So You Think Your Students Can Blog?
I like to think I’m pretty innovative in how I approach my teaching. I lecture in marketing at TAFE, and my background and area of expertise is corporate communications, so it makes sense that I am enamoured with how Web 2.0 and social media (SoMe) can produce a rich, engaging and relevant learning experience for my students. Most of my students are Gen Y, and while we generalise about how their technologically brilliant they are, in my experience, it’s generally limited to MySpace (then) Facebook (now) and MSN and texting (still). So with the push for businesses to become more SoMe savvy, I thought what better than to teach up-and-coming marketers about blogging? Knowing they wouldn’t (probably) do it unless it was graded, I made writing a blog an assessment task.
So I did some research. I found a brilliant research paper by Melanie James from the University of Newcastle about blogging in the classroom, which also included a marking rubric that I adapted for my class. I added marks for posting regularly, because I knew some of my students would be notoriously last minute. Regular posting also meant that students would be able to comment more meaningfully on each other’s posts. Being the social engineer that I am, the last thing I wanted was for only a couple of students in a class of 25 to be blogging.
I also wanted to give them some direction in terms of what they posted (and I knew I’d have students who would say: “But what do I write about?”), so I ensured that it was clear they wrote about:
- What they read in their weekly readings
- What they heard in their lecture
- How they could apply what they heard and read to their major (group) assignment
- What else they found to back up their post content e.g. links to articles, other blogs, YouTube etc
I set up a (shared) spreadsheet in Google Docs so that each student could record their blog links. This served a couple of purposes:
- Each student could access other students’ blogs
- I had a record of each student’s blog, including who wrote what, and when it was set up
- It helped me keep an eye on who was posting regularly (I updated the spreadsheet each week)
The marking template and spreadsheet were made available on the course website, as was a number of WordPress Tutorials (I blog in WordPress myself so it made sense that I used software I was familiar with) and information on what makes a good blog post, and how to write effective blog comments.
I introduced the students to the blogging assignment during their first class. While they had all heard about blogs, only one student actually knew how to blog.
The first class involved them signing up to WordPress and registering their blog. They then had to add the link to the shared Google doc, which (interestingly) no one had ever used before.
While most students had trouble-free registration, others had difficulty finding the link to their blog. This was mainly due to them not completing the entire registration process. This was not helped by the technical blocks on the TAFE computer system which rendered WordPress as hyperlinked text rather than the normal text and graphics interface I was used to (this problem was logged and fixed by the next class).
Bearing in mind that 99% of my students had never blogged before, they needed considerable coaching in the first week, and I did this by commenting on each individual student’s blog (which was time consuming, but worth it). I encouraged them to play around with template; “pretty it up” in terms of graphics; chunk their information using headings, sub-headings and bullet points; and search for credible external sites they could link to. I reminded them that while this was not as “formal” as a written academic report, it still needed to be professional, edited and proofread carefully, and they needed to keep their audience in mind (i.e. me + anyone who read the blog which was now in the public domain!).
I’m a big fan of Jack Welch’s 20-70-10 theory, and this certainly played out in my students’ blogs:
- 20% of the students became what I would call Elite Bloggers. They completely embraced the idea of blogging, and really developed their own writing style. They thought through and analysed the content of readings and lectures, and presented the information in really engaging and interesting ways. They searched for extra information to add weight to their own posts. The Elite Bloggers posted regularly and commented meaningfully on other students’ blogs by asking questions and giving feedback on the content. They didn’t really follow the posting directions, but they didn’t have to. What they did do, though, was to take all my feedback on board and incorporate it – quickly! – into their posts.
- 70% of the students became the Trying Hard Bloggers. These students gave it a go, and did a pretty good job. They sourced content and tried to put their own spin on the information. They commented on other students’ blogs, but the comments were not what I would call contemplative or challenging. Most of the Trying Hard Bloggers should have followed the posting directions to give their posts structure, but for whatever reason (and despite my coaching) most chose not to. In fact, they were quite selective about which aspects of my feedback they incorporated; conversely the Elite Bloggers took it all on board and actioned it. Consequently, the Trying Hards didn’t quite cover off what they needed to. Editorially, this group were probably not strong: their grammar, spelling and punctuation needed some attention.
- 10% of the students became what I call the Resistance Bloggers. These students were not at all interested in this assignment. They questioned the relevance of the exercise and as such, either didn’t set up their blogs until the last minute, or didn’t post until they absolutely had to. The Resistance Bloggers simply rehashed the lecture notes, didn’t bother incorporating any of their findings from the weekly readings (did they read them?!), and did not comment on any other student’s blog. Some of the Resistance Bloggers did not add their blog link to the Google Doc, which meant other students were unable to comment even if they wanted to, and this also made it difficult for me to coach them in those first weeks. Some Resistance Bloggers did make a bit of an effort with graphics, but this was minimal compared to the Elite Bloggers and the Trying Hard Bloggers. It should be noted that most of my International students were in the Trying Hard group, not the Resistance group.
This is when my work really began! Marking was more time consuming than I thought it would be because I had specific areas that I wanted the students to address with their blogs, so I evaluated each blog post against that criteria. Scanning, checking and marking each blog – including giving detailed feedback – took between half to one hour to complete.
I failed most of the Resistance Bloggers, and it would be fair to say that they were not happy that they didn’t pass the assignment (and complained about it in no uncertain terms; actually these students were the only ones to complain!). Despite being very clear about what was expected, the Resistance Bloggers made a choice (for whatever reason) not to address the criteria. I think this has less to do with my teaching and the assignment and more to do with the Australian education system (of which I think I will post about at a later date). Of those who failed, they did so because they didn’t (quality) post regularly, didn’t comment on other student’s blogs, didn’t identify themselves properly (so I could actually mark their blogs!) or give me a link to their blog.
- I took these students for two courses at the same time, and got them to write a blog for each course. While the weighting for each blog was 30% (which was fair, given how much work they were expected to do) I would only run one blog per adjacent course I was teaching next time, and this is mainly because the final marking process was very time-consuming. Students were, however, consistent when writing both blogs, which in one sense made the marking easy. I would also up the weighting to 40%.
- The criteria needs to be tightened to include adding the blog links to the Google Doc and posting in the first week, non-use of acronyms, and allocating a professional title to their blog. This is needs to be weighted accordingly in the criteria so students understand how crucial it is to the successful completion of their assignment.
- Check your technology! Make sure that the software you choose is not blocked by your educational institution.
- Give students class time to work on their blogs (which I did). That way you can help them with any issues they may have, particularly in the first few weeks.
- While I made blogging resources available, most students chose not to use them and learned about blogging by playing with the software, and checking out other students’ blogs. I should have also compiled a list of quality blogs, so they had different models to refer to.
- My external student really benefited from the engagement with the internal students because she felt like she was contributing to the class and collaborating with other students (which is sometimes difficult to replicate for external students). She ended up being my best blogger!
- 90% of the students enjoyed this assignment. It got them out of their comfort zone; taught them about blogging and social media; more about writing professionally; and how to search, source and select rich sources of graphics and information.
A selection of my students’ blogs