how to teach with blogs

In my own experience of using blogs in composition classes and seeing them used successfully and unsuccessfully elsewhere, I’ve come across certain practices that are universally recognized as essential in the implementation of blogs. In this section, I will first describe blog teaching practices I (and many others) consider “non-negotiable” and then I will offer choices for "negotiables": questions for you to consider before you implement blogs in your own classroom.

  • what’s non-negotiable?
  • students must communicate with each other
    writing for blogs is different
    external motivation is key
  • what’s negotiable?
  • in what format will students’ blogs be?
    how will you present yourself as an instructor?
    what structure will you give to students’ blogs?
    will you involve outside texts and blogs?
    what tools will you use?
    how will you assess students’ blogs?

    what’s non-negotiable

    Konrad Glogowski, educator and blogger Stephen Downes and the collaborative blog site “Crooked Timber” all claim that class blogs should be used for what they’re good for: community, communication and connection.

    students must communicate with each other in blogs

    Glogowski writes,
    Do not use blogs to replace writing or reader-response journals. If the only goal is to get students to write online what they would otherwise put in their notebooks, it’s probably not worth the hassle. Blogs can do much, much more. Use blogs to enhance personal journals. Take advantage of the community-building potential. Let students work as a group of individual writers.
    Blogs must be used to communicate amongst class members and students must read each others’ blogs and comment on them in order to have blogs working to their potential in a class.

    In Stephen Krause’s oft-cited 2004 article in Kairos, he claims “In spirit, the [blog] writing assignment is not unlike traditional "pen and paper" writing journals.” But partially because of this limited philosophy regarding blogs, Krause’s implementation of blogs in his class was a self-described failure. Treated like journals written for the instructor, blogs will not benefit students any more than traditional “pen and paper” assignments.

    writing for blogs is different

    As WIDE and others claim, allowances must be made for a different kind of writing in blogs. This “digital writing,” as they the call it, may be more relevant to students’ lives beyond the classroom, but it must be made clear to students that this kind of writing has different demands upon it than more traditional kinds. Konrad Glogowski describes this difference:

    The five paragraph essay works well in the transition model of education where the point is to convey ideas as immutable, unquestionable entities. When you work within an electronic community of writers where ideas are challenged and always in a state of flux, always expanded upon, commented upon, read, and re-read, a five paragraph essay or any attempt to present your thoughts as immutable and definitve [sic] is not going to work.”

    Teachers can use many different strategies to allow for this adjustment to a different writing style: providing models, guidelines, discussions about rhetorical situation, or explicit feedback. Writing can still be held to high standards, but teachers must accept that those standards may be different. Before implementing blogs in your classroom, you may find it useful to research the blogosphere to see what you find effective in writing for blogs and then passing those models and guidelines on to your students.

    external motivation is key

    Krause describes one more aspect of his implementation of blogs that educational bloggers would cringe at: he assumed that if he introduced blogs to his graduate class, they would be internally motivated to take them up and write in them. Krause aimed to “nurtur[e] an atmosphere where students can "learn" instead of being "taught," where students can write not because they are being required to do so by some sort of "teacherly" assignment but because they want to write, where students aren't required to write old-fashioned essays, but where they can create and explore new forms.” He wanted students to respond freely and spontaneously to course material. He assumed that with a grad class, he wouldn’t need to give them external motivation to do so. He notices, however, that “like the paper diaries and journals that web logs are so often compared, the writer has to have a reason—and generally, a personal reason—to write in the first place.” If students were always internally motivated to write, they wouldn’t sign up for our classes, especially in undergraduate and graduate education. In the four classes and approximately 70 students I’ve introduced to blogs, exactly 2 students had a blog before entering my class. If students were internally motivated to write in blogs, they would already have them. Within the context of a class, we as instructors must give external motivation to students to get blogs working right. When they’re working beautifully, we can let internal motivating factors take over, but these factors are unlikely to, as Krause had thought, propel student blogs initially.

