Using Blogs To Teach

Filed as Features on December 21, 2006 7:57 am

Co-authored by Abe Witonsky

Students in higher education come to college to learn, but there are many things competing for their attention, besides what goes on in the classroom. The competition includes the Internet, social networking, email, online chatting, etc. As our students’ world changes, so too must the methods by which we teach and engage our students. In this article, we propose one way that teaching can be significantly enhanced by the integration of blogging. Our plans are to implement this proposal in the coming semester and to report back on its success or lack thereof.

As you know, blogs provide the functionality that enables people to easily publish their thoughts and ideas online. One of the primary reasons for the rapid adoption of blogs is that they are quick to setup and easy to use, requiring absolutely no programming knowledge or HTML skills (although such skills can be used to enhance the blog). In fact, writing in a blog is very much like, if not easier than, writing in a standard word processor such as Microsoft Word, which almost all students are familiar with.

A Specific Problem

We teach a logic course at the university level called Logic of Everyday Reasoning (LER). In this course, students learn logical reasoning skills to better understand and support their views, and recognize when their views need additional support. Specifically students learn about arguments – what they are, how to identify and analyze them, and how to evaluate and construct them.

A challenge in teaching LER is to make the course relevant to the students. Unfortunately, the types of arguments that are typically presented in logic texts are rarely, if ever, interesting for students, because they are either made-up arguments or are presented with little context.

One creative technique that we have used in the past to increase the relevancy of their assignments is to have students write letters to a newspaper editor in response to an editorial of their own choosing. The students are required to identify at least one weak argument in their chosen editorials and explain why they think it is weak. We have found that many students become more engaged when they examine a real issue. They approach the assignment with added motivation and care when the quality of their work may determine whether or not their letters are published.

Two limitations with this technique are that many students are not that well-informed about the current events discussed in newspapers and most do not read newspapers. So, while this assignment is more interesting to students, it is still questionable if the editorials students choose to reply to are that meaningful to them.

How then do teachers help LER students to become genuinely interested in a topic as well as to approach assignments with the motivation and care that comes from knowing that what they write might be published?

The Solution: Blogging on the Internet

We’ve noticed that more and more students in our classes are very technologically savvy, showing proficiency with using the Internet. On this basis, we plan to have students write a blog on the Internet. This will help them learn and sharpen their logical reasoning skills, while this novel approach to teaching will spark students’ interest.

Under this proposal, each student would develop a blog by picking a topic and writing about it throughout the semester. We would guide this writing process by instructing students to apply the logical reasoning concepts that they’ve learned. We would also edit and grade their posts.

The learning process could be further enhanced by requiring students to address each other’s arguments on a regular basis. Students would then be given the chance to learn and develop the skills necessary to 1) articulate their ideas in writing, 2) defend their ideas against criticism, and 3) critically analyze the arguments of others.

The advantages of having students write in a blog format include:

1) Students may care more about their work, knowing that it will be read by others. Students will hopefully put more effort towards the class and more likely master the critical thinking skills that we’re trying to impart.

2) Students will belong to a larger community than their class, a community where they can share and develop ideas. They may enjoy having readers submit questions and comments to their blogs.

3) Students will learn real-world technical skills. They could include these skills on their resumes.

A Proposal for Implementation

There are three main requirements for implementing this project. First, student blogs need to be easy to setup and run for non-tech-savvy students and professors. Second, for the sake of management and grading simplicity, the blogs need to be located at a single URL and distinguished by a username-based directory structure. This will prevent the burden of tracking down dozens of random blogs all over the net. Third, there should be at most a single software installation per course to minimize technical troubles and installation/setup time.

There are a variety of ways to resolve these issues. We discuss two possibilities, one for the tech-savvy professor and another for the non-tech-savvy professor. In the former, the professor is hosting and maintaining his or her own website and database, whereas in the second option, the professor is taking advantage of a free, shared blog. The tech-savvy option has the advantages of 1) easier tracking of individual student blogs when a dedicated site is used, as opposed to a third-party site; and 2) easier customization of the teaching site and the ability to add extra functionality.

The option for tech-savvy professors requires the following broadly construed steps:

1. Purchase a domain at a registrar such as GoDaddy.

2. Purchase web hosting at a web host such as Colorteck.

3. Install a copy of either WordPress or Drupal.

4. Dedicate a class to show students how to create an account and post a blog. Have each student turn in his or her username for grading purposes.

