“Only Connect…”: Top 10 Reasons College Professors Should Blog*

For two years, I’ve used course blogs in eight university courses, two of which were graduate seminars. At this point, I can’t teach without the freedom and opportunities afforded by blogs. Below are my top 10 reasons for professors to use blogs in their classes. At the end of this post I’ve included a slide show with some screenshots of course blogs, both professorial and student.

1. Course blogs cut down on the use of paper by delivering unecessary syllabus bureacrat-ese to students on the web. Our paper syllabi often run 10 pages or more when we include all University regulations and such. A course blog is a less wasteful way of delivering the same content. (Sample syllabus page here, containing PDFs of paper syllabi in different formats)

2. As interactive forms of e-syllabi, course blogs adapt to unforeseen circumstances and changes. This semester, we had some weather related university closings. Course blogs enable faculty to avoid confusion and make necessary adjustments with great ease.

3. Blogs, by themselves, or in conjunction with file sharing devices like box.net, may double as electronic reserves for handouts and other class materials without requiring third parties and time-consuming bureacratic procedures. The University of Texas at Arlington has its own file sharing service, which enables students to use their university logons and passwords to share files with each other and faculty.

4. Unlike paper syllabi, and static webpages, blogs allow professors to teach more, not less: discussions that are truncated in class may continue electronically without slowing down the course (Bulletin Boards; Comment Threads, etc.); images pertaining to the class may be linked for students to examine (through links, or slideshows); the professor’s online journal gives students more content. (Comment string on course material here.)

5. Blogs help to advertise important news and opportunities to students. Classes, information about academic majors, internship opportunities and scholarship information reaches students through class blogs as effectively, if not more effectively, than handouts and posters. (Example of how course blog may be used to find students to adopt two lost dogs, who were later reunited with legitimate owner.)

6. Blogs can function as avatars, imperfect as they may be, of the classes in which they are used. As such, they give a kind of materiality to the classroom experience, a concrete nature that many students find comforting. The class blog is a place students can go to review important themes and get help from the professor and from each other. (Example of student comment thread on final exam here.)

7. If made publicly available on the internet, class blogs may invite informed comment from interested individuals on the internet. By making a course blog publicly available on the web, professors widen the potential scope and reach of each one of their classes.

8. In a more ambitious vein, requiring students to blog for a class, and then linking their work to a centralized course blog, creates opportunities for individual students and groups of students to read and comment constructively on each other’s work. Student blog 1; student blog 2; student blog 3.

9. Course blogs, over time, can lay the foundation for hybrid or internet classes. The build up of hand-outs, media and interactive activities can lead to a critical mass of materials that can be combined for a different kind of course.

10. Course blogs function as shells or hubs for bringing web materials into a class (youtube; podcasts; news or magazine articles; etc.). These materials either speak directly to the course themes or reflect potential connections students can make with related or apparently unrelated topics. All knowledge is connection, after all. (Youtube example; Youtube example 2; Podcast example; News announcement in course blog example).

My course blogs have not always been as successful as they could have been, sometimes due to my own inattention, other times because of challenging factors relating to the particularities of the medium and certain student attitudes about technology. But I’ll leave all of that for a future, more self-critical post.

*The phrase “Only Connect” is the epigraph of E.M. Forster’s novel, Howard’s End.

One of my first courseblogs, Fall 2005; Another early blog, Spring 2006, that I have not purged (contains atrocious video lectures of me); more current and recent blogs above, under course info. tab.)

Some of the slides are hard to read, but hopefully you get the idea.

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8 thoughts on ““Only Connect…”: Top 10 Reasons College Professors Should Blog*

  1. Useful list. Been preparing a presentation on “online learning materials” for a teaching conference and thinking about very similar issues. Of course, Learning Management Systems like Moodle and Sakai can do all of these things. But I guess the point is that blogs are easier to set up and possibly less intimidating.
    Would you care to share some of the feedback students have given you about blogs?
    Also, how do you produce the podcasts?
    (My own course podcasts were done in Moodle by my university.)

  2. Enkerli-

    I have nothing against learning management systems. I actually use moodle for one of my internet classes. However, Moodle et al are “closed” systems, password protected boxes. Course blogging is an open system. I don’t know how to say this, but it has a different “vibe,” and I prefer it. (I should think some more about this question and make a post on it because I notice that there is a divide between folks like myself and people who prefer Moodle/WebCt/ Sakai type models.) I find closed systems to be limiting in terms of the kinds of things I want to do, and the kind of tech learning environments I want to create as a professor in the humanities. Naturally, open systems can be criticized for issues relating to privacy, and student privacy most importantly. That’s an interesting topic but one that can be easily resolved with course blogs by giving students a good sense of why they may wish to be pseudonymous or not, and what tools they need to implement their preference. But a blog can be password protected too, so it’s not necessarily a deal-breaker.

    Moreover, alot of what Moodle and WebCt do can be replicated in a blog environment without the assistance of third parties or any special programming knowledge. So ease of use is a huge factor. Blogs are definitely good if you like being left to your own devices and doing things very last minute. I often do things last minute so blogs afford me the flexibility of not making my Moodle administrator crazy.

    About podcasts: I use garage band on my mac (it is bundled with all new macs) to record podcasts. However, you can use a web based program like Odeo to record yourself and then put some code on your blog so that a player appears and visitors can listen to it. The problem with that is that you cannot keep your MP3 and use it outside of Odeo. Another option is to buy a digital voice recorder and then download recordings onto your laptop. I’m actually buying one this weekend.

