Pedagogy and the Class Blog

Julie Meloni over at Prof. Hacker has a good rundown of the kinds of questions a professor should think through when he or she integrates a blog into the classroom. I’ve been using blogs in my teaching for several years now, so I wanted to share a few ideas that have worked for me. I’m no expert and I’m still casting about for solutions to some of the more nagging problems, but after thirteen course blogs spread across seven semesters (I just counted!), I have obtained a small measure of experience. In other words, I keep making mistakes, but at least not the same ones over and over.

My university has bought into the Blackboard machine and does not offer any non-proprietary online platform. Since I refuse to restrict access to my content (and by extension, my students’ content), I host all of my class blogs right here, on, using WordPress. Of course not everyone is geeky enough to own their own domain name (although you should, you really, really should), but there are dozens of places where you can host a class blog for free — so don’t feel like you have to use whatever “online educational solution” your campus throws at you. One advantage of hosting everything myself is guaranteed permanency — I have a persistent archive of my online class conversation that I will never lose, because nobody else controls it. And in fact, former students have told me how valuable it is to be able to revisit half-forgotten blog posts long after they’ve finished the class.

I’ve always used group blogs in my classes: one central, collaborative blog where every students posts. I prefer this format over the hub model, in which an official class site links out to individual student blogs spread across the students’ own preferred blogging platforms. If nothing else, the group blog makes my job easier. I can read all the posts in one place. It also makes it more likely that students will read each other’s posts, generating a sense of momentum that is so important to the students’ buy-in of class blogging.

But what about that momentum? How do you get students to post?

How do you get students to do anything?

You grade it.

I don’t mean to sound cynical so much as realistic. It’s a fact: students need to know that what they’re spending their limited time doing is valued by us, their professors. And how do we show we value something in the classroom? At the most superficial level, by grades. So I typically make the blogging a substantial part of the semester grade. For example, in my most recent graduate class on postmodernism, I required once-a-week postings that would add up to 20 percent of the final grade:

Each student will contribute to the weekly class blog, posting an approximately 500-word response to the week’s readings. There are a number of ways to approach these open-ended posts: consider the reading in relation to its historical or theoretical context; write about an aspect of the day’s reading that you don’t understand, or something that jars you; formulate an insightful question or two about the reading and then attempt to answer your own questions; or respond to another student’s post, building upon it, disagreeing with it, or re-thinking it. In any case, strive for thoughtfulness and nuance. To ensure that everyone has a chance to read the blog before class, post your response by midnight the evening before class.

But how do you grade blog posts? Over time I devised a simple five-point rubric, ranging from 0 (no credit) to 4 (exceptional). It’s quick and in roughly 1-2 minutes I know what to rate any given blog post:

Rating Characteristics
4 Exceptional. The journal entry is focused and coherently integrates examples with explanations or analysis. The entry demonstrates awareness of its own limitations or implications, and it considers multiple perspectives when appropriate. The entry reflects in-depth engagement with the topic.
3 Satisfactory. The journal entry is reasonably focused, and explanations or analysis are mostly based on examples or other evidence. Fewer connections are made between ideas, and though new insights are offered, they are not fully developed. The entry reflects moderate engagement with the topic.
2 Underdeveloped. The journal entry is mostly description or summary, without consideration of alternative perspectives, and few connections are made between ideas. The entry reflects passing engagement with the topic.
1 Limited. The journal entry is unfocused, or simply rehashes previous comments, and displays no evidence of student engagement with the topic.
0 No Credit. The journal entry is missing or consists of one or two disconnected sentences.

I strive for as much transparency as possible, so it’s essential that your expectations (i.e. the rubric) are explained to the students early on, and always available for them to review later. Once I have a few exemplary posts on the blog, I like to walk the class through what makes those posts exceptional (with the authors’ permission).

I mentioned that grades are a superficial way of showing students what we value. Direct and immediate descriptive feedback does more than a single letter or number can. So to deepen students’ understanding of their own work, I comment on every student’s blogging at least twice throughout the semester. These are public comments, posted below the blog post, again contributing to the collaborative and transparent ecosystem of the blog.

So we have grades, and we have comments, but these alone aren’t enough to make students realize the value of blogging for a class. What we need is some reflection upon the part of the student. To this end, about halfway through the semester I assign students a version of what Sheridan Blau in The Literature Workshop calls an “audit” of their own work. I go meta with this audit, making it a blog post on blogging:

Begin by printing and reading all of your posts and comments (you can access a list of your posts from the Archive menu at the top of the site). As you reread them, take notes, critically reading your entries as if they were written by somebody else (or at the very least, recognizing that they were written by a different you at a different time).

