Blogs, Wikis, and LMSs. Some notes on my practice

Ryan Cordell and I had been exchanging tweets on the use of blogs, wikis, and the like in class. Since 140 characters is good for many things, but not this, I promised him I’d write up a quick description of the practice I’ve developed over the last few years.

The context for this is the Moodle Learning Management System (LMS), which I’ve been using in its 1.x and 2.x versions. There’s no reason why you couldn’t do this with loose wiki, blogging, and microblogging systems. But I’m still reluctant to require students to release their school work publicly.


Grading and requirements

In almost all of my classes, I require students to post a blog entry at least once per unit (I sometimes divide the class into two or three groups, with one group required to blog before each class). I set no requirements for length, number of references or links, topic (except that it has to be within shouting distance of the unit topic), or style. The blogs collectively represent often a significant percentage of the final grade (usually about the same as a short essay or 15-25%) but the individual blogs themselves are not worth very much. I call the blogs due by midnight the day before the class, so I have time to review them as part of my preparation.

I grade the essays on a 1/0 scale, with 1 representing some evidence of effort and 0 representing no blog or so little effort as to bring the exercise into disrepute (If I have a T.A. I assign this to them to keep up-to-date; if I don’t, I usually do all the “marking” in a big burst at the end of the semester, since there is no feedback involved).

Students who write additional blogs over and above the 13 required in a 13 week semester get 0.5 in bonus marks for every extra blog completed (subject to the same evidence-of-effort requirement as above). I am a little more demanding with regard to the evidence of effort required to get bonus marks; but even with that, remain relatively easy going.

I haven’t yet assigned specific marks for commenting on other’s blogs, because I haven’t really found it necessary to promote this activity yet (they seem to do it themselves). But I have taken it into account as part of a general 5% “participation” grade.

Pedagogical purpose and results

I started assigning the blogs in my literature classes as part of an emphasis on “active reading” I promote in that context (by “active reading,” I mean reading with a computer nearby to look things up, test hypotheses, track down allusions or other references that look interesting).

I soon discovered that they were also an essential teaching tool for me, as they were extremely good at revealing problems and interests students had with their assignments. An important part of my pre-class preparation now is to read the blog postings before going into the classroom. In discussion classes, there is usually enough material to direct discussion to things the students have found interesting; in lectures, it gives me advance warning of where students may have questions or require more emphasis.

I also discovered that they are extremely effective in most non-literature classes as well, including “Grammar” (actually descriptive syntax and morphology of English in my department’s case), History of English, even (albeit to a lesser extent) in our introductory Old English class. In technical classes like these, the blogs give the students the opportunity to do humanistic work around the topic in question. In Grammar I ask them to write something each week about interesting language use, problems, or structures they have encountered in their daily life and readings in the last week or about stories about language from the blogosphere and popular press. In History of English, I ask them to write about some aspect of language change or diversity they have encountered. Things are a bit more difficult in Old English because it is in the early days focussed on a single aspect of a single subject and goes quite slowly: it is hard to require people to blog on things they learned about Old English grammar or vocabulary or about inflections; in that class, I get them to blog less frequently and usually from a list of suggested cultural topics.

Perhaps the most surprising thing is how good the blogs are. I am coming to the conclusion that the “Essay” has been overtaught (and badly taught) in high school and first year university classes to the point that it has become a dead form to our students: even the best seem to see the exercise as being primarily about jumping through formal and rhetorical hoops; I’ve yet to see one who saw it as a form for intellectual exploration and experimentation.

This is not because the students are terrible. Albertan high schools rate extremely highly internationally, and our incoming students are reasonably well trained and by-and-large mechanically proficient writers.

