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Preparations for a Blogging Plebescite?

In what seems to be a major trend over the past few days (well, “major” amongst the scholarly and education blogs that I read,) lots of bloggers are writing about the issue of blogging in the classroom and how best to integrate it into one’s curriculum. Notable among these posts are those by Mark Sample and Julie Meloni. Both posts raise good questions about the motivations and strategy for blogging integration, and Mark Sample’s is particularly useful in his very concrete description of how he evaluates student blog posts and gets students to reflect on their blogging progress over the course of the semester. I found his system and method very clear, straight-forward, and easily modifiable for my own purposes.

One of the major arguments Sample makes about class blogging revolves around the ideal structure, which he contends is best done through one central class blog where students post all their follow-ups and responses to the teacher/professor’s prompts and assignments. Sample asserts that  “the group blog makes my job easier. I can read all the posts in one place. It also makes it more likely that students will read each other’s posts, generating a sense of momentum that is so important to the students’ buy-in of class blogging.” While I certainly see this centrality as fostering easier, more direct discourse, I tend to be put off by the prospect of posts whose responses go on ad infinitum, which makes reading through all of them seem really onerous. However, I do see the appeal of using a centralized blogging format, such as that provided by Edmodo, because its new features, especially its threaded replies make it very easy to track posts, responses, and general dialogue amongst the class. Moreover, I employed Edmodo in my 9th and 10th grade classes last year and found that the students took to the website pretty quickly, enjoyed its ease of use, and ultimately preferred it over the more cumbersome Whipple Hill interface for checking homework and communicating with me.

So, if I found Edmodo to be so useful and easy for students to use, why consider any other system? I’ve been grappling with that question a fair amount over the past few weeks, and my participation in the recent session on social media and pedagogy at THATCamp Austin, reading Mark Sample’s argument about the benefits of a unified class blog rather than a hub-and-spoke system, and my own past experiences with Edmodo have left me still somewhat undecided as to precisely how I’ll roll out blogging in my classes once school resumes in a scant 10 days.

Now I’m left with the quandary of how to solve this seemingly intractable dilemma. How about the time-tested and approved method of pros and cons? Ah yes! A logical reorganization of points regarding the benefits and drawbacks of each system will be just the thing to help me systematically sort out this dilemma!  (Note: If students happen to have made it this far in the post, the preceding sentences in this paragraph are meant to model an enthusiastic embrace of critical thinking tools and reinforce the value of reorganizing information in meaningful ways. I just want you all to be aware that I do, in fact, practice what I preach.)

The Centralized Class Blog Approach (99.9% chance of being hosted on Edmodo)

Pros:

  • One centralized location to find all student writing and for students to find one another’s writing
  • Well-designed, intuitive interface that will likely require a minimum of tech support intervention on my part (aside from the frequent admonition “remember your password!”)
  • Threaded comments enable students to easily offer feedback to their peers
  • Edmodo also contains easy file-posting functionality, assignment calendar, the ability to turn in homework, etc.
  • The site is designed to be private and protected, which help skirts student concerns about their writing being aired publicly.

Cons:

  • Edmodo’s feed-style interface makes going back and finding earlier posts and comments somewhat cumbersome.
  • The threaded comments feature, while easily readable, creates the potential for ad infinitum posts mentioned above.
  • The complexity of finding and compiling one’s earlier posts will make reflection posts, like Sample’s “Blogging about blogging” exercise more difficult.
  • The shared space of the class blog/webpage also seems like the wrong venue for the “blogging about blogging exercise, as its communal functions and public discussion-forum nature seem inappropriate for more self-reflective writing.
  • Students don’t feel a sense of ownership over the class webspace and the teacher-curated nature of the page reinforces a teacher-centric approach and perhaps discourages students from investing themselves in online writing as deeply as they should.
  • The site is designed to be private and protected, which prevents students from accessing broader audiences, reinforces the notion that writing is done (nearly)-exclusively for the individual grading the work, and hinders the students from learning how to define themselves in a public sphere in a pro-active and positive way.
  • The protected nature of the page would prevent collaborative, cross-institutional connections from developing, such as a “blog-swap” (which I promise I’ll post about eventually) from occurring with another school.