Compose a short analysis and reflection of your posts. This meta-post is open-ended and the exact content is up to you, although it should be thoughtful and directed. Feel free to quote briefly from your own posts or to refer to specific ideas from the readings we’ve studied so far.

Some questions to consider might include: What do you usually write about in your posts? Are there broad themes or specific concerns that reoccur in your writing? Has the nature of your posts changed in the past five or six weeks? What changes do you notice, and how might you account for those changes? What surprised you as you reread your work? What ideas or threads in your posts do you see as worth revisiting? What else do you notice? What aspects of the weekly blogging do you value most, and how does it show up in your posts?

This blogging about blogging invariably ends up being a pivotal moment in the students’ relationship to the class blog. It’s when they begin to have a sense of ownership over their ideas, a kind of accountability that carries over into their class discussion and other written work. It’s also when they truly realize that they’re engaged in a thoughtful, thought-provoking endeavor. It’s when the blog becomes more than a blog.

34 thoughts on “Pedagogy and the Class Blog”

  1. Thanks for the very specific and procedurally clear post, Mark. I’m interested in your choice about the one class blog model as opposed to the hub-and-spoke, which is what I’m considering implementing this fall. Have you tried this model with all students (and yourself) using an RSS Reader? If so, in what ways did that experience still prove problematic? If not, do you think it would solve some of the problem associated with a traditional hub-and-spoke model (e.g. needing to click through to every student’s page to read all posts.)
    I suppose the dialogue element of a class blog goes away with the hub-and-spoke model, or at least becomes more difficult; however, I’m interested in whether the students perceive a greater sense of ownership from the get-go if they have and curate their own blog. Any thoughts?
    Thanks again for your rubrics and procedures. I especially like your ideas about the “blogging about blogging” which reminds me of UT-Austin’s Learning Record program.

    1. Nate, your question about a sense of ownership is a good one. It’s true that many of my students already have their own blogs, and it might be possible to capitalize upon that, or, require them to start their own blogs on Blogger, LJ, WordPress, etc. Some of my colleagues do that in fact. The problem I’ve seen is that these “off-site” blogs tend to be a hodgepodge of the assigned academic work and tangential posts into the students’ personal lives. The students have acquired a sense of ownership, but they have lost a sense of audience in the process.

      Exploring a sense of audience — a public audience composed of their peers and not just their friends (like you might find with a personal blog) — is one of my underlying pedagogical goals for blogging (both for myself and for my students). I think the group blog provides more scaffolding, especially at the beginning, for students to begin this exploration.

      One the technical side of things, I’m actually astonished by how few of my students know about RSS. So while Google Reader might make it easier for me to track 30 different student blogs, it is a steeper learning curve for my students. I’d be concerned too that even after mastering RSS, my students might lose their focus: they go to Google Reader to check their classmates’ blogs, but they end up reading the FMYLIFE feed.

  2. I love the concept of a student audit.  We are noticing the start of a trend  – more students want to continue their blogs after they leave campus.  The really good ones are becoming a big part of their portfolios.  Using the cloud for blogs makes this a lot easier on them and on instructional technologists (migrations are a little messy).  I’m surprised there is no support at all for WP, though I’m not sure you need much – it’s very easy to use…I prefer WP to proprietary blog solutions, but there are still faculty who insist on privacy, and that’s where something like Learning Objects in Blackboard fills that need without us having to code and cobble together a way to restrict access.
    It’s easy, almost cliche, to bash an online educational solution, but they exist in part because students demand an online presence.  Blackboard, Moodle, Sakai, whatever – they’re essential to the subset of faculty wanting privacy *and* not interested in the investment it takes to host their own domain or design their own pages…it’s the only manageable solution for instructional technologists given our relatively limited staff for training and supporting a large number of users.
    Don’t get me wrong, I wish more faculty would dive into this world of design/communication – I believe digital literacy is becoming an essential skill in the classroom and beyond, and students who cannot communicate well in this medium will fall behind those who do.
    My question to you, and something I struggle with often…how do we convince faculty of the value of digital literacy?

  3. Any ideas on whether or not a blog could work for a class of up to 60 students?  I’ve used Blackboard discussion boards for a class of that size, but they end up convuluted and unconnected.

  4. Thanks for the great comments and questions. It’ll take some time to address them all. But quickly, I wanted to reply to Annie and Brian’s questions at the same time. I do think a blog can scale up to a larger class, though you’ll want to decrease the frequency of posts. One thing you might want to consider is something I’ll be trying this fall in a class of 40: roles.

