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.