Pedagogy, Social Media, teaching

Student Blogs: The Value, Challenges, and Ethics

First of all, let me apologize for the blog title. All my training as a historian has created a natural predisposition to writing titles that have colons. I’ll try to kick the habit…at least online.

And now for the issue du jour:

Earlier this week I had an interesting conversation about my goals for and the structure of my social media-centric classes with my wife and a colleague who is extremely good at playing devil’s advocate. My colleague is by no means opposed to or skeptical about technology in the classroom (in fact, he was one of the early adopters of using Edmodo in his classes last year shortly after I had migrated my courses to it); however, his background as a skilled debater makes him prone to challenge ideas — especially those that might be brimming with optimism and naivete.

The root of my colleague’s concerns rested with my plans for students to do all of their writing via blogs, and then to be linked to one another’s writings via Google Reader. In essence, he ran a couple hypothetical worst-case scenarios by me that emphasized the nuanced, labyrinthine world of high school inter-personal dynamics and social capital. In essence, he drew my attention to the ways in which those issues could waylay my utopian vision of a classroom where social media fosters productive intellectual collaboration and de-emphasizes cut-throat academic competition. (Actually, my vision isn’t as fully utopian as I make it seem here. I don’t think that social media tools will eliminate academic competition, or even place it on the backburner — especially amongst academically motivated students — but I do think that it can help them collaborate much more effectively and learn that education isn’t them against their peers [or those who also aspire to go to Harvard], but rather a process where feedback from and interaction with their peers fosters their intellectual growth.) So, based on some of these concerns (which I’ve paraphrased below) what considerations about teenage-kind and their social/developmental issues do I need to take into account, and then what potential modifications will I have to make, when implementing my social media-based classroom?

For instance, what happens to my vision if students don’t necessarily feel comfortable sharing their work with and having it read by people other than the teacher? Should those students who are more shy be given the opportunity to submit their posts to me privately until they reach a level where they feel comfortable having their work read by their peers?

Alternatively, what if a particular student who is less skilled at writing feels uncomfortable sharing his or her work publicly for fear of being teased or ridiculed by one’s classmates?

On the other end of the spectrum, what about those students who don’t want to post publicly for fear of having their work co-opted by classmates and don’t want to feel that they are doing the intellectual heavy lifting for the less-motivated?

Are there certain types of prompts and/or assignments that should be reserved for public blogs and other that should be done via another medium or done privately?

Are prompts that require reflection on and description about process (e.g. “how did you go about approaching this assignment?”; “what challenges did you encounter in completing this assignment and how did you overcome them?”) more appropriate for blogs because they are more akin to informal journal writing and, as a result, don’t have clear “right” and “wrong” responses?

In general, my responses to these hypothetical issues focused on the many benefits created by writing in a public venue. In many instances it seems that students conceive of their writing as serving a very specific purpose — in order to earn a grade from the teacher — rather than seeing the ways in which it develops valuable skill sets related to public presentation of self, learning how to develop one’s voice, and the like. Certainly, I know that my experience writing for, and then serving as editor, of my high school newspaper, provided me valuable experience in writing for an audience much broader than just my teachers. Moreover, writing articles that weren’t graded, but that elicited feedback from an audience of my teachers and peers, helped me understand that writing doesn’t exist solely for the generation of grades and a transcript.

Additionally, my experience using Edmodo with my classes last year helped me confirm the feasibility and value of having students share their writing with one another in a public forum. I structured many assignments last spring around the discussion-board format on Edmodo, asking students to post responses not only to the general question I posed to them, but also to give feedback and responses to their peers’ ideas and comments. In general, the discourse that developed online proved valuable and enabled us to spend class-time talking about the issue(s) that recurred most frequently in the comments or to address issues about writing style and paragraph structure.

The major perk of migrating this discussion to blogs and Google Reader seems to center on the expanded public that can now read and interact with the students’ comments and ideas. (e.g. While this will likely be the subject of a future post, I see great potential for a blog-swap with other social media-oriented teachers whose students also blog. Using Google Reader’s new “bundles” feature will certainly make swapping all the URLs pretty convenient.)

Nevertheless, my colleague’s concerns/scenarios did emphasize for me how important it is to discuss the ethics of blogging with my classes early on in the school year. Certainly, one of my major emphases will center on the importance of engaging in respectful discourse and treating one another (and by extension, one another’s ideas) with respect. Not only will doing this help students provide valuable feedback to their peers that will challenge and help them develop intellectually, but it will also reflect positively on the commenter. Similarly, I think the public component on blogging will encourage students to more carefully consider the quality, depth, and thoughtfulness of their own work before posting it for the rest of the world. Finally, the issue of plagiarism should dissipate as any students who copy a peer’s work and then post it as their own broadcast their intellectual deceit to the entire class, which makes catching them very easy. Therefore, the public nature of blogs should encourage students to develop and take credit for their own ideas, arguments, and voices (and learn how to cite, via hyperlink, others who have influenced their work.)

And now some questions to all teachers whose classes currently blog:

  • What key ethical points about social media in general do you make with your classes early on?
  • Do your classes have a code of ethics that students need to agree to (and potentially sign) before they begin blogging and commenting on each other’s blogs?
  • How much skepticism and/or resistance did you encounter from students when you informed them that they’d be required to blog for class? What approaches worked to get students past this initial hesitancy?
  • Do you reserve certain types of assignments for public blog postings and reserve other (perhaps more traditionally summative assessments) work for submission via private means?
  • What evaluation methods or assessment techniques have you developed for the work students do on blogs? Any crowdsourced grading?
  • What worst-case scenarios have you run into (if any) and how did you solve them?
  • What other concerns and/or potential challenges have I not thought of here? What solutions did you have for those?
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One thought on “Student Blogs: The Value, Challenges, and Ethics

  1. This blog came up as a possibly related post on my pedagogical blog and I am glad I took a look. I am also a high school teacher (for math though my background is history [MA UT – Austin]). I have been experimenting with my class structure, not really tech-related, more to do with issues of authority and assessment. But I at some point I decided, on a whim, to set up a blog. It’s been a learning experience and I will definitely be consulting your blog now. If you have a chance take a look at mine and offer suggestions and/or advice. [http://areformedcantankerouscurmudgeon.wordpress.com/]

    It’s nice to read about related experiences. I have been reading lots of research articles and collaborating with my students, but have had little to no discussion with other professionals.

    Thanks, RCC

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