Lessons From the Class Blog

Now that my semester is ending I am leaving teaching behind for a few months of writing, but I wanted to blog here about something I have been doing in the classroom. When I began having my students contribute to a group blog in a Principles of Media Studies class in September, 2006, I thought of it as an experiment. I didn’t know what the students would be like or whether they would be invested in the assignment, and I didn’t know how blogging would fit within the course. After four semesters now, I have collected some ideas about how a class blog works and doesn’t work that I thought would be worth sharing.

When I began the class blog it was my first semester teaching the course and the topic, but I was by then an experienced blogger. Although Zigzigger began only in December of 2006, I had previously blogged without using my full name on topics largely unrelated to my scholarly interests (I’m not going to link to that blog from here, but it’s not hard to find if you have Google). I knew the appeals and affordances of blogging (quick, personal response to ongoing events; membership in a community of bloggers) and thought they would add a lot to a class that would often be concerned with recent media and current events.

The purpose of my class blog is for the students to keep a public media consumption diary. This is supposed to make them more aware of the media in their lives and to prompt them to reflect on their significance. I tell the class at the beginning of the semester that it doesn’t matter if they write well in the blog or if they have a point to make. The students get credit for each entry regardless of content, as long as it’s 150 words long and media related. The assignment is to blog ten times during the semester for a total of 10% of their final grade, and they can post no more than once a week. (Each week begins and ends on Friday at noon, which means that most weeks the largest number of entries are posted on Thursday afternoon and evening and Friday morning.) Comments are encouraged but not required; the same goes for hyperlinks, photos, and videos. The class usually has about 25 students, which is a manageable size for a group blog. A much bigger or smaller class would not work as well.

I have read about other people’s class blogs, and it seems everyone prefers to do it slightly differently. Some people have each student create his or her own blog. Some require comments in addition to posts. Some give students topics to blog about or encourage them to respond to one another’s entries or insist on links or bullet-point lists or embedded video. I think a group blog works best because it makes the students more likely to read each other’s posts, and it makes the blog into a communal space like the classroom. I don’t like the idea of requiring comments because it makes it harder for me to track their participation and because I think voluntary comments have more value than mandated ones. (I got this sense from flickr groups where you post a photo to the pool and have to leave a comment on someone else’s; the comments on these photos tend to be pretty superficial.)

There have been some semesters when students did not blog as much as I hoped. I thought that giving them ten free points for writing anything at all was being really generous and making it easier for them to succeed in the class, but some students would just forget about blogging or not care enough to do it. This really frustrated me when students who could have gotten better grades by blogging regularly ended up with worse grades because they didn’t blog enough. I have wondered whether access to computers is an issue here. Students who do not have a computer at home (there are some in every class) are at a disadvantage. So are students who are less familiar with the participatory internet. (The idea that anyone born since the mid-1980s is a “digital native” is way overstated.) I learned early on that I would need to spend time at the beginning of the semester walking the class through every step of blogging, including where to type the content of a post, how to insert a link or photo or embed a video, how to publish a post, and how to comment on someone else’s. Any student who had not successfully blogged the first week would have to come to my office for a one-on-one session at my computer. Many things that are obvious to me about blogging, things that seem simple and intuitive, are not so to people unfamiliar with the format of the blog. I have found that some newcomers to the participatory web need special care and attention at the beginning of the semester if they are to become comfortable with these new experiences. Even taking these steps, however, is no guarantee that everyone will blog like you want them to. I still don't know how to solve the problem of the student with limited computer access blogging less than the student who has broadband and a laptop. My sense is that this is often a class (and race) issue, which is to say it's the product of a larger structure of inequality that makes it harder for some students to succeed in school.

A class blog really works only if there is an incentive greater than a grade to contribute to it. If you are going to have the class blog, the most important thing is to integrate the blog into the class. This motivates contributions, and good ones. The blog must not be merely supplemental. This is a challenge because the content of the blog comes from the students, and you as the teacher have little control over what they do on it. Indeed, the point is that this part of the class is pretty much their domain. It works better this way. How do you integrate the blog into class? I do it by setting aside time, usually at the beginning of class, to talk about one or two recent entries. I make a special point of doing one of these “something from the blog” discussions on the second day of class. By then usually a handful of eager students have posted their first entry, and I choose one to read to the class (I paste entries into a word document so that I’m not reading off a screen). When I do this, I am careful to appear impressed by the student’s writing, and I praise the entry for both its form and content. I say things like: “I like the way you raise a provocative question” or “It really works that you are responding in a personal way to something you find interesting in the media.” I overdo it a little with the positive reinforcement, but at the beginning of the semester this sets the kind of tone I like in the classroom. The point of this exercise is to give the students the idea of what a good blog entry looks like. (I am especially effusive with praise for properly inserted links and embedded videos.) More importantly, it makes students aware that someone is reading their writing. It gives them an incentive to write good blog posts: I might choose theirs to bring into class and single it out for praise.

