Based on my experiences this year in the seminar, I am more convinced than ever that blogs offer our students an effective means to work on their writing in a supportive and collaborative environment. In all of my courses this year, I made blog assignments a regular part of the class work. During Fall I 2011, the same blog was used for a cluster of three courses: ENG 101 -- Composition I, ENG 103 -- The Research Paper and LIB 110 -- The Integrating Seminar in the Liberal Arts. Although I did not feature the writing for a fourth class, blogs were an integral part of my creative writing course, ENG 274 -- Creative Nonfiction Workshop. During the Spring I 2011 semester, I devised 7 or 8 blog assignments for a standalone ENG 101 (a version of this course using materials on from the La Guardia and Wagner Archives on the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair). New blog assignments were added to my ENG 102 -- Writing Through Literature. Finally, blogging was an important component for LIB 200 -- Humanism, Science and Technology, a capstone seminar in the Liberal Arts, which also featured World's Fair materials.
For all of my classes / clusters (except for the creative writing class, ENG 274), I set up wikis to share course content as well. Students were invited to contribute content in the spirit of collaborative authorship that is the essence of wikis. One effective practice was that students were given 'personal research pages in my ENG 103 class, which proved helpful during the process of doing research and assembling sources.
For ENG 103 in particular, we also experimented with ‘cloud-based’ Web 2.0 word processors. (Most of us are familiar with Google Docs by now, but I introduced my students to Adobe’s arguably snazzier, Flash-based word processor, and more briefly to Microsoft’s Windows Live which we recommended for our inclass editing sessions in a computer lab in ENG 103.)
In Spring I 2011, I staged reasonably successful two mentoring activities between the beginning writers in my ENG 101 class and LIB 200 advanced writers centering on peer editing of short drafts of research papers on the World’s Fair. This virtual peer editing activities were set up for later in the semester as my ENG 101 students were drafting and revising their short research papers on the 1939 World’s Fair. My LIB 200 students were 'experts' having read several of the same sources in a module on the World’s Fair from earlier in the semester and by having considerably more academic experience
I think it is hard for students to keep up with blogs if they are ‘extra’ to the course. In all my classes, blogging activities ranged from 10% to 15% of the grade, but for my standalone ENG 101 course in the Spring, some of my students did not find time to complete their blog assignments, which was a disappointment. I shall re-evaluate these assignments the next time. For my other courses, blogs were taken seriously by the majority of students.
I came to the seminar last year with the idea of using WID techniques—writing to learn activities—through blogs, in which low-stakes and mid-stakes writing can be used to bolster in-class activities (such as responding to class readings) or brainstorming and sharing research for more ‘formal’ papers.
One challenge, which I saw from my ENG 101 and ENG 102 classes this semester, was that some students seemed to borrow their first-person blogging voice into their more ‘formal’ papers. Of course, we covered the idea of voice and audience, and I really believe my blog assignments highlight the fact that they are supposed to be ‘important enough’ and even respond to sources, but the simple fact is that research paper writing requires a different and more assiduous relationship to (multiple) source texts, and students need more and more help with this. Blogging may not be the answer here, but it can be a help for getting started with research paper topics.
Another simple challenge is that it is difficult to respond to blog writing in any granular way for instructors, such as correcting or pointing out major problem areas in a student’s writing. This is obviously more of a problem in ENG 101 than with more advanced students. As we gravitate (as we must inevitably I suppose) toward hybrid or pure, online writing courses, it will be a challenge to respond to electronic writing (without of course resorting to print it out and mark it up).
Since my classes' blog activities were ‘extra’ or rather a part of class participation, it is worth noting that the instructors from the group who incorporated blogging or other online activities as ‘formal’ assignments may have had better luck with overall student participation. I may refine my grading in the future to include at least one purely online essay. That surely will encourage less=motivated students to make time for these activities.
Throughout the year, I did find it is problematic to coordinate cross-course activities that are ‘accountable’ for students. Future participants in this seminar might do well to look early at syllabi and design ‘workflows’ between classes with handouts or online guides. The advantage to Facebook, etc., is an organic participation for students. (I don’t find myself in the camp of using Facebook as a viable courseware alternative, however.) But if you want check what exactly students have been doing – as opposed to commenting, you need to plan ahead. Other practical suggestions: use guides to get students to sign up and follow each other on blogs, invite students to show off work for the first few minutes of class occasionally, use a rubric to evaluate student blogs and, finally, post a list of student blogs (a blog roll) on a publicly available web server (such as a wiki, or at least Blackboard). This is invaluable for keeping track exactly of what students have been doing. Expect to do more work, not less, as you devise Web 2.0 activities. Professors should have no fear of being supplanted by technology. (You will likely be doing much, much more work as your set-up, manage, 'curate' and grade the Web 2.0 online activities for your students, especially the first time through!)
Finally, after some twenty years in technology – as a widely published technical journalist, a web developer, a technical educator (15 years of teaching at an Ivy-League institution), and now an English professor, I can say technology is not magic. It is subject to hype. (Look up Gartner’s famous ‘Hype Curve.’) But if done right, technology can make our lives easier. I still think our Web 2.0 tools are evolving, and certainly our educational practices are, too. I will build on the experience of this year’s seminar to do things better and to offer my future students an easier, more approachable and smoother experience. Online tools will remain for me a supplement to what we do in the classroom (offline, in the real world), but they can and should be a way to reach and engage students successfully. I think I have a developed a set of assignments and a level of expertise with the technology that can be used to improve the experience and engagement of students the next time around.