The Hub-and-Spoke System (Individually Curated Blogs Supplemented by RSS Reader) (99.9% chance of being WordPress and Google Reader combo)

Pros:

  • Individual students have their own spaces on the internet that they can make their own and take accountability and responsibility for. This model is clearly student-centric.
  • Student reflection (e.g. “blogging about blogging”) is more clearly accomplished via this arrangement where students can easily sift through their archives, select important posts, and illustrate the ways in which they’ve grown intellectually drawing on their own material.
  • Students can gain insight into how large an effect they’re having through WordPress’ stats feature. (I know that my heart beats a little bit quicker when I see I’ve surpassed a major reader milestone, like 30 per day. Okay, deep breathing now…need to get heart rate back below 180 bpm.)
  • Students’ work is accessible to the wider world, which offers parents, peers, teachers, and other students from across the country and world access to these thoughts and ideas. I think parents, especially those of teenagers, would like to have some insight into the work their children do for school, and having the bulk of their writing easily accessible via blog helps make their child’s learning process more visible. (note: the Edmodo site requires a password to join a class group, and while one can push the posts on their to be public via an RSS feed, the choice to broadcast publicly is one that has to be made proactively.)
  • This openness and accessibility open the potential for a “blog swap” type of assignment that I mentioned above.
  • Writing publicly encourages greater accountability and consideration of how one presents oneself. Ideally, the public nature of the blog will help students think about and understand the plurality of audiences that they reach and strive to craft thoughtful, articulate posts that will resonate with these audiences.
  • Blogs become a type of digital portfolio that students hopefully continue to curate after they’ve finished my class, and that serve as a repository for their intellectual growth that they can then use in their college applications. From my few conversations about this idea with those in college admissions, I understand that very few college applicants (none at many schools) have this type of documentation about their scholarly work that they share with admissions counselors. Having three or four years worth of academic and other substantive, thoughtful blog posts would certainly make a college applicant look distinctive.

Cons:

  • Technological challenges will likely be more omnipresent and the learning curve for these various resources will be steeper. Learning about RSS feeds, how to set up Google Reader, how to customize one’s website, how to embed media, and other more technical tasks might prove frustrating. However, as some students innovate with their blog design, I see that as providing an impetus for great student-to-student teaching about how those customizations took place. I especially hope that some of my more tech savvy students will teach me some of these tricks as well. (Okay, you got me, those last two sentences are really a “Pro.”)
  • Students will have a wider range of websites (their blog, Google Reader, a centralized class page with assignments, etc.) to keep track of.
  • Conversations and dialogue amongst students is not as easily visualized or tracked when posts and feedback are made on various decentralized blogs.
  • Blogs do not provide an easy class calendar solution or support for submitting assignments electronically that Edmodo makes so easy. Therefore, I’d likely have to create a centralized class webpage for a calendar, resources, important static links, etc. to supplement all of the students’ blogs.
  • I have a bit more legwork to do re: the RSS feeds I import into my Google Reader so that I can track not only students’ posts, but also the comments they receive on those posts. However, my brother-in-law’s crafty solution should solve the problem without much fuss.

I’m sure that there are many other pros and cons that I haven’t mentioned here or even thought about yet. However, I do think that this outline provides a good general overview about some of the strengths and weaknesses of the various approaches. In all likelihood, I’ll probably use a mix of these two systems — Edmodo with my 9th grade students and hub-and-spoke blogging with my 10th graders. This will enable me to test both systems out simultaneously and see which one works better and see how different age groups respond to these different systems. Or, I could actually reference the title of my blog post here and put it to a vote at the beginning of the year. That’d be so terribly democratic, but I’ve never been one for tyranny of the majority, nor do I want to set the precedent of using plebiscites as the means for making decisions about the classroom. I can see it now…”uh, Mr. Kogan, we held a plebiscite before class and unanimously decided that we’re not going to have final exams this semester.” Yeah, better not open up that can of worms.

In any event, I’ll keep you, my ever-expanding readership, in the loop regarding what route(s) I ultimately take and how they progress. As always, thoughts and feedback about this issue is always appreciated, and given the vibrant exchanges going on over at Mark Sample’s blog, it seems like there’s some interest in this topic. Let’s keep the conversation going.

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6 thoughts on “Preparations for a Blogging Plebescite?

  1. Nate, this is a great survey of the pros and cons of the two blogging models. I responded to your question about a sense of ownership over on my blog, but that was before I knew about your specific classroom context(s).

    One factor I’m thinking about now, which I had taken for granted before, is whether you expect students to read and comment upon one another’s blogs, or you expect to be the only person who’s reading all the blogs, with the students writing on their own, in a more introspective manner. Both models are valid, it just depends what your goals are. For myself, I’m always striving to foster an online ecosystem that energizes my in-class activity, and I think a centralized class blog can generate momentum in a way that individual blogs, cut off from one another except for maybe a few links, cannot.

  2. Nate says:

    Hi Mark, thanks for your feedback. I think I envisioned students spending time reading and commenting on one another’s posts; however, I’d be able to take advantage of my daily meetings with my classes to specifically spend a period just reading and commenting.

    I do think that I’ll have to spend time at the start of the year encouraging my students to give one another feedback, as that desire to spend extra time commenting on their peers’ writing will likely not be a natural tendency.

    As for fostering community, I’m hoping (assuming that I can wrangle the website successfully) to create a Yahoo Pipe feed of all students’ comments feed, and then have my students put that meta-feed into their Google Reader accounts. This way students and I will be able to track who is commenting on others’ posts and get a sense of what shape the overall discourse takes.

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