As the semester goes along, I try to do something from the blog at least once every third class (Principles of Media Studies meets twice a week for 75 minutes). I try to spread the love around, so that by the end of the semester just about everyone’s writing will have been considered by the group. I sometimes don’t read the entries word for word, but instead just refer to them and ask the student to talk about what they have written. I always give the student who wrote the post we are discussing the first opportunity to talk about it. Sometimes I disagree with students’ points or question them in a gently challenging way. Then I open up the discussion to others. Sometimes these sessions take five minutes, and sometimes it’s more like fifteen or twenty. If a student posts a video, we might watch it.

A couple of times a semester, I also like to give the students the opportunity to talk about blogging, about the blog as a medium and a component of the course. I like to get their feedback about the blog as an assignment to know if they consider it a nuisance, to see if they read each other's entries, to get a sense of their idea of what blogging is and what it can be. Usually there are some skeptics and some enthusiasts. I have yet to hear anyone say that I should stop having students blog at all, but maybe that's something you wouldn't say even if you felt that way. When we talk about participatory media like fan videos and Wikipedia, having the class blog gives us an opportunity to use blogging as another example of "user-generated content" that everyone is very familiar with. The comments I most appreciate in these discussions are those that point out how having to blog regularly affects your experience of the world. Many students over these four semesters have said that blogging has made them pay attention to things they might not have otherwise (to get ideas of things to write about). It has made them more aware of the pervasiveness of media in their lives and of the significance of this. I would like to think that it has encouraged them to think analytically about their experiences. And that being in the habit of writing for an audience has made them better at expressing themselves in a style of writing which, while pretty casual, is still more formal than texting, IM, and Facebook wall posts.

Depending on the course’s topic in a given week, the blog entries might actually relate to the material we are covering. I don’t always try to get the blog discussion to relate to our class’s topics, but often there is a connection I can make. I can talk about an idea anticipating something we are going to discuss in a few weeks, or recalling a topic considered previously. Sometimes students get ideas for a blog post from class. For instance, after a class in which we talked about children’s television and read about and watched Blue’s Clues, a student posted some clips of Yo Gabba Gabba, which gave us the opportunity to compare the two shows and revisit and reinforce a couple of key points from the previous day. I like to think that this kind of repetition with variation often helps people learn better.

Integrating the blog discussion into the class does a number of things. It gives the students an incentive to blog and blog well. It encourages the class to see itself as a group of people with common interests having a conversation rather than as individuals listening to me and writing down what I say. It acquaints students with one another in a way that isn’t possible in the classroom setting, and gives me a window into their experiences which helps me understand them better. Many students share things in the blog that they would not in the classroom. They feel that their contributions to the blog are lower-pressure than their contributions to class discussions. Some students who are reluctant to speak in class say that the blog offers them an opportunity to participate. (I hope they don’t see it as a kind of alibi for keeping quiet in class, though.)

There’s one more thing I like about having a group blog in a media studies class, and it might seem obvious but I think it’s worth stating: I learn from the blog. I get links to viral videos and news about celebrities and condemnations of sensationalist local news. My students write recaps or little reviews of television shows I’m not watching or videogames I'm not playing or movies I’m not seeing or websites I'm not reading. Even when they write about media I do know, my students articulate perspectives that are different from those I might encounter otherwise. Having access to these experiences and perspectives helps me teach my students better by giving me more of a sense of who they are and what they’re like. This is partly, then, a selfish benefit. I like to know about cool new stuff. But it’s also a benefit to students when the teacher speaks their language, and a class works best (in my experience) when its participants feel that they know one another and are engaging in the pursuit of a common purpose. When integrated well into a course, a blog can afford this kind of feeling.

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