    Here’s the Odeo site: http://studio.odeo.com/create/home

    Finally, student feedback. The more ambitious use of blogging can cause alot of stress, namely making students blog. This is a kind of assignment that needs to be refined and worked on because my experiences with it have been mixed. Students find it very stressful and exhausting. Perhaps I’ve asked them to do too much. The more conservative use of blogging has been a sensational success– delivering handouts, information, streaming media etc. The students like that part because it makes their lives easier. So, this whole blogging thing continues to be a work in progress. When I ask students to blog in the future, I will do so more sparingly, or as an optional assignment, or for extra credit. The weekly “journalling” model makes them frustrated. At least, that has been my experience.

    Hopefully some of my students will drop by and opine in person. I’ve had mostly good comments. The munchkins are often more tech savvy than we are and appreciate the effort.

  3. I agree with much of what you say but I take another path through the same ideas.
    I blog for many reasons, including pedagogical ones. I also use learning management systems (Moodle, Sakai and, gasp!, Blackboard/WebCT) for most of my courses. What I’ve noticed so far was that they do give different results and that I want to combine the advantages of both.
    Moodle doesn’t need to be such a closed system and many members of the Moodle community are talking about expanding it. It’s an issue for many reason but I sincerely believe that there’s room for integrating public features (including public blogs) in Moodle or other learning management systems. In fact, my vision is that of a complete solution which integrates LMS, SNS, blogs, and other “participatory Web” features. Moodle meets Facebook, WordPress.com, and YouTube.
    Advantages of a learning management system include the online submission of assignments, gradebooks, online quizzes and, perhaps most importantly, forums. Sure, you could have forums as well as a blog. But it’s so useful to have everything in the same place.
    Advantages of SNS like Facebook include the fact that people can create groups as they wish and “publish” things to people they know in different contexts.
    Advantages of blogs include the fact that everything is possibly in the public eye, making it easy for almost anyone to see what’s happening in a context they know nothing about. Perhaps the most useful thing I find, though, is the bookmarklet-enabled ease of blogging from a page we come across in our daily life. No need to go into “university-mode,” you just need to click and comment.
    Advantages of other “participatory Web” systems include collaborative editing, peer ratings, non-local recognition for creativity, possible cross-cultural contacts, and open access to media files.
    Of course, it’s fun to experiment with different systems and see which one produces the most appropriate results. But I easily imagine a solution which combines all the advantages we already have in different systems.

    About podcasting. I already use an iRiver H120 to record MP3s and it works quite well. But I was wondering about the rest of the process, especially on the blogging side. Because I don’t self-host and because WordPress.com doesn’t support podcasting, I was wondering how you were producing the podcasts once the media files are available.

    About student feedback. I still don’t get as much feedback online as I’d like to. Because my courses are “blended” (as in “classroom+online”), it matters fairly little. In fact, the effect of online activities is often in increased classroom participation, which is quite satisfying. But I’d still like to get more things to happen online. So far, I’ve found that private journals (especially early in the semester), Web Quests, and team projects seem the most effective at getting people active on the site. More than privacy, the issue of “community-building” seems to make internal communication more appealing to students than comments on public blogs. In a way, that’s kind of the reason why blogs and Facebook-like features in Moodle can work. (Although… so far, my students’ blogs inside Moodle have been pretty much empty.)
    Another issue I have is with separating different parts of my life. I’m quite happy with having students look at my own blogs, I might take a look at my students’ own blogs, and it’s fun to have students contact me on Facebook. But I want to make sure coursework and blogging are kept somewhat separate, in my online life.

    Looking forward to more of your comments about all of this.

  4. Enkerli, thanks for your lengthy comment.

    I agree with alot of what you say. I support integrating as many tools into a learning environment. Still, I think alot of what LMS systems do can be now reproduced with ease through a blog (with the exception of a grade book, making multi-media harder to rip and online quizzes and such). What you say about facebook, etc. is really cool. I can see there’s so much more to this discussion.

    Podcasting– I put the file in my file sharing file, my students use their university logons and password to enter the file on the web, and download my podcasts.

    What you say about coursework and blogging being kept separate, that’s very interesting. In my case, I use this blog as my homepage, and I do introduce personal things into it as you can see. However, I am pretty guarded about not sharing what really matters about my private persona (my feelings about work, about colleagues, my personal life situation) and focus on pop culture, literature and other interests. It’s personal but in a highly edited and artificial way. I blog here in a way that is extremely conscious — conscious that my students will see this blog, conscious that university administratrors will see this blog, conscious that readers on the web who have not heard of my campus will read my blog from time to time. I guess the separation of teaching and blogging in my online life is not so clear. But what you say makes sense, and I too try, in some ways, to maintain a distinction.

    BTW–I just discovered screencasting and I’m playing with it alot. This is a promising tool.

    thanks for the great intervention and the new ideas!

    C

  5. Sorry for the length of my previous comment. Was almost doing it as an entry on my own blog. Maybe this is what I should have done.
    I understand your need not to post too personal a set of thoughts on a public blog. As I don’t have a position yet, I guess I’ve felt less of that need. Still, “nothing I say represents the opinions of my employer,” whichever employer that is.
    Do keep us posted on screencasting, especially if you can easily integrate it on this blog.
    As for LMS features, I must say that I find them useful as both a way to communicate with students (giving them private feedback on papers) and as a way to foster community-building. Not that a LMS is a necessity for blended learning but it does make things easier.
    Moodle is a good example of what a LMS can do in part because the Moodle community is itself quite friendly.

  6. Pingback: Web 2.0 Technologies » Blog Archive » WordPress in the Realm of Education
  7. Is the blog software you’re running SQL based on your own server, flatfile? or hosted elsewhere? I’m in need of a blog for my site and would appreciate any help you could give.

    Thanks in advance

    ~[RAGE]

  8. Pingback: Education & Reference » Debate topic- That Social networking sites do more harm than good.?

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