Lessons from a First-Time Course Blogger

Those of you familiar with cac.ophony, the Schwartz Communication Institute’s blog, know that our Fellows consistently offer intelligent, insightful commentary on a host of topics including, teaching, technology, communication, culture and media. Below is a recent post on teaching with blogs by Hillary Miller, which has gotten a fair share of attention, including a couple of plugs on Prof. Hacker, a new, high-volume, high-profile blog on teaching and technology. Hillary’s instructive and provocative post, entitled “Lessons from a First-Time Course Blogger,” is reproduced below.

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I’m finally looking back to Spring ’09, when I had my first experience using Blogs@Baruch in two sections of COM1010, Intro to Speech Communications. I used the blog for the midterm, in which students write critiques of speeches they’ve found online. In past semesters, students have been inventive in their speech choices and committed in their critiques. But the question of how to best enable their classmates to see these videos still lingered. Curious about Blogs@Baruch, I decided to migrate this assignment onto a blog, allowing students to watch (and comment upon) each other’s videos and share their critiques of the speeches. Having learned from the adventure, here are a few words of advice to potential Blogs@Baruch-ers.

1. It’s not difficult. Considering the gong show of Blackboard’s tech problems this semester, it was almost comical how smoothly the blog functioned. A handful of students ran into some problems accessing it at certain computers, but often I found that problems encountered by students were frequently due more to lack of time and preparation on their part than any issue with the blog itself.

2. Don’t be conservative! I was. As one of my students told me at the end of the semester, “the blog was just there.” It wasn’t as dynamic as it could have been, in part because I didn’t use it to capture anything in progress. Students cut and pasted their work onto the blog, and then made the requisite comment on a post, creating a static space outside of the classroom, not a particularly engaging one. While it was satisfying to see this vast collection of interesting video clips assembled in one place—along with frequently cogent, in-depth analyses of them—I see now that I used the blog to solve a problem (that of my midterm assignment) rather than tailoring it for uses that would really suit the nature of the blog. Recent conversations with my students and others have highlighted a range of ways that it could be used in an Introductory Speech course– sharing audio files or outlines of student speech drafts that could be revised as the “audience” comments. On a related note, the public forum really does elicit strong work. When students feel the watchful eyes of their peers, the bar is set somewhere different. This makes my mouth water for the possibilities of the course blog—like facilitating peer review, for example—that I didn’t explore.

3. Be forewarned: out of sight, out of mind. In part due to #2 above, the blog can feel like that side dish you ordered but weren’t quite hungry for. It’s easy to lose track of the blog, and its implementation should be planned with an eye towards avoiding this. Usually, the material nature of grading compels you to eventually plop down on a long train ride and hit it out of the park. With the blog, not so easy. I had good intentions—I wanted to comment on posts frequently, but commenting is time-consuming, especially if students are posting 40-minute inauguration speeches. This in turn leaves less time to evaluate the work for grading purposes. From the student side, they were assigned a date for one post; once students posted, they didn’t have a strong incentive to return, which would leave me begging them to “visit the blog!” when I myself was embarrassingly behind on reading their old posts.

4. Students might be less excited about instructional technology than you are. (…How to get them more excited is part of the task.) Take ‘tagging,’ for example—it was harder than I might have imagined getting the ‘tagging’ to happen. Some assume that the ‘Sidekick generation’ will tag as if it were natural as breathing. Not so– every nineteen-year-old might know how to search YouTube, but they’re not all writing Facebook applications or even their own blogs. Making some class time available to teach students the rhyme and reason behind some aspects of the blog is arguably essential, and yet somehow easy to overlook.

The Com1010 Public Speaking Award Goes To...

The Com1010 Public Speaking Award Goes To...

5. Students love Pacino. As in past semesters, his speeches were cited with a remarkable frequency, rivaled only by Randy Pausch. This is perhaps not a surprise, since the first hit from googling “inspirational speech” is Pacino’s “peace by inches” monologue from Any Given Sunday, but still. City Hall has a less predictable—and arguably far better—dramatic monologue that I’m glad one of my students spread around.

I’ll end here with a question. As Luke articulated so well in his WordCampEd post, these open source technologies are blessedly DIY. But I can’t help feeling a little protective of the adjunct in this discussion– don’t adjuncts “do it themselves” enough? Can the full potential of Instructional Technology really be unleashed with the real limitations of the adjunct labor force operating in higher education? I’m in a distinctly lucky position as a dual-hatted Communications Fellow and adjunct; working with people jazzed and knowledgeable about these technologies has taught me tremendous amounts about how to use it and why. But how will Jane Q. Adjunct learn about the potential of a course blog, after tearing her hair out over Blackboard for months and missing the departmental meeting that announced a later workshop about blogs, all time she’s not paid for? How will Jane Q. Adjunct get excited about the potential of these tools, and why will she motivate to prioritize the time required to integrate them thoughtfully and productively in her course?

About mgershovich

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4 Responses to Lessons from a First-Time Course Blogger

  1. Elisabeth Gareis says:

    The activity sounds very interesting, and I imagine that there would be quite a few instructors (adjunct and full-time) who’d love to see a demonstration and incorporate a similar technique into their classes. In my mind, the problem with descriptions of exciting teaching techniques involving technology is that most people need a demonstrataion of the technique to understand fully how it works.

    Such demonstrations could take place face-to-face in a workshop or be recorded on video and then posted. If it weren’t for the financial crisis, I’m confident that Baruch College would find the resources to sponsor a workshop. If I’m not mistaken, some workshops are even paid events for adjuncts. And there are also technology grants available at Baruch that may be applicable to creating a video demonstration of the technique.

