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.
This past semester I read and graded almost 700 blog posts from my students. Add this to 140 analysis essays and 210 essay exams and the question of grading becomes a major issue. I believe that a writing intensive course is highly beneficial for students. Almost any introduction to theology syllabus I have seen includes a course goal that students will either become more intelligent and critical readers of texts or be able think more critically in general. I do not know how this can be accomplished without regular writing (and discussion in class). Of course, at some point the sheer amount of grading becomes prohibitive for the professor. I taught two sections of the same course and had seventy students. I have a colleague with 140 students next semester (with no graduate assistant). Others probably have even more. It is for these people that grading 10-15 blogs per student during the semester seems overwhelming; and it is to these people that I recommend blogging in the classroom.
One of the first decisions I made (particularly after my teaching mentor was worried for my time and sanity with the grading) was to grade the blogs pass/fail. This substantially decreases the amount of time spent grading since one does not have to debate between A, B, C, D, F or even check plus, check, check minus. I subscribed to all of the student blogs with Google Reader and most of the time I could grade all seventy posts in an evening. If a student followed the assignment and showed some thought then he or she received a pass. Out of almost 700 posts, only about 25 did not receive passing grades during the semester and most of those were for people who did not complete the assignment; only a handful received outright failing grades for a post that was completed on time. This raises two further issues though: student motivation and grade inflation.
Given that students know the grading is being done pass/fail, one might assume that the quality of the writing and the motivation of the students would decrease substantially. I did not find that this was the case for a couple of reasons. First, the public nature of the blogs goes a long way in ensuring some student effort. Students are less like to blow off the assignment when they know that their classmates will be reading their reflections. The quality of the blogs obviously varied from person to person and week to week but overall I think the public nature helped a great deal in maintaining a level of quality with which I was quite happy. Second, each week I would write a highlight post to point out some of the best and most interesting blogs. About halfway through the semester I became a bit frustrated with this because I could tell (via wordpress) that not many students actually clicked on the links to read the blogs I highlighted (to be expected, I know!). I casually mentioned the highlight post one day in class and the students immediately said how much they loved them. Taken aback I asked why. It turns out that first-year students in college like a gold star just as much as elementary students do. The possibility of public acknowledgment of their work by me, the professor, was significant motivation for many of the students (I had one student excitedly announce to the class around the 7th blog post assignment that he had finally made the highlights on my blog).
The other danger I see in pass/fail grading is its impact on the final grade. In my course the blogs were worth 20% of the students’ final grades (15% from their own blogs and 5% from their commenting within their groups). Most students received a 100% for this portion of their grade, and in the end I think that this raised their grades too significantly. They had five other major assignments (papers/exams) but I found that I graded these without taking into account the fact that most students would be received a very large bump in their grade from the blogs. One way of adjusting this would simply be to be stricter when grading other assignments and I will do this to a certain extent in the future. However, the main change I will make next time I use blogs in the classroom would be to have “pass” be somewhere between 90-95%. I would reserve the right to give students a “pass-plus” (100%) but this would remain the exception for outstanding posts rather than the default for everything from average to outstanding. Grades on the blogs would remain quite high but this small adjustment should both keep the blogs from raising grades too much and provide a bit more motivation to students.
When I decided to have students blog as part of my class one of the difficulties I had was trying to decide what type of questions to ask. Should the blogs be standard analysis or reflection papers that just happen to be put up on a blog for others to read? Should they be more open ended engagements with the readings or general themes? Put in another way, I had to figure out to what extent I wanted my students to become bloggers and to what extent blogs were simply a medium for them to read each other’s reflection papers. Overall I went more with the latter. As I started I was most worried that the blogs would not be rigorous enough and thus I assigned straightforward analysis – the first blog assignment was a basic compare and contrast between Genesis 1 and Enuma Elish, a common assignment given without using blogs. Since one goal of having the blogs was to ensure that students were doing some of the reading throughout the course, these sorts of assignments were effective (ensuring that students did the reading on non-blogging days was a difficulty throughout the semester; some other form of reading check seems necessary if one hopes to have a discussion-based classroom). I always tried to give students a number of different ways to approach a blog post and this seemed to ensure enough variety and openness within the analysis paper model. As the semester went on (and particularly when we turned to the theme of poverty for the final three weeks), I made the prompts more reflective. These posts were particularly effective in terms of generating real discussion during class time.
In the end, I worried about having the blogs becoming too un-academic and this perhaps risked stifling the medium to a certain extent. In the future I would keep a mixture of the various types of prompts but I would include more of the open ended, reflective prompts earlier in the semester in order to facilitate more discussion.
Earlier I mentioned that this semester I had my students blogging in order to have them regularly write and engage one another. The model I followed is called “Hub-and-spoke blogging,” as my class blog operates as a hub for the class. All of the students were put into groups of 4 or 5, and each assignment they were required to read the blogs within their group and make comments. These also functioned as ready-made groups for in-class work. Overall I was very pleased with the role the blogs played in the class – I would use them again. Over the next couple of weeks I am going to reflect more on what worked well and what I would change next time I decide to integrate blogging in one of my classes. For those interested in the meantime, here is my no frills blog for the class.
This coming fall semester I will be teaching two sections of the first-level theology course here at Notre Dame and I will be integrating blogging into the course – assignments include blogging on various topics and responding to posts from fellow students. I hope to post during the semester as to how this is going but right now there is an interesting piece over at the Chronical of Higher Ed on Teaching with Blogging by Lanny Arvin. The author notes that blogging facilitates active engagement with the course material and fits nicely with principles for good undergraduate education. Nevertheless, he raises two concerns that I had as I designed my course: difficulty of students adapting to the medium and student privacy.
The medium: ideally blogging provides an atmostphere for creative thinking and thoughfully articulated dialogue within a course (ideally, I know!). As I have designed my course I see the danger that blog assignments will become no more than the standard reflection papers given in many classes. The fact that students put these papers up on blogs may be entirely superficial. Dr. Arvin found that this was a real danger as his students had trouble opening up and personally engaging the material. However, I have honestly been more worried that blogging would lead to posts that are not serious enough; too open-ended, too much stream-of-consciousness. Finding that balance between substantial engagement and free thought will be a task throughout the semester. Right now (and this seems supported by his experience) I am hoping that my commenting on student blogs and requiring students to comment upon other student blogs will help generate substantial and creative reflection and take advantage of blogging as a medium.
Privacy: legally, no student can be required to post in public forum using his/her real name. I am hoping that students will feel comfortable using only their first names to ensure anonymity but pseudonyms are also an option. At the end of the article the issue of aliases is raised. It is unclear whether or not giving aliases would be intended to protect anonymity with the wider public or within the classroom as well. If the former, I agree that anonymity within the wider blogosphere will aid students (particularly first year-students) in opening up and putting their thoughts out there. If it is the latter, I think it might be detrimental, since part of the benefit of blogging is to build a sense of community in learning. Anonymity from others in the class would signficantly hurt this.
My reflections at this point, of course, are only what I hope to accomplish with blogging. I am excited about the possibilities blogging brings to the classroom and am thankful for those who have tried it already. We’ll see how it goes in the Fall.