    Educational blog consultant James Farmer says,

    You must incorporate blogs as key, task driven, elements of your course - This may sound obvious but simply providing blogs to learners and saying ‘Hey, use them however you want’ is an absolute guarantee of failure as all but 1 or 2 people will take you up on it. Significantly here that I’m not saying assessment… you can provide non-assessable but socially motivating tasks, as long as they form part of class activities (i.e. competition for best designed blog with each participant presenting for 3 minutes) but they don’t have to be parts of assessment…
    I address assessment in detail below, but for now, it’s important to note that at least some form of assessment is necessary for blogs to work in classes.

    Blogs are for communication amongst your students, for getting them to write beyond an audience of one (you), and for them to connect ideas in their own ways. If you use blogs as an online version of printed text, you won’t be getting much use out of them. If used right, they can replicate a real, interlaced society and can break down institutional hierarchies in your class. If used with traditional writing constraints and without external motivators, it’s likely that your students and you will find your experiment with blogs a frustrating and unprofitable experience.

  • back to top
  • what’s negotiable?

    Within the constraints of using blogs to communicate, build community, and connect students to each other and their ideas, there are a few different and successful models of blogs to choose from. In this section, I pose some questions for you to consider. How you choose to implement blogs in your classroom reflects on your personal educational philosophy and will affect how your students will learn from using blogs.

  • in what format will students’ blogs be?
  • how will you present yourself as an instructor?
  • what structure will you give to students’ blogs?
  • will you involve outside texts and blogs?
  • what tools will you use?
  • how will you assess students’ blogs?

  • in what format will students’ blogs be?

    Teachers have used both individual and collective student blogs successfully in classes. Since both formats can work, you will need to consider what kind of communication you want to facilitate amongst your students’ blogs.

    individual blogs
    James Farmer claims that individual blogs are the best format for student blogs because they allow students to “[r]epresent themselves as a unique individual over time and retain ownership over that representation [as well as s]elect and control the medium and manner in which they access and participate in the environment.” The beauty of student blogs, to Farmer, is their ability to be personalized and claimed by individual students, which is not possible in collective blogs. He warns, “[d]on’t use them as collaborative tools, or force them into old technologies, such as listservs or discussion boards. Appreciate them for what they are.”

    I have implemented only individual student blogs in my own classroom. Like Farmer, I believe that in creating an individual blog, a student can own that space and shape it with his own choice of templates, links and topics. In fact, many student blogs begin to develop a personality of their own, which is only an index to the student’s own real-life personality. In the space of their own blogs, they can experiment with their own self-presentation and writing. A student is responsible for her own individual blog, and so if is silent for a long time, she has only herself to blame. If it’s vibrant and attracts many comments from her peers, she can revel in her own ethos as she has presented it on the blog. In a composition class, where enrollment is low and my emphasis is to work on students’ individual writing abilities, individual blogs make sense.

    collective blogs
    In a class where the emphasis is more on grappling and mastering content or where there is high enrollment, collective blogs may be more practical. Collective blogs facilitate a different kind of discussion, similar to a message board. And if there are several people posting, as long as they have (both external and internal) motivation to do so, a blog can seem more lively and active. Several voices can present a richer perspective on any given issue addressed in the blog.

    UW Professor Greg Downey (2005) claims,
    Having multiple authors is crucial to using a weblog in small-seminar graduate discussion. Once I set up my seminar weblog, I simply invite all of my graduate students to become members. Then each week I ask my students to prepare for live in-class discussion by posting to the weblog — both posting something themselves and commenting on another student’s posting. Not only is the record of student reactions productive to have as the classroom discussion unfolds live, but it allows us to review our positions weeks later, keeping an automatic historical record of our evolving understandings as the seminar unfolds.
    In this iteration, weblogs serve much like message boards, which Farmer may not condone, but which seem to work well for Downey.