    In any case, I would find it very beneficial if a technique such as Hillary’s could be demonstrated (including via video that’s posted online).

  2. Matthew A. Edwards says:

    This is a very interesting post, which has inspired me to look more closely at the idea of starting a course blog in the spring.

    I especially appreciated the honest insights on the demands on the faculty member’s time that this project might entail. If one starts with the presumption (which may not be correct) that the faculty member already is spending close to the maximum amount of time that she wishes to spend on a class in terms of preparation, grading and student interaction… Well, you can see where I am going with this. The addition of additional preparation, grading and interaction tasks related to the blog (or any pedagogical innovation) will necessitate taking a hard look at what is already on your plate from that class and what might be reduced or eliminated. This type of constant course reinvention and reinvigoration is healthy. Problems arise, however, when you continue to add without subtracting.

  3. Hillary Miller says:

    Mikhail, thanks for the re-post.

    Elizabeth, thanks for your comments. I will say that I wish I had asked my students during the semester if they would mind my using the blog for limited in-house purposes in the future, for exactly the reasons you mentioned.

    It hadn’t crossed my mind to do so because a few students had initially expressed concern that the blog could be found on-line by anyone, anywhere, and I had assured them that it couldn’t be. Knowing that privacy was an issue for some of them, I didn’t link to the blog in my post. But the blog does still exist, and I’ll investigate removing the students’ names with the aim of sharing it in the future.

    And Matthew, thank you for your comment as well. You’re right that– for your own sanity– adding something like a blog requires taking steps to reduce some of what already occupies your teaching/grading/planning time. But I really like that you also suggest that integrating these new tools can be a kind of course reinvigoration. Overall, it’s a really healthy process; through planning realistically, it is possible to shed to old layers that might have been dragging the course down, while inserting new challenges that refocus your energies and attention.

    And if you decide to proceed with a course blog, good luck!

  4. Luke Waltzer says:

    Hi All:

    Your comments raise a few questions to which I’d like to respond.

    @Elizabeth: at the Schwartz Institute, we’ve run a number of workshops on integrating Blogs@Baruch into the classroom. These have been located both in the disciplines and across them, and have succeeded mostly in showing both adjunct and f/t faculty members what’s possible with the software and working collectively through the pedagogical implications of its use.

    Since usage varies widely on our system, once users become familiar with the interface, one-on-one meetings usually become the best method for matching the design, structure, and schedule of a course blog to the goals of the faculty member. We currently support a couple of dozen new courses each semester, in addition to our various other projects. You can see a list of projects here, although that list has not yet been updated to reflect our (very intense) work this semester. The list can be helpful in generating ideas that I can then help you refine for your particular course.

    I’d also add that I will be running a workshop on 10/15 at 1pm (location to be announced here) on Blogs@Baruch as a Web 2.0 Hub. Here’s the description:

    Blogs@Baruch provides a platform for faculty, administrators, students, and staff to bring a wide variety of online resources together in a space that they control. This workshop will explore the ways that Blogs@Baruch is being and may be used throughout the Baruch College community, and we will discuss the pedagogical, curricular, and administrative implications of the college’s embrace of a locally administered, open source publishing platform. In the second half of the workshop, attendees will get a guided hands-on experience with Blogs@Baruch aimed at exploring its ability to integrate other online resources.

    Frankly, single workshops can’t be any more than introductions… training and familiarity with the system must come from usage over time.

    @Matthew: I certainly appreciate and welcome your concern that integrating technology not overwhelm other components of class preparation. We must be clear that the integration of technology often means more work, not less. But I do believe that the returns on that work can increase exponentially if the technology is used thoughtfully and purposefully.

    While Hillary advises potential blogfessors to avoid being conservative, I actually give the opposite advice to faculty members who are blogging for the first time, particularly if they express anxiety or discomfort with the transition to digital. In your first go around, go slow, accomplish something small, and build upon it. If you feel like you can do more, then go for it, but be aware of the time commitment the project you set up might require.

    I would push back against any notion that integrating technology means it sits on top of the other work of a course, and encourage users to see technology as integrated into the flow of their course. If students are writing journals, why not have them keep their journals on a blog? You wouldn’t necessarily have to read any more than you would if it was in paper format, and the opportunity for classmates to see each others’ work creates the opportunity for new communicative dynamics to emerge. Blogs on our system have been used for peer review, group work, collaborative writing/research, the sharing of resources among students, scaffolding papers, presentations, asynchronous discussions… the models are legion, and the most successful intensify the communication and writing that happens in a course without necessarily requiring an increased commitment from the faculty member beyond conceiving and launching the process.

    @Hillary: All of our blogs have complete granularity in their privacy settings. If you want your blog to be password protected, you can change the privacy settings. You can password protect individual posts and pages, and you can leave your blog open while disallowing search engine crawls. Or you can be open and on the Google. You can also allow your students to post under and alias. And you can always change your mind mid-semester or close down the site after the term (though if you choose to allow Google crawl, there’s gonna be an imprint of your blog somewhere).

    Our choice to keep our blogs open by default is a philosophical one about which we’ve given much thought. We think there is value in teaching on the open web, on encouraging students to see their work as having relevance, value, consequences, and potentially even leading to opportunities beyond the classroom. That said, we are aware and sensitive to the fact that open blogs may not always be the right way to go, and our users are thus empowered to consider and make those decisions for themselves.

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