Guest Post: I Flunked Blogging…But Learned A Lot In the Process

Our guest blogger this week is Louise Ackerman from Health and Human Performance.


 

That might be a slight exaggeration. My experiment with blogging wasn’t a total failure, but it also was not the resounding success I envisioned.

Background

As the faculty coordinator for Public Health Internships one of the challenges I face is finding ways for students to share insights as they navigate their field experience. Internships by nature require students rarely to be in the same place at the same time. Yet on the few occasions when they do get together they benefit greatly from comparing notes and “talking shop.” After learning about blogging at the Summer 2014 Faculty Technology Institute, I though I had found a way to bridge the gap.

Over the subsequent two semesters I implemented a class blog, the purpose of which was to provide students with a virtual “space to share experiences—discuss issues and ideas relevant to young professionals, help one another manage field-related problems, raise work-related concerns, and fill each other in on information and opportunities in the Pubic Health arena.”

Public or Private? 

I knew what I was aiming for, but was not clear which platform would be most suitable. With the help of TLT consultant, Laura Plotts, I settled on Google Blogger. Because internships are about preparing students for the real world, I wanted a platform they could easily adapt to life and/or work after graduation.

Google Blogger allows you to create a public blog, accessible to anyone with an internet connection, or a private blog, which is accessible only to invited viewers. I opted for the latter for two reasons: I thought students might speak more freely knowing the blog was for class eyes only, plus I was concerned that some might unthinkingly post comments that could jeopardize their internship should co-workers or a supervisor see them.

Lesson #1: I now recommend not going private. If you’re going to ask students to blog, let them get used to the idea that what they post may be read by anyone, anytime, and blog responsibly. Better to learn that lesson now than when a real job is on the line.

Lesson #2: If you want to have private conversations, you don’t need a blogging platform. The OAKS Discussion tool will likely work just as well.

If I Build It, Will They Come?

Developing the assignment was the next task. Normally when it comes to classwork, I’m all about crossing t’s, dotting i’s, and leaving nothing to interpretation. This assignment, however, seemed to call for a more free-wheeling paradigm. After all, blogging is essentially about finding your voice: having something to say, and saying it in a way that engages others. I wanted authenticity, and I had hoped that providing less-than-my-usual structure would spur honest, interesting, creative, provocative, and/or helpful posts.

It didn’t.

After a couple rounds of vapid posts I revised the assignment, taking topic selection out of the hands of students, and instead provided prompts to which they were required to respond. While the quality of posts improved immensely, I sacrificed the authenticity I was looking for. The blog went from student-focused to teacher-led (exactly what I wanted to avoid).

Lesson #3: A student blog should be student-directed. In a traditional class setting students would have time to develop a blog that reflected their interests and concerns within the confines of the course. The structure of this course made that unfeasible.

Topic Selection

Over the course of two semesters I played around with types of prompts, trying to find the ideal mix. I was never able to come up with a topic that generated a true discussion—a back and forth similar to what takes place in a classroom. At best students posted well-thought out comments; beyond that they rarely challenged each other or dug deeply into issues, despite grade incentives to do so.

Lesson #4: The prompts that led to the best posts were inspirational, thought-provoking, and/or relevant to students at this time in their lives. (TED Talks were a great resource.). Prompts requiring free writing yielded the least interesting posts. (Students simply followed the lead of the person who responded first.). I had medium success with prompts that asked for helpful information (e.g. job search strategies and exploring solutions to common internship problems).

Lesson #5: Given the lack of meaningful back and forth, simple reflection assignments would be a viable alternative.

Grading

To earn the minimum credit students had to respond to my prompts; they could earn additional credit by responding to their classmates’ posts, which was my way of encouraging discussion. They were given guidelines for what constituted acceptable original posts and reply posts.

Lesson #6: Grading blog posts is challenging but doable. It’s wise to set an approximate word length (I used a minimum of 250 words for an original post and 150 for subsequent posts), and details for what constitutes quality comments. For me that was:

  • Thoughtful and/or provocative
  • On-topic
  • Well-articulated
  • Add to the discussion (e.g. comments such as, “I agree” or “I had the same experience” do not count as moving the discussion forward)
  • Respectful

Bottom Line

I’m not sure if I’ll revise the assignment and try again. While there is plenty of tweaking that could be done, I’m not convinced that blogging is suitable to my objectives for the Internship class. I am, however, thinking of ways I can utilize the technology in a traditional classroom setting.

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