    On his blog, Dan Mitchell describes his experience with collaborative student blogs:
    I assigned students to groups of about 5-6 students and assigned each group a shared weblog site. The class used as many as 10 of these site[s] each term. One regular course assignment asked students to propose possible test questions that reflected important issues that they had studied. They proposed their individual questions to the other members of their group in the group's weblog discussion area. Then the group used the discussion to refine, combine and edit the questions to come up with a subset that they would post on the class web site for the rest of the class to answer as part of a study/review cycle. The basic idea is that the work progressed from individual study to individual questions to group consideration and selection and finally to the class using the materials that the groups created. Ultimately, the group members reviewed [the] answers that other class members posted for their questions, and then they commented on these answers and provided useful criticism.

    One interesting aspect of this was the use of multiple weblogs to support multiple collaborative learning groups within a large class. Another was the progression from the group weblogs (where the initial work was done) to the class's main weblog where the work product became the basis for a class assignment.
    In this example, groups of students were able to establish group identities on their blogs and then present the artifacts of those identities to the class as a whole. Since these discussions were both topic- and group identity-based, collective blogs seem to have been a good choice for Mitchell’s class.

    Collective student blogs are necessarily constrained by the semester boundaries of a course. They tend to address course issues more than personal issues because it’s what the contributors have in common. And when the course is over, collective blogs are silent. Individual blogs that students launch for a class often go silent as well, but occasionally, a student likes the blogging experience enough that he wants to continue this form of writing beyond the course.

  • back to top
  • how will you present yourself as an instructor?

    It’s possible to connect students’ blogs to each other without a central site by having them subscribe to each other’s blogs, but most instructors choose to run their own central blog as a way for students to get information about their course and to connect students’ blogs to each other. If you do choose to run your own blog, you’ll need to consider how you will present yourself on that blog.

    For instance, will you blog along with your students, completing the number and type of posts that you ask of them? This strategy allows you to provide specific models for your students to emulate, although these models may put limits de facto limits on your students’ expression on their own blogs.

    Posting on your own, central blog does not mean that you have to post exactly what you ask your students to post. For instance, you could post interesting tidbits from the web, as Mike Shapiro has. Or you could use your blog as a place to post political news, as Downey has. The posts he makes on his class blog are relevant to the class, and model the kind of engagement with journalism that he wants to encourage with his Journalism 201 students.

    Downey also posts announcements in his class blog, which keeps him from cluttering his students’ email inboxes and also saves valuable class time. I, too, have used my class blog to make announcements to a class, and it’s avoided the annoyance of “Oops! I deleted the email. Can you resend it?” Because assignments are always updated on the central site, students rarely ask me questions about due dates. Augmenting announcement posts with more interesting posts may encourage students to visit the class blog more regularly. As with any blog, the more frequent and interesting and relevant the posts are to its readers, the more often they will visit the site.

    If you blog along with your students, will you comment on their blogs as well? You can give informal assessments of students’ blogs through your comments on them, and perhaps shape their current and future posts through those comments. You public comments allow other students to read your opinions about their peers’ blogs and may help them shape their own posts. But students may feel exposed if the teacher’s comments to them are available for everyone to view. And no matter how de-centered a teacher believes himself to be, a teacher’s comments will nearly always trump a student’s. Is it possible for teachers and students to have lively conversations within the comments on students’ blogs? Glogowski says yes, as long as the comments a teacher makes are as a reader and not as an evaluator: “[u]se your own blog to comment on what the students are doing. Abstain from evaluative comments. Situate yourself as a participant, a reader - not a teacher - and the class bloggers will flourish.”

