Blogs by students

by Eszter Hargittai on December 16, 2004

I am teaching an undergraduate class this Winter called “Internet and Society”. [1] I am going to require each student to maintain his/her own blog. This poses some challenges from keeping up with the amount of written material to assuring a certain level of privacy for students (as per related federal laws). I still have a few weeks to think about the specifics and thought would see what experiences and wisdom others may have accumulated in this realm.

The course is a social science course (half the students will be Communication Studies majors, half of them Sociology majors) with a focus on exploring the social, political, economic and cultural aspects of the Internet. I do plan to teach students some technical skills, but that won’t be the focal point of the course. I will provide basic installation of WordPress and then will work with students to tweak the layout and style to their liking. Those who are especially interested in this aspect will have the opportunity to personalize the blog considerably, but that will not be a requirement.

The closest analogy to requiring blogs seems to be classes where students are required to keep journals. I have only seen this done once so I am curious to hear about additional experiences (or, of course, any experiences people may have with blogs by students in particular). The idea is to ask students to comment on their readings and class discussions on their blogs. They would be required to write a certain number of entries (I am not yet sure how many). They would also be required to comment on other students’ blogs (I am not yet sure how often).

One challenge of this method is that it creates a lot of material for the instructor to follow (there will be around 30-40 students enrolled in this class). In fact, it is probably not realistic to expect the instructor to follow all this writing, or even to ask a teaching assistant to read all the blogs constantly. One way I thought to evaluate this amount of material is to ask students at the end of the quarter to submit their best X number of posts for evaluation and perhaps the best Y number of comments they made on other people’s blogs. Nonetheless, I would like to keep up with the material as the quarter progresses so thoughts students express on blogs can be incorporated into class lectures and discussions.

As to why require blogs in the first place, here are some reasons. First, I like the idea of asking student to keep journals. It is hard to get students to do class readings, but requiring constant reaction to the readings and discussions should help. Second, I think asking students to maintain blogs will help convey some points to them about the potential of the Web to help people reach wide audiences. Of course the particular point there is that simply having a Web site in no way guarantees that someone suddenly has a wide-reaching public voice. But I think this will be easier to convey if students experience it first hand. On the other hand, the blogs will be public and it may be that people not associated with the class find them, read them and comment on them, which could be an interesting experience for students. (I have specific plans in mind to encourage such outside involvement.) Finally, knowing that one’s peers are reading one’s writing seems to encourage more serious reflection on the part of students than simply handing in assignments to an instructor so the overall quality of writing should be higher. That’s more of a hunch than a claim I can back up by any systematic evidence.

Due to federal laws about students’ privacy, there is the additional concern of keeping students’ identities private on their blogs. Information about what classes students are taking is not supposed to be made public. My thinking on this right now is to recommend to everyone that they blog under a pseudonym, but if they decide on their own to make public their identities that is up to them. What I have not yet decided is whether I should suggest that everybody stay anonymous to each other. Commenting on course material anonymously may allow certain people to open up more than they would otherwise or express opinions they may not want to if their identities were known. But it may make the incorporation of blog material into in-person class discussions somewhat tedious.

Fn1. The syllabus is not yet available, but you can view a brief class description here.



Andy 12.16.04 at 4:23 pm

This is a fascinating idea.


Rich 12.16.04 at 4:53 pm

I’ve tried it, with various levels of success. I’ll continue to do so.

I’ve found that the main impediment is variability in the skills and comfort with the technology. Those that do well are those who are computer literate. There are still many students who are comfortable with a word processor or browser, but little else.

Another problem I’ve had relates to motivating the students to write consistently and relatively abundantly. This may not be a problem with a class focused on the internet.

To encourage some sort of “one-upmanship” I create links to all blogs on my course web page.

Perhaps most importantly, I create a blog for myself and blog along with them.



Chris 12.16.04 at 5:02 pm

Tom Igoe at ITP requires his students to keep an online journal. You can find a list of them here, and what Tom requires of them here.


Chris 12.16.04 at 5:03 pm

Tom Igoe at ITP requires his students to keep an online journal. You can find a list of them here, and what Tom requires of them here.