Whatever it is we are doing, however, we have given them this apparently unshakable belief that the essay is something English teachers use to reduce your grade by finding formal mistakes. The result is that their essays are almost invariably turgid, intellectually conservative, and humourless examples of how to arrange unobjectionable words in five paragraphs. The best students do this while managing to avoid comma splices and interspersing their work with a number of references and quotations from authors and other authorities in sufficient numbers to avoid having marks deducted. The worst just wish we wouldn’t submit them to this torture or tryng to guess, in their case, largely unsuccessfully, “what the professor wants.” But nobody seems to see it as somewhere to discover and reflect on what they think about a topic.

Their blogs, in contrast, tend to be more more intellectually alive and vibrant. They don’t worry about outlines, their arguments develop organically rather than being reduced to a single declarative sentence at the end of the first paragraph, and in fact they often use more or fewer than five paragraphs. The use natural vocabulary; they write better and more natural sounding sentences. And oddly for something that is worth so little, they tend to write a lot: students who have trouble developing ideas for a 1200 word “Essay” often end up writing that much or more most weeks for their blogs (The contrast was so strong in a History of English class two years ago that I almost reversed the marks: counting the–generally terrible–essays for 1 or 2% and replacing the essay marks with their blog scores).

All round, I have found assigning blogs to be something that has no downside. They are easy to mark, they seem to encourage intellectual curiosity and experimentation, and students seem not to feel the crushing defensiveness that affects their work with “formal” essays.


Grading and requirements

A second new technological tool I use in all my classes now is student-led, wiki-based class note-taking. I put up a wiki for every class (lecture, discussion, or student presentations) and assign two students each time to make the initial draft of the class notes. Again these are graded on a 1/0 basis depending on evidence of basic effort. I make no attempt to judge or even correct their content, though I treat a gross or a large number of mistakes is considered evidence of lack of effort. Other than indicating that the first two students are only responsible for writing the first draft of the notes and that others are free to correct, edit, or otherwise change them, I give no further instructions about the wikis or the note taking exercise. Since there is no feedback required, this is once again something I can assign to a T.A. or undergraduate marking assistant if I have one, or mark in a single sitting at the end of the year if I don’t.

Pedagogical purpose and results

I’d initially expected this technique to be useful inversely to the blogs. I.e. I’d expected the collective note taking to be useful primarily in my more technical linguistic and technology-focussed teaching rather than in the more discussion oriented literary classes. Even more than was the case with the blogs, however, this collective note taking has turned out to be extremely useful in both types of classes.

The real surprise was in literary discussion classes. Here I was surprised first of all to discover that the students were able to create notes at all–a common complaint in my discussion focussed classes is that the students don’t see how the discussion gives them something to study. And secondly that having had the notes, they then would treat them very seriously. The first literature class I tried them out in, for example (a pre-1800 literary survey) spontaneously divided itself up into study groups and arranged entirely self-run study sessions based around these notes before the mid term and final exams. In other classes, I’ve had complaints from the class when the assigned note-takers did not do what was considered to be a thorough enough job with the first draft. And, although it is still early days (I introduced this exercise into my class two years ago, but then had an intervening year’s sabbatical), I believe it is helping eliminate the previously perennial complaint on course evaluations that the students didn’t know what to take away from free-flowing discussion. The fact there is now a “deliverable” from each class appears to have assuaged their anxiety about whether they were learning if I wasn’t lecturing.

In more technical classes, the notes worked more or less as I thought they would: students used them to track the information in my lectures and also build study groups around. In one class, on Chaucer, a T.A. engaged with the notes each week, correcting errors, adding additional detail when the notes indicated confusion and the like. I’m not sure that had a beneficial effect sufficient to compensate for the significant time-investment required, however.

Again, this is an exercise that I would highly recommend in pretty much any context: it models the class as a community of learners, it lets students see what their peers think and are capable of, and it seems to have a broadly beneficial effect on their learning. The only thing I’ve been surprised to see with this exercise was how little revision of the notes takes place. Even when the students meet in study groups, they tend not to change the first draft notes: instead, they seem to develop a canonical set of print notes with they distribute separately from the wiki.


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