    Will you use the same, central site for each class that you use blogs for? Using one site gives you a consistent web presence for your students, and if you keep links to former students’ blogs active on the site, your current students can see examples of previous students’ blogs. This configuration limits your ability to redefine your site for each class, however. I have chosen to use the same site for each semester I’ve used blogs, partly out of convenience, but also because my classes were all composition classes (therefore, closely related), and students could (and did) read former students’ blogs as examples. Because I post only class announcements on my own blog, they are able to get models for blog postings from their predecessors’ blogs.

  • back to top
  • what structure will you give to students’ blogs?

    In avoiding the disastrous freeform, internal motivation model I described in “What’s non-negotiable,” you have many options to guide your students’ blogs. The major issues you’ll want to consider are how frequently you want your students to post and whether you will determine what kinds of topics they can post on. Very few educators have described in detail the structure that they provide for their students’ blogs, so you will mostly be reading my own considerations below.

    assigning posts and comments
    In my own implementation of individual student blogs, I have mandated a post per week from each student, plus a response to another student’s blog each week. With a rigid structure like this, students may be disinclined to post additional posts; in my classes they do occasionally, but not often. I have found from both student surveys and personal experience that students need a regular pattern to follow when posting. For instance, my students are required to post to their own blogs by Friday and respond to a peer’s blog by Sunday. They get into a routine of posting and by the end of the semester, rarely forget to post. When posts are integrated into the rhythm of the class, students take them in stride and do not think of them as extra work. When I have seen colleagues use blogs for their students sporadically, students often feel resentful of the extra work and never develop the regular writing habit that I like to encourage in my own use of blogs.

    I’ve found that students will only occasionally read each other’s blogs and even more rarely comment unless they’re asked to do so. When I ask them to make one comment per week, most of my students read more blogs than they comment on, and they often comment on more than one other blog. However, they need some kind of external motivation to encourage them to begin reading each others’ blogs. Since students universally enjoy reading comments on their own blogs, it seems smart to encourage this practice. Other instructors have given extra credit for comments rather than requiring them, although not all students take advantage of this opportunity. Some instructors I’ve talked to mandate that students are required to post to every other student’s blog during the course of the semester. This might alleviate the problem I’ve seen in my own classes when some students have far more comments on their blogs than others. It would, of course, require more micro-managing from you as the instructor, which is one reason I’ve declined to mandate students to post on every students’ blog. Additionally, it devalues a student’s decision to post on her peer’s blog; if she’s only required to post on one blog, she will choose the one she’s most interested in, rather than the one she has to cross of her list.

    assigning prompts
    To take advantage of your students’ motivation to write and to avoid the problem of students writing only for you, I would recommend that if you choose to assign posting prompts to students, you allow them some freedom within those prompts. James Farmer warns,
    [o]ne of the worst things you can do is mandate posting on particular topics with particularly rigid frequency… you’ll over-assess & kill off exactly what blogs are good for: personal expression & exploration. By all means say that you’re expecting a post a week… or even more, but let people approach this in ways that fit them and set tasks that allow for deviation and subversion. Never, ever, mention number of words!
    Students see through the “cool” veneer of blogs pretty quickly when they see that they’re not allowed to post freely, like others do on blogs outside the classroom.

    Some general frameworks I’ve asked students to follow in their posts include argument posts, rhetorical analyses and free posts, all of which worked very well and were appropriate to the aims of the class.

    In first-year composition, a class based on argument, I asked students to post one argument to their blog each week. They could make the argument about anything they wanted to, but it had to enact our developing understanding of argument within the class. I required no outside sources, although they often linked to a website or news article to support their argument. Then they were required, each week, to respond to another student’s argument by offering a counter-argument or strengthening the original argument.

    After discussing how to do one in class, I asked students in intermediate composition to post rhetorical analyses every other week on their blogs. For these, they had to choose any news article on the web (either web versions of traditional publications like the New York Times or web-only news like msn), include a link to the article, and analyze it. Then they had to read another student’s article and respond to that analysis by making additional observations about the Students found this assignment more difficult, but they appreciated the practice with rhetorical analysis, which was an emphasis in the class.