    In May I sketched out my plan for assigning roles for the class blog: first responders, commentators, and synthesizers. And each week or so, the roles shift, so that one week 8-10 students are responsible for making the first posts, another group comments on those, and a third group synthesizes the online discussion a few days later. And you can have a group or two of students who have the week off. And the following week you shift roles.

    In the past I’ve allowed substantive comments as substitutes for original posts, but this will be my first rigorous attempt to build dialogue into the blog (rather than letting it happen organically). I’ll let you know how it turns out!

  5. I’m going to add my two cents here too, because you have great comments.
    @Annie: one of my colleagues will be blogging with a class of 40 students and what she’s going to do is randomly put them into groups of 8 (like little neighborhoods).  The idea is that at the beginning as they become familiar with blogging and the class itself, they’ll have a little safe haven before they have to start walking around the entire city (all 40).  On the other hand, in a previous incarnation of the class, the instructors just let them have at it (although there wasn’t much interaction between the bloggers themselves, which is why my friend is trying this other approach).  From the instructor perspective, 40 is totally doable especially if you’re used to reading a lot of blogs regularly anyway.  I know 40 isn’t 60, but off the top of my head it’s the largest class size I remember seeing.
    @Nate: The question of sense of ownership through individual curating of a blog is a good one — I’ve seen good and bad blogging done both ways, although doesn’t it make sense that individual ownership would produce more buy-in from the get-go?  My gut says it does, but has nothing to back it up.

  6. I love your blogging rubric; hope you don’t mind if I borrow it for my own classes.
    Am I right in assuming that you don’t post your blog grades publicly on student blogs?  It seems worthwhile to point out that, from what I understand of FERPA rules, one area where we can run into trouble is when students are blogging publicly under their full names and professors are grading their work in a public way.   I usually ask my students to either choose an alias for their blogs or to use some combination of initials and names so that google name searches don’t turn up coursework.  Of course, I’m all for having students establish their own namespace domains and link to work that makes them proud . . .

    1. Matthew, about my rubric, borrow away! In fact, make it better! (I just realized that my Creative Commons License was “No Derivatives” — a holdover from earlier days of blogging. But today I’ve changed the license throughout the blog to Share-and-Share-Alike, meaning anybody can do what they like with the content, as long as it’s not for commercial use, shared in a similar manner, and I receive attribution.)

      And yes, definitely in regards to the privacy rules, I do not post the grades publicly. I share the ratings of each post only with the author of that post.

    1. Definitely do make off with it. As I noted in my comment above, I’ve just changed my license to allow derivative works. So do what you want, as long as you share in kind! ;-)

  7. It sounds like a great idea. I was part of a few classes that used the blackboard system for such purposes 1) commenting on readings and 2) commenting on random questions that students thought about after the class.

    The only downside was that there was only about two to four students who were really putting in an effort to contribute. Hopefully, stating that it will be graded will encourage more students to participate.

  8. […] Pedagogy and the Class Blog: I’ve been using blogs in my teaching for several years now, so I wanted to share a few ideas that have worked for me. I’m no expert and I’m still casting about for solutions to some of the more nagging problems, but after thirteen course blogs spread across seven semesters (I just counted!), I have obtained a small measure of experience. In other words, I keep making mistakes, but at least not the same ones over and over. […]

  9. This blogging activity/rubric and reflection is simply wonderful. I have been using a variation of this with individual weblogs in my courses but I truly like the way you’ve handled this. You sir, are a totalbadass!

  10. Hi, your excellent piece is very much in line with my own experiences over at the Masters of Media collective student blog:

    I started the MoM blog in September 2006 and it will soon welcome its fourth generation of new media masters students. Numbers of students that used the Masters of Media blog have grown steadily from 7 to 15 to 25 and soon 40-45. I use the blog intensely over the first two months of this one year (12 months) degree and then a considerable number of student continue to post on the blog, throughout the year. I use a similar but less formalized procedure to grade the student’s work. The blog has made grading really easy: the students just HAVE to contribute on a weekly basis and feel it as a real commitment (with a competitive edge) to write entertaining, high-quality postings.

  11. Mark, I’d love it if you gave a short overview about how to install more than one WP blog on a single domain. I was under the impression (false, obviously) that each blog needed its own new domain name. My question’s really basic, so maybe the answer’s really straightforward?

    1. WordPress has a thorough guide to installing multiple blogs on a single domain. You definitely don’t need a separate domain name for each blog, just a separate directory. You don’t even need to set up multiple MYSQL databases — you can use one database, and give each blog a separate prefix (you do this in the wp-config.php file for each blog.

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