I am teaching an undergraduate class this Winter called “Internet and Society”.  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.