    I also had my intermediate composition students do a “free post” every other week. In a free post, students were not constrained by length, genre or topic, although I asked that they spend some considerable time on writing these posts. As you might guess, the best and the worst student blog posts were in this category. Free posts were occasionally short and unrevised pieces that had clearly not followed my “considerable time” request, but they were often fascinating and beautiful. Poetry, creative non-fiction and elaborate musings on life showed up in these posts. Students enjoyed writing and reading this style of post far above the other styles. This style seems, to me, to emulate most closely the style of blog posts in the blogosphere outside the classroom, and to take advantage of the potential of blogs, I wanted to make room for it in my class. On a class where content other than writing had to be covered, this free post form may not be appropriate.

  • back to top
  • will you involve outside texts and blogs?

    One silent debate in blog implementation (silent in that people have different recommendations, but don’t actually engage with one another about these differences) is whether students should read outside texts to respond to them in their blogs. I think this debate strikes at something more fundamental, at least in composition theory; that is, must students read in order to write?

    Stephen Downes thinks it’s imperative that students be responding to something in their blogs, and this often involves reading:
    Despite obvious appearances, blogging isn’t really about writing at all; that’s just the end point of the process, the outcome that occurs more or less naturally if everything else has been done right. Blogging is about, first, reading. But more important, it is about reading what is of interest to you: your culture, your community, your ideas. And it is about engaging with the content and with the authors of what you have read—reflecting, criticizing, questioning, reacting. If a student has nothing to blog about, it is not because he or she has nothing to write about or has a boring life. It is because the student has not yet stretched out to the larger world, has not yet learned to meaningfully engage in a community. For blogging in education to be a success, this first must be embraced and encouraged.

    One way to encourage students to read before blogging is to have students respond to texts read in class. Blog posts may not be as creative or as voluntary in this format, but at least students have something to write about. They could also respond to outside texts of their own choosing, such as in my own rhetorical analysis blog assignments. This kind of prompt allows them some freedom, but still gives them something to talk about.

    Alternatively, you can introduce students to the blogosphere at large. Scot Barnett, a colleague of mine who is a blogger, in addition to teaching with blogs, reads blogs regularly and encourages his students to do so as well. After introducing students to several blogs to read, he lets them go and find blogs that interest them through technorati, a blog searching engine. In this scenario, students are making connections to a wider audience and more sophisticated and realistic rhetorical situation. They can imagine themselves writing beyond the audience of their peers and they can respond to the news and ideas that are currently circulating around the blogosphere.

    I have not had students read blogs outside the class due to time constraints and other readings I’ve preferred to assign. Although the Pew Internet & American Life Project claims that 27% my students are reading blogs, I’ve found that very few of them do. They tend not to include links to other blogs on their own blog and they never talk about other blogs in their posts. But in future implementations of blogs in my classes, I will likely widen their class blogosphere a bit to give them more models as they learn about the genre of blog posts.

  • back to top
  • what tools will you and your students use to enhance your blogs?

    It’s possible to implement blogs in your classroom very effectively by choosing a hosting service, setting up your own blogs, having students set up their blogs, and then adding the links to their blogs onto your site. With a simple hosting service, this is fairly painless. It’s possible to add other services and tools to your blogs, however, to increase the ease of communication on the blogs and to personalize them. Before you read about these possibilities, you should first consider…

    How much time do you want to spend teaching tools? You may want to only concentrate on the writing and communication blogs can facilitate; in that case, the basic blog set-up will probably work best for you. However, to encourage engagement and critique of the technology, you could give your students different choices of technology and allow them to evaluate their choices and what they mean for communication and themselves. This strategy gets at the “critical literacy” level according to Selber (2004) or what Laura Gulak calls “cyberliteracy:” ‘Cyberliteracy requires a sense of activism, voicing an opinion about what this technology should become and being an active, not passive, user of these technologies.” (Gulak, 191).

