By SUSAN YOUNGWOOD Staff Writer | May 13,2007
Students in Paul Martin's course on Colonial and Postcolonial World Literature at the University of Vermont start discussing Canadian authors in class and then continue their conversations online, thanks to the class blog.
"You've now had some time to sit with 'Kiss of the Fur Queen,'" Martin writes to his students in a blog entry dated Feb. 26. "What are your reactions to the novel? What surprised or struck you most about Highway's novel? Have your thoughts about the book changed as we've spent more time discussing it in class?"
In their 26 responses, his students elaborated on the classroom discussion and further explored the book's themes.
"It really does encourage students to reflect on what they are reading and to write something about it often," Martin said. "Often we don't know what we think about what we've read until we write about it. They learn something about the book from the exercise."
Blogs are not solely the domain of political pundits or public diarists. Educators are increasingly using blogging software as a teaching tool, praising its pedagogical benefits. Blogs are used to communicate classroom materials, build a class community and publish student writing, among other functions. Faculty in all disciplines – English, foreign language, math, science – are using them.
"Blog" is a term that emerged by smushing the words "Web" and "log." Blogging software allows Internet users to easily create and update a Web site with text, images, audio, video and links to other Web sites. Visitors – who can include students, other educators, authors or researchers – can comment on entries, and often-lively discussions emerge.
UVM, like other Vermont colleges, hosts blogs for free on its computer server; in mid-April there were 389 blogs with more being added regularly. They run the gamut, from professors like Martin who use it in the classroom, to students who journal to connect with friends and family, to professors who pontificate on their research or current events. UVM encourages the use of blogs –seminars and colleague teas are held regularly to demonstrate how to set them up and best use them with students.
The beauty of blogging is its ease. While many technologically savvy teachers have Web sites, creating one often meant understanding computer code, and updating could be cumbersome. Creating and maintaining a blog requires no knowledge of html.
"The main advantage is the ease of use. There's one button that you click to add a post. … to add a URL link, to add a photo… It's as simple as clicking 'publish' and it's there, and it's formatted for you," said Holly Parker, of the UVM Center for Teaching and Learning. "The fact that folks can comment (on the blog) opens up a dialog approach not at all possible for regular Web software."
Richard Parent, an English professor at UVM who specializes in digital media and cultural studies, has several blogs going at once. He creates a blog for each class he teaches, and has an ongoing personal blog where he posts "what I am working on and what I find interesting."
On each class blog, students can find the syllabus, schedule, reading list, assignments – all easily updated if anything changes. "Instead of calling or e-mailing me, they can go to the blog," he said.
Many professors use class blogs for classroom management. Lectures will be posted, for example. Some have abandoned using paper entirely. Students can set up what's called an RSS feed to alert them to any updates to a class blog.
Publishing student work
Barbara Ganley, a lecturer in the Writing Program at Middlebury College, pioneered the use of classroom blogs at Middlebury, launching the first one in 2001.
Now, students post all their essays – every draft – in individual blogs that are connected to what she calls the "mother blog." Students read and comment on each other's blogs.
"You are totally publishing your work at every step of the way," Ganley said. "It's made the process of writing transparent. Students could see all their work in process, and learn from one and other, and are bound as a community, by sharing writing, even in a raw form."
In other disciplines, students use blogs to document their science or field research. Students studying abroad post their experiences. Many professors have research blogs, with links to published articles.
By blogging, students gain an audience that reaches beyond the traditional student-professor relationship. "Students care much more about what students think," Ganley explained. Their work is now being published online, read by a student audience.
Many teachers require that their peers give feedback, which blogging software encourages. Parent says students who dislike peer review exercises in class prefer to read and comment on classmate's papers when they are online.
"These are networks, we all link to each other, talk to each other, share our perspectives and responses to others' perspectives. When we do our own blogs and post on them and make them read each other's blogs, they can see what others are writing, and offer feedback," he said.
The intense interaction fostered by blogs can create a tighter classroom community, professors report.
"I want to build a community in my classroom," Ganley said. When students are interacting both in person and online, that strengthens their connections, she said.
"Once you hear someone else's story, you can't be indifferent," Ganley said. She went on to explain that blogs encourage participation from more introspective students who tend to be quiet in class, but are able to communicate better through writing.
Elizabeth Geballe, a student of Ganley's explained it this way:
"Blogs were … used nights and in-between times, within our workshop groups, to post, comment, re-post, and reflect. …. When, at the end of each section of the class, we would turn in our final work, it would not only be our project pieces, but also comments we'd written to our classmates and postings we'd made in the ongoing discussion of our mother-blog. The result being, we saw our own compiled work, but also the product of our working with others, an assessment of our collaboration.