Chris 12.16.04 at 5:03 pm

I really like this idea. One of the things that I and many other instructors I know do is require students to turn in a brief (1 double-spaced page) reaction to the readings for each class meeting. Unfortunately, I am the only one who reads these things, and because of the fact that every student turns one in (or at least should) for every class, I don’t have the time to provide substantial feedback. Sometimes class discussion covers some of their reactions, but because I don’t receive them until the beginning of the class period, I don’t have time to read them and incorporate them into the class discussion myself.

If this were done with blogs, instead of papers, the reactions would be available to all the students (and others) to provide comments on the various views of the readings. This, in turn, would make it easier to discuss these things in class, and also make students more likely to speak up (their ideas are already out there, so they might as well). I don’t really know how I could incorporate this into my own classes, as blogging does require a skill set that I wouldn’t have time to teach, but I certainly wish I could.

I hope the course goes well, and other instructors pick up the idea.


Paula 12.16.04 at 6:41 pm

I just finished a large experiment with blogs in the classroom—all three of my courses. The 100-level class was the most well-developed and the most successful, the graduate class less so, and the upper-level class a qualified disaster.

Instead of making the blogging voluntary, I used the blog in the 100-level class as a delivery mechanism for rather standard assignments of different sorts: individual posts, group posts, photo essays, and comments. In other words, I “hard-wired” the blogs into the course. This approach reduced my grading responsibility, but the marking was still a big job each week. Once I had my database grading set up, however, it was not as bad. Because TypePad has a photo album facility, I used it for course. TypePad’s cost for the semester is modest, equivalent to a mid-priced textbook. The semester is over, and the students are canceling their TypePad subscriptions, but there are a few still left. Link off HIST 120-Groups. The disappearance of the blogs has advantages and disadvantages: the students’ work disappears, but the raw materials for plagiarism also vanish. Note: these are first-year students, so the prose and design are not the most sophisticated.

The graduate course in the Digital History Documentary was challenging enough without the blog, but the blogs did introduce students to the form and offered them a place to put their documentaries. For those who had some computer experience, it served its purpose; for those who had little experience, it was just another thing to master. There are also some extant blogs (and documentaries) remaining from HIST 615. Some good examples may be found here, here and here (scroll down to 12/3). Most of the documentaries will be available on my site in a few weeks, but there is still some compression work to do on several—not to mention a plague of “incompletes.”

Although it’s back to the drawing board for HIST 300, I’ve found using blogs in the classroom extraordinarily valuable and will keep on. I would like to partner with another history class next semester (graduate course, Creating History in New Media) or in Fall 2005 (undergraduate course, American History Survey) for outside commenting and am looking for interested parties.


John B. 12.16.04 at 6:46 pm

A friend of mine, in a class on postmodern and hypertext literature, had his students design their own web pages as a requirement for the class. I don’t know whether he was pleased with the results, though.
I don’t ask my students to keep blogs, but for certain classes I require that students initiate threads and post a set number of “substantive” comments per week on the class’s electronic bulletin board. I’ve found that this really facilitates discussion in class: they can extend those discussions, raise points they’ll want to take up in our next meeting–and, of course, get to know each other better, too, which also helps discussion. My students usually begin by not liking this feature of the class but end up citing it as one of their favorite–and most helpful–activities.

As you note, the big problem will be just reading all this. I think your solution of asking each student to pick his/her best work–analogous to the idea of writing portfolios in English Composition classes–is a sane one.


the prof 12.16.04 at 7:29 pm


I don’t see any mention in your post or in the syllabus about what the blog is supposed to accomplish, pedagogically.

Is this a peer-writing forum, where students will read and evaluate each others work?

Is this a way for you to have more direct interactions with the students (that can’t be, since there will be 40 separate blogs, and surely you’ll be the only one who looks at them even some of the time)?

Or is this just a whiz bang tool to spice up the course? (Not that I necessarily object to whiz bang tools, but sometimes they take too much effort and distract from the course.)

And I suppose more importantly, you are a junior faculty member, so why are you proposing a course that may have you investing time and energy into teaching students technical skills that are better taught by the computer support people?

I taught an Internet and Politics course once, where i had students maintain a webpage dedicated to the topic (this was way back in the days when maintaining a webpage was a new and exciting frontier). The course went very well but was VERY labor intensive for me.