    Expanding students’ technological choices is what the WIDE group aims for:
    Teaching software is technical training that may meet immediate needs, but it does not expand students' intellectual capacity. Thus our instruction teaches composing with technologies as an integrated process and as a liberal art—that is, we see our task as helping students acquire the intellectual and critical capacities they need to critique and choose among available options and to acquire new knowledge for themselves as tools develop and evolve.”

    Offering choices for critique may be an ideal strategy for encouraging critical technological literacy amongst your students, but it requires a great deal more technical knowledge and commitment from you as the instructor. Because I believe it’s possible to teach effectively with blogs without that extra technological material introduced in class (I know it’s possible because I’ve done it), I’ll offer a pared-down basic blog set-up below. The tools I list after that basic blog set-up are all optional; they can add functionality to your blogs, but they are not necessary to teach effectively with blogs.

    Basic blog set-up This set-up aims at what Selber (2004) calls “functional technological literacy,” with the student simply as user of the technology.

    Choose a free host such as and set up a blog. Blogger is fairly easy to use, especially with this handout, created by Mike Shapiro, the PhD student who introduced blogs for teaching in the UW English department. Blogger allows you to have collective blogs (you can invite multiple authors to contribute). Downey raves, “for my classes I use the Blogger service, because it allows: free registration; free creation of any number of weblogs; free hosting of those weblogs (no need to bother your department computer person); free comments on weblogs; and an advertising-free appearance for your weblogs.” It’s the service I’ve used, too, and I’ve been happy with it, although after four semesters of student blogs, I’m growing tired of the limited number of templates. Other free hosts include James Farmer’s edublogs and uniblogs, blogsome and live journal (requires an invitation from a live journal member for most features). I know less about these services, but they would all work for your basic blog-implementation purposes.

    Give students a handout, or book time in a computer classroom for them to set up their blogs. Depending on their comfort level with the technology, it will take them anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes to do it. Make sure they use only their first name or choose a pseudonym for their blog identity (see Ethics link). They should post a “hello” entry on their blog to activate it, then email you the url for their blog.

    Go to your blog and add their blog urls as links on your own class blog. For Blogger, you have to go into your “Template” and edit the test links they give you.

    Once you give your students the url of the class blog, they can connect to all of their peers’ blogs through it. You’re all set! Now you can go about implementing the structure you’ve set up for your peers to post to their blogs.

    tools to enhance blogs
    All blog hosting services will allow a choice of templates. You and your students can personalize your blogs by changing the colors and arrangement of them. If you and your students know html, then you can edit the template you’re given. Or, you can use a service such as Wordpress (which is free) or Movable Type (which is not) to customize your blog. Before you use one of these other services, you’ll want to ensure that it is compatible with the hosting service you’ve chosen.

    Experienced bloggers know that much of the value of blogs comes from where they link to. You can see the blogger’s interests and network from the links she includes on her site’s sidebar, and you can see what the blogger pays attention to from the links she includes in her posts. As an instructor using blogs, you can encourage students to “get out” on the Web and find interesting sites and blogs to link to.

    Jorn Barger (1999) offers great guidelines on including links on websites in an old but oft-cited blog post. His advice meshes well with our traditional understanding of textual rhetorical literacy:
  • Make the descriptions more descriptive. Tell your visitors precisely what they'll find when they click the link.
  • Extract some pull quotes that capture the best the page has to offer. Nothing 'sells' an article better than a sample of how good it is.
  • Have you checked for similar pages that do the same job even better? Look at them all and link only the best.
  • Offering the visible URL as the link-text has the advantages of showing where the target site is, what sort of file is being linked (html, txt, ram), where it fits in the host site's hierarchy, whether the URL includes a date, etc.
  • You may want to have a discussion with your students to see how many of these ideas about smart linking that they’ll come up with on their own.

