Blogging in the Classroom: Conversation
Teaching workshops and books on pedagogy almost always recommend including more student participation/conversation in class – not exactly new advice, I know. I think most professors in Theology probably at least try to move beyond simply lecturing, but it is difficult to figure out how to do this consistently. This is particularly true in courses like the one I taught last Fall (forty students who are just fulfilling a university requirement). It is easy – at least it was for me when things got hectic – to simply prepare a lecture and run through the material rather than take the time to find a balance between lecture and real discussion or group work. One of the main reasons I included blogging in my course was that I hoped it would generate conversation among students before and during class.
The conversation among students on the blogs themselves (through the comments the were required to make within their 4-5 person blog group) was mixed. Especially at the beginning many of the comments did not really engage the original posts. They oftentimes just made a general affirmation and so no actual conversation ensued. Halfway through the course I addressed this and asked them to just make one comment within their group but to also make this comment more substantial in nature (respectfully critical or adding a new point to the original post). This helped a great deal. There were a number of times in the second half of the semester when I reshaped a point in my lecture or in-class discussion on the basis of a give-and-take on the blogs. In the future I think I will require two substantial comments (and these could include responses to comments on one’s own blog).
By the end of the semester I was relatively happy with how the blogs functioned in terms of conversation before class, but I think the real potential of blogging is how they can affect conversation during class. First, the 4-5 person blog groups provide ready-made groups for in-class work. Students become accustomed to working with a group of students and they have faces to put on their core blog readers. Group discussions in class and on the blogs also mutually reinforce one another in creating a safe environment for students express their views and respond to others. Second, as I already indicated, threads of discussion or common difficulties on the blogs provide discussion points which are already active among the students. Since I knew before class what various students thought– both in their own posts and in response to others – it was much easier to focus on issues that were of direct interest to them and to address misinterpretations of the material. It also makes it easier to call upon students to share their analysis with the class – and I would try to do this even more in the future. This is especially helpful with students who have less background or who are more introverted (I remember one occasion in particular where a student who never spoke outside of his small group had made an outstanding point on his blog; it was great to be able to call on him during class in a way that empowered him to speak with confidence since he had thought through the idea beforehand).
Creating and maintaining thoughtful discussions in a relatively large introductory religion course is a difficult task. Blogging certainly does not solve the many issues which can lead to discussion being the exception rather than the rule. Nevertheless I think it can go quite far. In addition to simply being an interesting medium to students on its own, it gives them their own space to engage fundamental questions and ideas, it facilitates student dialogue through commenting, and provides a significant foundation from which in-class discussion can begin.