Academic blogging

by Chris Bertram on September 23, 2004

Today’s Guardian Online has “a piece by Jim McClellan about academic blogging”:,3605,1310111,00.html . I get quoted quite a bit and accurately too. But, as always, I’m not sure that what comes across is exactly what I meant to say. So I guess I wanted to make two points: (1) that blogs can be used as an interactive teaching tool but that rival courseware technologies which lock out “outsiders” pose a threat to that expansion of the medium (a point that “Eszter makes more eloquently here”: ); and (2) that concerns over intellectual property and corporate liability on the part of universities are in tension with academics increasing use of the blog medium. Those points get rather run together in the piece (that’s probably my fault, not Jim’s). As for my own experiment to use a blog in teaching — it wasn’t a great success, as the article says. But others have done better, and I’ll have another go this year.



John Quiggin 09.23.04 at 8:12 am

On the question of closed-access, what’s striking about this is the triviality of the concerns that are used to justify attempts at control – essentially, it comes down to “because we can”. Similarly, with courseware, you mostly have a situation where access is controlled by default rather than because of any well-thought out position.

There are really two issues. The first is an academic freedom issue where the administrators are bound to lose. Most academics will probably follow Instapundit in putting controversial stuff on non-university servers, but anyone who chooses their ground at all carefully before picking a fight is going to win.

The second problem is the inane belief that online lecture notes are valuable IP belonging to the lecturer’s employer. Even if the silliness of this weren’t obvious from the start, MIT’s decision to give their courseware free of charge to all comers should make it so.

So, I’m on optimist on this one. The opening up contributed by blogs will more than offset the negative impacts of courseware and speech codes.


larkinsjapn 09.23.04 at 12:08 pm

I teach English as a foreign language and am in the middle of an experement using the power of the blog and comments to further the education experience. The only downside is it makes me work harder, but I am in the process of handleing that point also. I don’t know how to approach the intellectual property thing, in time, I hope if we don’t lose our heads, we will be able to come to an agreement that allows both sides to profit. I know one drawback writing in these little boxes doesn’t give me a sense of my sentence length. so I tend to write really looong sentences. sorry


Scott Spiegelberg 09.23.04 at 2:23 pm

I’ve been using a class blog to get my first-year students more comfortable with writing and critical thinking. They have to post regularly to the blog, which forces them to practice their writing skills regularly. And they know that people other than myself are reading their works, so they take it more seriously.

It makes my job easier, because I can make comments no matter where I am (as long as I have internet access). And I never lose papers or have them piling up in my office, which is a common problem for me.


Karl Fornes 09.24.04 at 6:01 pm

I find it difficult to separate the two points. Proprietary courseware such as Blackboard and WebCT have much to gain by contributing to the paranoia universities feel about the open-ness of blogs.

Interestingly, earlier this week students in my first year composition course posted initial drafts of their blog analyses (Paperwight and The Poorman). Paperwight was kind enough to respond to many of their drafts. One student, apparently upset by Paperwight’s reply, turned off the comments. I’m not sure what to make of her decision, but I can’t wait to speak with her.


mj 09.24.04 at 7:20 pm

What constitutes “success” with having students blog? Out of two smallish seminar classes, I have watched three students go on to keep regular blogs. Some students write grudging and belaboured entries, true, but they no doubt would have written grudging and belaboured papers. And I myself am getting more adept, after two classes, with using blogs in teaching. For example, it helps to throw out questions for students to blog about if they need some inspiration. There is a conversation on this very subject going on right now on the Kairos listserv.


Amardeep 09.25.04 at 12:50 am

I don’t think there will ever be a simple formula for effective use of blogging in the classroom. There are just too many factors (one of the most important being the subject matter).

I think we should be pooling experiences — things that worked & things that didn’t. I think Chuck Tryon’s approach makes great sense (what better way to use a course blog than to follow the coverage of a presidential election).

But I have had some success this fall on my course blogs with rather various, and distinctly non-topical, assignments, including:

1) Look up one of the obscure references in Ulysses. Find out as much as you can about the obscurity, and post about it to the blog. (grad seminar)

2) Post a link to a poem about 9/11 you like, and analyze it. (undergrads)

3) Collective annotated bibliography. Read a critical essay on an aspect of the novel you’re interested in, and post a synopsis of the chapter to the blog. (grad seminar)


Kim Pearson 09.26.04 at 7:57 pm

Remember when filmstrips were going to revolutionize teaching? If we focus on the medium alone, blogging in the classroom will be just as much of a snore as the Jurassic classics that were so brilliantly lampooned on The Wonder Years. As with any teaching tool, the value of blogging in a particular class depends on the learning goals of that class.

I first used blogs in my feature writing class in the fall of 2003, as part of an action reseach project with the Visible Knowledge Project — a consortium of faculty studying the impact of technology on teaching and learning. I had students use the blogs as beat reporting journals, and I hypothesized that being forced to read and reflect on news relevant to their beats would result in more richly sourced stories. You can see the initial results of that project in this online poster. In reviewing a select group of students’ portfolios and responses to a survey I disseminated at the end of the semester, I found that the success of the experiment depended on how well students understood the goals of the class, and the place of the blogging assignment in the context of those goals.

This semester, I’m trying again.
I have just begun a blogging project in my Introduction to Professional Writing class, which, among other things, has a strong focus on digital storytelling. In this class, I want students to use blogs to track developments in the media-related industries that they want to enter. I also plan for the blogs to be a first foray into digital story-telling that they will augment and reflect upon as they progress through the class. I am in the process of putting together a second online poster that will explain the ways in which this project attempts to build upon the lessons learned in the first experiment. I would welcome comments as the project progresses. I don’t have a link up for it yet, but it will be linked to my original poster soon.

As for the blogging vs. courseware discussion, I separate the intellectual property issues from the pedagogical issues. I focus on the teaching issues.

I’m teaching students who want to work in media related industries — some of whom are already staff reporters at local papers, or entrepreneurs running boutique web-design firms. I use courseware for matters internal to the class, and blogging for aspects of the course that are intended to help students develop a professional outlook.I tell my students that this is both a tool for developing themselves as writers and for presenting themselves to the world. Their audience is not only their peers, but potential employers, graduate schools and so on.


chuck 09.27.04 at 9:48 pm

Thanks, Amardeep! I’ve enjoyed the topical approach, and essentially I wa susing a topical approach last fall when I first used blogging, by asking students to read Howard Dean and Tom Daschle’s blogs, for example.

I’ve had less success in using blogs for non-topical courses, such as my summer film criticism class, so I’m hoping to learn from others about other ways of incorporating blogging in the classroom.

Comments on this entry are closed.