    RSS feeds and blog subscription services
    You can use one of many different services to subscribe to your students’ blogs, or have them subscribe to each other’s. This means that when you check your subscription site, you can see a list of students’ blogs with the new entries indicated. You don’t have to check a blog to see if it’s been updated; you’ll already be notified. I use the Bloglines service, which is free and allows you to subscribe to a blog if you know its url. Blogs use the technology of RSS or atom feeds to “talk” to your subscription service. You don’t need to know how it works, and all of the hosting service I listed above have one of these technologies that allow for blog subscription.

    People call these subscription services “aggregators” because they can aggregate all the blogs you like to read in one place. Farmer swears by them as a way of allowing for user-centered (think Web 2.0) reading. With so much information out there on the Web, sorting it is more important than finding it, “[a]nd an aggregator, like an rss feed like bloglines or feeddemon allows users to adjust that information…As a result of this ease of management of large amounts of information and complete control over subscription to that, the number of potential interrelationships between writer and reader is almost unlimited and drawn from control being centred on the user” (Farmer, "Centred Communication," 2005).

    Many blog hosting services will allow users to have “trackbacks,” which means that bloggers who comment on another blog can host their comment on their own blog, but link it in the comments of the original post. A reader of the original post can read a portion of the comment, then click for more and be taken to the second blogger’s site. This technology allows you to emphasize the communicative links between blogs and sustain conversations between several blogs.

    In practice, this means that students can keep all of their blog writing on their own site, but link it to the blogs they respond to. This also means that if you’re checking for students’ comments on their peers’ blogs, you don’t have to hunt for them; they will all be on the students’ own blogs. Trackbacks are not available on, although they do support backlinks, which seem to accomplish the same objective. (see here for more details)

    encouraging “critical technological literacy”
    To get at what Selber (2004) calls “critical technological literacy,” with the student as user and critic of the technology, you’ll have to offer students more choices in their technology, or you’ll have to bring the technology itself into your class or blog discussions. Using some of these tools I mentioned above and discussing their impact on blog communication within the class would encourage critical literacy amongst your students.

    Give the student a choice of different hosting services and tools, or assign students to research these on their own. You could ask them questions such as: Which ones are free? Which ones allow for an ad-free space? Which ones allow for anonymous posting? What are the advantages and disadvantages of all of these features?

    Downey describes a couple of exercises he does in his class that encourage a critical literacy with the blog technology they use:
    In the first exercise, one week a semester I’ll have my students meet for the entire week online in the blog, trying to hold as rich and productive a discussion asynchronously in text over the course of a week as we would have in person over the course of a few hours. Inevitably students come out of the experience a bit frustrated, which is exactly the point (we have a good time when we finally get together in person to complain about the limits of getting together online). The second exercise works when I’m teaching two blog-enabled seminars simultaneously. Each student in each class creates a personal weblog, but does not reveal his or her name anywhere in the text. The weblog can be on any topic, not necessarily one related to the class — some students choose to reveal their actual lives, and some try to make up “digital puppets” divorced from reality. Then each class trades blogs with the other, and students try to use the virtual writings and other traces left by their peers to piece together some fragments of identity — inevitably bringing their own assumptions, prejudices, and biases to bear in the process. Students who try to deceive their fellows are often shocked at what they nevertheless revealed about themselves; students who tried to be true to a univocal self are similarly shocked that others could “misinterpret” their online identities so thoroughly. But as with the first exercise, failure here is really the point. In both cases, using blogs in class helps me highlight some of the very limits of using blogs more generally.

    Once you talk explicitly about the technology you use in the class, you’re encouraging critical literacy, but you’re also taking away from other valuable discussions you may be having about writing, math or journalism—-the actual content of your course. It’s important for you to consider how much time you want to spend encouraging students’ critical literacy in technology over the other literacies you’re teaching in your class.

  • back to top
  • how will you assess students’ blogs?

