Here at George Mason, we have a cohort of faculty who are all using blogs in their classes and are working together to share our experiences as the year goes along. At our group lunch today we heard a presentation from Ying Xie, a PhD student in instructional design from Penn State, who presented some of the results of her research on blogs in the classroom.
The first group she interviewed were PhD students in an instructional design course. On the plus side, they reported that the use of the blog in their class helped them with their thinking and learning, that it helped foster a sense of community in the class and, as future instructional designers, they liked exploring new technologies. On the downside, they had concerns about technical difficulties, they thought that too often the material posted in the blog was too superficial (many expressed concerns about seeming controversial), and some expressed concerns about privacy issues raised by posting their thinking online.
In a second study, she looked at an undergraduate political science class. Students were required to post something every week and half the class was expected to post a comment every week on a “buddy” in the class (the same buddy every week)–the other half just wrote without comments. Then she used a rubric to measure the level of thinking displayed in the blog postings. A surprise (for me, anyway) was that the half of the class that was involved in commenting on one another’s work scored significantly lower on the learning rubric than those who did “solitary blogging.”
Her conclusion was that because blogging is a self-introspective process, feedback from other students was distracting and/or that the students involved in commenting on one another’s work were more susceptible to peer pressure and so took fewer intellectual risks in the blog.
I used to require my students to write comments regularly and graded those comments. For reasons I now don’t remember, I dropped this practice from my syllabus last spring. Now, it appears that whatever those reasons were, I was on the right track.
The final example she showed us was a plug-in to the blog platform she was using (it was an open source platform that she modified, was a keyword mapping tool that she has built into the blog. Each time they post something, their personal “concept map” or “keyword map” is redrawn, showing how their thinking about key concepts in the course can be plotted out visually. Each of these concept maps is saved in an archive so that they can see how their thinking changed over time. Then they write a reflective essay on what they learned from those concept maps.
In addition to wanting a WordPress plug-in that will do these sorts of concept maps, I’m very interested to note that requiring commenting as part of the class seems like a bad idea, at least based on her research.
This relates to a change I’ve introduced into my class blogging this semester from the previous several years. Since I started using blogs in class I’ve required students to blog every week and have typically given them an assignment to follow. And the posts that I get have been mostly pretty instrumental.
After a presentation by Barbara Ganley at Middlebury College, I decided to stop requiring blog posts on a particular topic each week, and instead told my students to “just start blogging.” And while it’s still early days, every indication is that thinking is starting to break out in my class blogs. I’ll come back to this in subsequent posts, but for now, it seems that Barbara is right. If we force them to use blogs in ways we want them to, then they never use the blogs in ways they want to and so independent intellectual initiative is squelched.