If I was a senior colleague, I think I’d tell you not to offer such a course until after tenure, unless you can guarantee either having a dedicated (and technically sophisticated) grad or ugrad TA, or significant support from the IT staff at NWestern.


paul 12.16.04 at 9:03 pm

I don’t know how well WordPress takes to multiple weblogs (the information I have read is inconsistent). Drupal might be an option, since it sets up weblogs for users as they open accounts and allows for commenting and a “front page” where posts can be promoted to appear (peer review, indeed).


Backword Dave 12.16.04 at 10:02 pm

Somewhat off topic, but has Word Press become the new flavour of the month? I understood that it was harder to get to grips with than MT and therefore less suited to beginners.

Can I also make a prediction? An earlier thread discussed whether there were any women contributors to CT (and I’m aware that Eszter is a woman), and the clear gender imbalance in posting. I’ll hypothesize that female students will write fewer and shorter posts, even though female students usually perform better in continuous assessments.

A pedagogic benefit might be that blogging encourages writing in the vernacular as opposed to disciplinary jargon. Politics and the English Language has lots of advice for bloggers and indeed anyone writing for the laity. Most of the sociologists I’ve read frown on plain prose. That’s their loss.


liberal japonicus 12.16.04 at 11:43 pm

Both I and a colleague of mine ask students to blog, but it is in an ESL context. I’m also involved in an effort to set up a (non-student) group blog (though I’m just writing, not doing any of the management). If you are just using blogging as a way of making e-journals, you need to make sure that students who are not as technologically competent don’t get frozen out by the software. If you are trying to promote blog like discussion, individual blogs are going to be a huge problem because of the amount of reading the students will have to do. My colleague is using B2Evolution, which has a number of points (including the option of collecting all of the linked blogs into on super blog) I’m using Blogspot because students are photoblogging and the combination of Flickr and Blogspot offered the easiest solution.


martin 12.16.04 at 11:56 pm

I tried a typepad blog in a molecular biology course last year and I plan to do so again this year. I divided the class into 9 groups of 2 and, in the second half of the semester, two groups were required to present a research paper on the blog. Each group had to post 4 entries during the week: an introduction; two on the experiments and one summary post. Other students were required to post one or maybe two comments per topic. The final blog entry was supposed to summarise the topic and the discussion.

Some students had trouble with the technical aspects – mostly posting images. It was a lot of reading for me and I did have to get the questions started at first but as students became more comfortable they did ask each other questions – not always the best thought out questions, but questions. On the whole it was a worthwhile experience.

This year the class looks as though it will be smaller so I may be able to get the blog assignment process started earlier and have onbe topic a week. That will be easier on me and my students.


eszter 12.17.04 at 3:42 am

Thanks to everyone for the various suggestions. Good point that I should think about when posts/comments should be due in order for me to have enough time to incorporate them into class discussions.

Regarding the prof‘s questions about motivation for this method, see the paragraph starting with As to why require blogs in the first place, here are some reasons.

I have received emails from a few people with additional pointers, here are some:

  • Plans for Collin Brooke’s upcoming course that will also require students to maintain blogs.
  • Alex Halavais’s reflections on his course that was taught completely on a blog.
  • Some thoughts by Jill Walker on how using blogs in a course is different from asking students to keep journals and other methods. She also discusses some of the challenges posed by the method.

des von bladet 12.17.04 at 10:41 am

Speaking as a social science student (which I now am hoorah) I would absolutely hate this, even though (or perhaps because) I blog anyway.

Yer man Holbo uses blogs for teaching where he posts, and there is some kind of commenting requirement; I would hate that much less. Alternatively a group blog for the class might be OK.

My objection, I think, to a required individual blog is that a blog is such a delightful place to do just precisely and unconstrainedly what you like that the idea of being told what to write about is anathema to me.

But of course, it is not part of an instructors job to do only things that students like, and I am not actually your student in any case.