Professors also credit blogs with improving their direct teaching. They will post questions on the blog, check out the student comments, and "shape how they teach the next class," said Alexander. "Professors realize that if students didn't get the point, they need to spend more time on that process in the classroom."
"Before class I scan the blog," confirms Ganley. "I can see what they understand and what they haven't. I can go in to teach to whatever they need, right then. And, the first level of conversation has already started. I walk in and they are already talking about what was in the blog."
Blogs also become ever-expanding textbooks, enabling teachers to bring updated material into the classroom. They link to news articles, research, anything relevant to what is being discussed in class.
"I have all kinds of things I post that are of interest to students and relate to the class," Parent said. "Wacky things I find, things that relate to what we are discussing there, students can read it and pursue it as their interest dictates. … (the blog becomes) almost like another textbooks. A textbook I'm writing, and they are writing on a day-to-day basis, and (growing and updating). It's always expanding."
Learning to use technology
Part of what Parent teaches through his class blogs is how to best use the technology.
"There is this assumption that (students) are fluent and know what's going on. But that's not always the case," he said. "The kind of impact I am having most on the students right now is teaching them how to make better use of the technology, to make their writing better."
Like many professors, Ganley encourages her students to go beyond writing in their entries. Students post photos, videos and audio as part of their assignments. "Kids are getting skilled at multimedia writing," she explains. "They are learning presentation skills."
Another aspect is showing students how to blog responsibly. "Our blogs are open to the world," said Ganley. Students need to learn "not to be foolish and write something that will come back to haunt them."
Opening up classroom walls
In some classes, blogs have already changed how and when learning happens.
For example, Bryan Alexander, research director at NITRE, a nonprofit based in Middlebury that researches emerging technologies as they impact liberal arts colleges, says blogs encourage a "time shift in the conversation."
"In many classrooms, students will have a great idea, but the class is over. Now, outside the class, students can go to … the blog and post that point. … It's a nice expansion of the classroom discussion," he said.
Parent concurs. "It allows me to bring in things from outside and to keep the conversation of the class going all the time, even when we're not meeting."
Another advantage, Alexander said, is that blogs bring the outside world into the rarified one of the college campus – and forces college students to interact beyond the Ivy-covered walls.
"This is so powerful: you can have these global conversations," he said. Authors check out the blogs of classes reading their books and scientists read the research done by students, he said. Ganley, for example, invites experts to talk with her students via blogging.
And the college classroom is opened up to the public, he continued. Political science professors comment on political events, law professors on court decisions, education professors on trends in education, prompting conversations that include students and anyone else out there who has the time and interest to log in.
Martin, the UVM professor, said the author of one of the books his students studied reads his class blog. "Knowing that they are writing to a bigger audience than me or other students, it really ups the ante in terms of their performance," he said. "They will often take the time to write something that is well thought out."
Said Ganley, "This changes everything, in a good way in my mind. If we use it well, help change our education system."
High schools slow to embrace the blog as teaching tool
By SUSAN YOUNGWOOD
While many colleges have embraced blogs, similar acceptance has not happened in Vermont's K-12 schools.
"It's newer for public schools," said Paul Irish, a director of VITA learn and in charge of information technology at the Burlington School District. "K-12 is slower to embrace certain things."
The main concern is privacy and safety, he said. Schools don't want any strange Internet user to stumble across student work. Most public schools use filtering software that disables using public blogging sites, and lack the server capacity and tech support to host internal blogs. Federal law prevents students under age 13 from joining social networking sites as well as restricts revealing any personal information about students.
But more significant is teacher fear of the technology. "They think it's all ranting and raving," said Lucie deLaBruere, technology integration specialist in the St. Albans school district and a longtime blogger. Teachers tell her all the time, "We hate blogs," and are unable to distinguish between blogging software and the blogging culture.
But educators recognize they need to overcome these prejudices and start using this software.
"We need to make what we do for (students) as electronically relevant as possible," said Bill Romond, educational technology coordinator for the state Department of Education. "We can't bury our heads in sand. We need to co-opt this in a positive way."
Irish agrees. "If students are moving toward 21st century tools in their free time, it's our obligation to teach them how to use them safely."
DeLaBruere encourages teachers who use blogs to communicate to parents, to archive handouts and assignments. She shows them how they can post student artwork and writing.
"Avoiding blogs not only has the impact of missed opportunity to use technological advancement for teaching and learning, but it may actually increase risks for our students by missing the opportunity to educate young people about social, ethical, and legal issues related to technological advancement," she said.
"More and more teachers want to use them. We need to provide guidance; we need to get them the support they need."