes, the most practical. Most class web pages consist of a few static pieces of information – class times and rules, links to the syllabus etc – and a few dynamic – cancellation of office hours, announcements of essay topics and the like. It’s remarkably easy to put together a quick and dirty page using MT that fulfils these requirements (see here ), and that can be updated easily, from anywhere without having to fooster around with FTP, web authoring software etc, let alone dumbed down programs like Web-CT. And if you use MT or an equivalent, you can also try to make your students use the comments feature to ask everyday questions about tutorials, bibliographic styles and so on, rather than having to deal with the same issue over and over by email. It doesn’t only save you time, it saves the students time too – they can look up your previous answers in comments rather than having to email you and wait on a response.

(2) Professor-written blogs which cover interesting developments that relate to the theme of the course. A nice and easy way to make the issues that you cover in a course more topical, linking to stories that will show the real world implications, say, of file-sharing on the Internet, or the breakdown of talks at the WTO. Can easily be combined either with (1) or (3).

(3) Organization of in-class discussion. Another thing that I’ll be trying this year for a senior level undergraduate class that used to be a seminar, but now has 60 odd students. Set a discussion question every week, and have people debate it in comments. The conversation will probably be a little more stilted than in-class discussion, but likely to be on a slightly higher level – people can think before putting in their responses. This is also much easier to grade fairly than an in-class participation mark – you can go back and look at how students have participated and developed over the semester. I will see how it works over the semester, but I’m hopeful.

(4) Organization of intensive seminars where students have to provide weekly summaries of the readings. This is something that I’m thinking about for future graduate classes, where each student has to do – and circulate – a weekly discussion of a particular assigned reading. By making them authors of a group blog – and posting their summaries on the blog – it becomes much easier for the professor and students to access the readings for a particular week – and if you make sure that people are organized about how they do it, the summaries will effectively file themselves. Obviously, you have to give the students some training in using MT at the beginning, but it’s fairly self-explanatory, even to the technophobic.

(5) Requiring students to write their own blogs as part of their grade. I used to teach a class where I made students learn HTML, and then prepare their own web pages dealing with international relations topics that interested them. In future, I suspect that it would be a lot easier to point them towards Blogger Pro, and let them go at it, writing blogs that covered developments in a particular issue area over time. This would obviously involve a moderate chunk of technical assistance at the beginning – but would have a relatively quick and easy payoff for the students. And if undergrads can learn how to use frames, formatting tables and tags (and they can) blogging should be a cinch.

I’m sure that there are other ways to use blogs in classrooms – and it would be nice to get some discussion going. Anyone else have ideas, or even better, experiences to recount?

Update: Eszter Hargittai has an interesting response.

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{ 8 comments }

1

eszter 09.15.03 at 4:40 am

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Chris 09.15.03 at 9:43 am

I’ve been thinking about this a bit too. The trouble is that university sysadmins tend to be quite paranoid/conservative when it comes to letting you do things like execute custom cgi-scripts on their servers. At least, they do here, this observation may not generalize. I’d love to have an MT-based blog for each of my courses, with each of the instructors having posting rights, the students commenting etc. But I’m not going to try to do this using blogger!

3

chuck 09.15.03 at 2:45 pm

I’ve been using a course blog (linked above) in my freshman composition courses where I will post links and comment on class discussion. Each student is also required to keep a blog as part of his or her grade (in the course blogroll). Eventually, the hope is that students will at least gain some experience with HTML for their web projects at the end of the semester.

I’ve been doing this on Blogger and so far have had few problems. Permalinks, for example, now seem to work nicely, but some students are struggling to add comments. I’ll likely try to move things over to MT (Typepad perhaps) in future courses. Overall, I’ve had a positive experience with it, even after my course garnered some unexpected publicity when a couple of prominent bloggers (Rachel Lucas, Oliver Willis, Joanne Jacobs) called attention to my blog. In fact, my students actually enjoyed the brief attention.

In fact, the attention has, I think, made my students more aware of writing for an audience, and we had a chance to discuss how blogs could be used to engage with important political issues.