    Assessment and responding to blogs are topics hardly scratched by the literature written on blogs and education. But if we subscribe to what Brian Huot (2002) argues, it’s important to figure out what our end goals are in what we’re teaching and gear our assessment to reflect those goals. Blogging will not work in our classes if we have unclear ideas about what we want our students to get out of the experience, and if we have unclear ideas about how we’re going to assess them.

    You’ll first have to choose whether you will respond publicly (in comments on blogs) or privately (via email) to students’ blog entries (see above for more details). Then decide: will you respond each entry? This is a lot of work, but may be helpful to students. I’ve responded to most entries when I’ve used blogs in my classes, but this is a great deal of work. A colleague of mine, Rick Hunter, tells students that he’ll respond to 3-5 blogs each week, and he makes sure to rotate which blogs he responds to. I would encourage you to at least read every student’s post, if you don’t respond to every one.

    The most important thing you can do to keep students invested in the writing they do for their blogs is to respond to the blogs regularly. Mike Shapiro asserts:
    This not only allows you to give students direct feedback on the quality of their work and ways they can challenge one another, but it gives students a sense of an active reader. When I stopped responding to students’ blogs near the end of the semester, the quality of their work declined and they became disappointed in their own improvement: ‘The practice of writing is only effective if continual feedback is given,’ my student Ray blogged, ‘For all I know, my writing may have deteriorated’” (private communication).
    Just like with any assignment in a class, the sooner you respond, the more likely your students will still remember and be invested in what they have written.

    There are several formal ways you can assess your students’ blogs. To avoid the “non-negotiable” of blogs not assessed, you should choose one of the following options:

    I recommend portfolios, at least for writing classes, because they allow for you to respond more casually to students’ entries, and they force students to revisit their blog posts when they choose them for their portfolios. I outline what categories their portfolio posts must be in, and they can choose and revise the posts they include. I give the portfolio a holistic grade, which counts for a portion of their final grade. See here for my portfolio assignment.

    Points awarded for each blog entry
    This format requires more diligence about responses on your part, but it does allow for more immediate, formal feedback on students’ blogs. You can grade your blogs on a check- /check/check+ basis. When I used this method in first-year composition, I found it to be an effective way to give the students incentive to exert some effort on their posts while not making the pressure too intense. Another colleague of mine is explicit in what she expects from them and what she’ll be grading her students on. For instance, “In this response, I’ll be grading on the following criteria: aspects of argument or analysis of support.” Mike Shapiro recommends establishing a clear grading rubric. He “grade[s] for the existence and quality of (1) argument, (2) analysis, (3) experimentation. At the beginning semester, the bare existence of an articulate, debatable argument earned students a check (90%) while anything beyond earned a check plus (105%). In the second half of the semester, I ask students to continue crafting arguments but to add analysis as well. Blog entries that fail to meet these standards earn check minuses (75%)” (private communication). I never had a clear grading rubric, but I made it clear that I expected an argument in each post. I give up to 5 points for an original post and 5 points for a response, so that each week the blog assignment is worth 10 points. I often gave extra credit for extra responses to peers’ posts, so each week some students would have 11/10 points.

    Class participation
    I have not used this method of assessment, nor have I read about anyone else using it (but then again, few people talk aout their methods of assessment), but it seems like it might be a good way to encourage conversations on blogs without enforcing a rigid one-post, one-response policy. With looser guidelines, students may have incentive to post more on their own and their peers’ blogs; with my portfolio system, I have little way of rewarding students for extra effort in their blogs.

    If you were to implement blogs as a part of class participation, you would need to articulate just what part of class participation they counted for, and what you were expecting at each level. Students may be comfortable with class participation grades because they are experienced with what’s expected in discussion participation, however, they will be less familiar with what you may be expecting from blog participation. Perhaps a rubric with example A-level, B-level, etc. posts and participation would be an effective way to communicate your expectations to students.

  • back to top