The option for non-tech-savvy professor requires these steps:

1. Have students sign up for accounts at a free, shared, multi-blog site like Learner Blogs.

2. Dedicate a class to show students how to create an account and post a blog. Have each student turn in his or her username for grading purposes.

We would like to thank Sarah Whitman for her helpful suggestions for this article.

Abe & Micah

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  1. Introducing Micah Spacario (And Friends!) at The Blog HeraldDecember 21, 2006 at 10:05 am
  2. By Tony Hung posted on December 21, 2006 at 10:22 am
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    Micah — great article.

    Here’s a question: if topics get particularly heated, what will you do to stave off flame wars? Would you suggest an explicit policy towards “blogging etiquette”?

    Cheers
    t

  3. Links Thursday at John M. RyanDecember 21, 2006 at 11:52 am
  4. By Abe Witonsky posted on December 21, 2006 at 4:37 pm
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    t,

    Thanks for the question.

    If flaming occurs, then it would be something good for the students to learn about, how to respond to it in as thoughtful and charitable way as possible (or just delete it). So, yes, I think that a lesson in “blogging etiquette” should be on the agenda. Do you know of any good website that talks about this, explaining how one should not respond to inflamatory commentary. I would love to be able to direct the students to such a site when I teach them how to submit posts.

    a

  5. By Mark posted on December 21, 2006 at 9:55 pm
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    This is a fabulous idea for a blog- if it doesn’t exist. Many have “snippets”, but I can’t find one where it is the central focus. Most seem to concentrate on how to make a “good” blog or how to “monetize”. And for a thin-skinned type like myself- learning the hard way, in retrospect, spins me back to some nightmare reality- like I’m at a party I wasn’t invited to. The period after I bought JOAB was one of the most unpleasant experiences I can ever remember. So alienating. Being flat broke and sleeping on the streets was definitely better. Really, I’d love to know how you respond to those who you know, for whatever reason, are just trying to sabotage any chance of success you might have. Or do you not engage? The latter has tended to be my own policy, right or wrong as it might be.

  6. By Delaney Kirk posted on December 22, 2006 at 1:04 am
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    I’m interested in following your experience with using class blogs. I used one for the first time last summer in a graduate class with wonderful results–we were able to extend the conversation outside the classroom for the 6 and 1/2 weeks that the course ran. Last semester I used a blog again but purely for posting links, assignments, and other info I wanted the students to have. This coming semester I have three different courses and want to use blogs again in differing ways. I applaud your use of individual student blogs and assume you will have the students use feeds to know when other students have posted?

  7. By J. Angelo Racoma posted on December 22, 2006 at 2:59 am
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    It’s great that blogs are now being used for learning. With higher education, I don’t see any problems with students publishing blogs. However, there are security issues with younger people (such as grade schoolers and, yes, even high school-age students) going online, and it may be a worthwhile idea not to publish with the students’ real identities. Of course, I may be paranoid, but it’s a reality we have to face.

    Great article Micah and Abe!

  8. By J. Angelo Racoma posted on December 22, 2006 at 3:00 am
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    @Mark – “Being flat broke and sleeping on the streets was definitely better.”

    I can’t imagine you being flat broke and sleeping on the streets.

  9. By Micah Sparacio posted on December 22, 2006 at 6:39 am
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    Thanks for all the feedback (and compliments). Delaney, great idea for using feeds to notify students of each other’s posts. Thanks for the tip.

    Regarding identity, I think we’ll recommend pseudonymity, but let the student ultimately decide.

    In the end, the idea of using blogs to teach boils down to coming up with better ways to enable to students to take ownership of their ideas and to actually write them down (thinking by writing, as they say).

  10. By Dan posted on December 22, 2006 at 9:03 am
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    Micah & Abe, this is right on the money. One of the first blogs I created in an educational setting was as a graduate student. I used it as a way to develop a sustained conversation on a group project where several people were collaborating on a series of documents. I used a WordPress setup on a hosted site, just as you describe. It was a great way to get feedback and opinions on a series of document drafts – a simple workflow if you will. My fellow students took to it immediately and because of the blog the project was able to evolve rapidly and with input from everyone. It was particularly useful in that the group was spread across a wide geographic region and meeting in-person would have been challenging.
    Dan

  11. Coadunation » links for 2007-01-04January 4, 2007 at 8:22 pm