Laura 12.17.04 at 2:08 pm

My husband, a computer science prof, and myself, a composition instructor, are teaching a blog course in the fall and will have our students keep individual blogs, but we are also thinking about having a group blog. This is a freshman writing course so we hope to use the blogs as a way to practice writing for an audience. But we also hope they will get a better sense of the interconnectedness of the blog world by being directly involved in that world. I’ll be interested to see what you come up with for your course. I do hope you’ll update here.


catfish 12.17.04 at 2:44 pm

This summer I taught an online class on post WWII US suburbanization and built the class around group discussion. I did not use blogs, but I did use the discussion board on WEBCT (the university’s course management system). Because I wanted to replicate the blog experience, I required each student to write one 250-500 word post and comment on two other people’s posts each week. The grading was a nightmare. I finally began making summary remarks at the end of every week. As the term went on, I ended up dividing the students into groups so that they only had to read five posts a week from their peers.
The discussion was pretty good. Many of the arguments that people tried out showed up later in their papers. I found that the discussion seemed to work better when I asked questions that required students to apply what they learned from the readings rather than commenting on them.
I will definitely use online discussin in the future, even for on campus classes.

I’m interested to see if older students have problems with blogging software. Even with our easy to use course management system, I still had to do a fair amount of technical troubleshooting.


Graham 12.17.04 at 4:06 pm

Go, U Northwestern! Wish we had this when I was an undergrad!


Lisa Spangenberg 12.17.04 at 5:14 pm

In terms of FERPA, I encourage students to use pseudonyms. At the start of the quarter I ask them if they would rather be known to each other or just to me. I also make it clear that if someone does not want to blog, they can turn in hard copy instead.

I think blogging works best if you give the students specific guidelines, prompts/questions to respond to, and encourage them to respond to each other. At first I thought it would be better if I didn’t actively participate in the blogging, but in fact it seems to be more effective if I not only read but I occasionally respond, albeit via asking questions.

I also found that I needed to offer help setting up and making the initial post, via a couple of extra office hours, and that the students really appreciated examples of the kind of post I hoped for. I generally also talk about how to cite links and quote sources, and how to evaluate accuracy and fact-check. I also make my expectation about courtesy very very clear.

I also find it helpful to refer to the blog, and to specific posts in class; this helps integrate their writing into discussion.

Students often seize on the opportunity to use the blogs for peer review/workshopping of their papers as well.


PTJ 12.17.04 at 7:38 pm

Been using blogs in classes for about a year now. This summer I used one extensively in a summer study abroad course; it can be viewed at . I have also found them useful for my first-year World Politics course; I divided the class into groups of 3 or 4 and had them blog once a week, plus encouraged them to get into online debates. This was in lieu of the weekly journals I used to use; the students liked the interactivity better than the old system.

Using one for my PhD philosophy of social science class next semester; feel free to check it out at .


Jill 12.22.04 at 1:33 pm

I’ve been using blogs for two years, in a course where students are supposed to learn web design and how to think about and communicate effectively on the web. Blogs are an obvious pedagogical tool for learning this.

Quick summary:

  • You have to work to create a community. Have your own blog, link to good posts, model good teaching.
  • Requiring students to comment on each others posts is a good idea.
  • Some students will get it instantly, many won’t and need a lot of coaxing. In my experience, the majority WON’T get it if you simply expect them to blog at home. You need to give them specific exercises and to have them blog in class
  • Setting up and maintaining blogs is a pain. Lots of technical issues, and there’s the spam, and then what do you do after the semester? This year I’m having them use Blogger. It’s not ideal, but I’m not willing to do all the work. And there’s also something to be said for them setting it up all on their own. They own it. That’s good.
  • They can learn a LOT if this is done well. About 20% of my students have continued to blog their further studies, and seem to be getting a lot out of it. There was a lot of enthusiasm, and with support from you in the beginning, blogging together helps a class bond in new ways that they really enjoy.
  • Some of them will hate it. All the time. I figure that’s OK. Some students hate oral exams, or term papers, too.

    There are quite a few papers about experiences with classroom blogging. Search Google Scholar, you’ll find em.

    Good luck!


Clancy 12.22.04 at 10:54 pm

Eszter, I’ve used weblogs in my teaching for two years, and shared some of my reflections on the experience this semester, as well as all the writing prompts I gave my students, here if you’d like to see. I’ve also assembled a list of sources for using weblogs and wikis in writing pedagogy; maybe some of the work will be useful for you.


Qingy 12.23.04 at 10:21 pm

OMG I’m signed up for this course =)

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