4

Henry 09.15.03 at 4:30 pm

The paranoia about cgi scripts is a real problem. I’m lucky – one of my former colleagues at the suburban campus where I teach has been cooking up his own cgi scripts for years, and managed to secure the approval of the system administrators. The guys on the main campus are a lot more chary of letting mere professors in at the system. Obviously, MT is remarkably well behaved as cgi based setups go. I’ll be trying to do some talks on weblogs as a classroom tool after I’ve gathered experience about what works, and what doesn’t/

5

jholbo 09.16.03 at 10:23 am

Hi, Henry, since you were so kind as to link to my little academic corner, I’ll just add my two cents. When TypePad got started I knew I wanted to use it for module blogs and it really is working out very well. I don’t have to worry about all the campus sysadmin issues because I’m just doing it on my own nickel. (It doesn’t really cost me, however, because I’m content to pay for TypePad just for my own use. Using it for my modules does not cost anything above and beyond.)

My Nietzsche module is small: 14 honours students. Each of them has to have his/her own blog, and only one or two had any idea what a blog was on day one. Now it is working out fine. They took to it quickly enough, and it has noticeably improved our 3-hour seminar meetings. They visit each other and comment and so forth.

My intro module is huge: 525 students. I have nine tutors. I’ve got a main blog and three subsiduary tutor group blogs (three tutors each) so it’s really a four-ring circus. So far so good. Each student is required to post three comments to specified assignment postings by individual tutors in the course of the semester. Overall, it improves coordination and allows interaction to a far greater extent than I’ve ever managed before.

So blogging works, for big and small classes. (But we knew it would.)

I have a minor problem, which is that students comment with silly fake names, which makes it hard for tutors to connect faces and names with online aliases. I have no easy, TypePad enabled way to insist that students use, say, only university email addresses. But I could easily just order them to use their real names and school addresses. I think a bit of anonymity makes them more lively, however, so I haven’t bothered, because I haven’t suffered any troll infestations or toxic flames or anything of the sort.

TypePad allows me to password protect the whole thing, and I’m prepared to do so if being open to the public becomes a problem. Which it hasn’t. Really the whole process of building and maintaining five blogs for two modules, over 500 students and nine tutors has been remarkably smooth and uneventful.

6

Lane Dunlop 09.18.03 at 5:37 pm

i have two faculty using blogs this block at Cornell College. I’m the educational technologist at the school.

One professor had no experience with blogs and very little with the web. But he has jumped right into it. It’s a reading/writing intensive class. Each day the students read a chunk of a book and post two paragraphs of their thoughts on the reading. All 10 students have posting access for the site. So far it has been great, with the professor saying that this is the best way he has ever done this class. i’d give you the URL, but he went private blog model. We are using TypePad. I set up the class blog and in about 25 minutes had them all registered and posting to their little heart’s content.

The second class at Cornell College using blogs is French 304. They are using a french language blogging service called monblogue. The faculty member was already into blogging, so she set it all up herself and has had great success. Here’s an example of one of her student’s blogs. Don’t let the french throw you. You’ll get the general idea.

I’m planning on doing a lot more with blogs and our faculty and students in the near future. We just set up our Writing Studio with a TypePad blog yesterday. I’m holding blog workshops every month for faculty and students. I’m going to be keeping track of everything on the instructional technology blog i recently set up.

i appreciate henry’s ideas and will show his post to some of the faculty who keep asking me how they would use a blog in a classroom setting.

7

Ray 09.20.03 at 9:41 pm

An unusual intersection of my real life interests with my day job.

The way I’m trying to play (legitimate) concerns about privacy and identity at UC Berkeley is to wrap web applications in our campuswide authentication system: poor man’s (i.e., open source) single-sign-on. That way you can restrict your collaborative blogs to your instructors and students, or protect your collaborative blogs against frauds and trolls.

As the first step, I integrated campuswide authentication with the Apache webserver that most free web apps run under.

The second step (staircase, rather) is to adapt those web applications to automatically log in (or refuse admission to) users based on the resulting Apache-compatible ID. This turns out not to be a tough job.

A tough job has been finding good weblog software to adapt. The open source leaders for collaborative blogs (Drupal and Nucleus, to my mind) are lacking in ways that require more serious attention than my group can devote to them right now. Movable Type has just recently disambiguated their license, but I’m still reluctant to sink much publicly-funded labor into a privately-yankable enterprise.

But the technical problems are easily manageable. The unmanageable problem is finding developers.

8

Alex Halavais 10.01.03 at 8:37 pm

For #3, above, you might be interested in taking a look at my MT course blog for last spring’s Media law class, though it had about 180 students:

http://alex.halavais.net/courses/law

For #4 and up, you might also be interested in a school-wide introduction of blogs for one of our grad programs:

http://blogs.informatics.buffalo.edu/

Neither are exemplars, by any means, but they are fun experiments.

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