I have used non-typical digital tools as a key course element in two courses. By non-typical, I mean a digital tool that isn’t frequently used by instructors in higher education, based on my experience. For example, Moodle and similar Learning Management Systems are fairly typical. First, I used a course blog hosted on wordpress for Intimate Relationships. Second, and more recently, I used a tiki-toki timeline for General Psychology. I found strengths and weaknesses in using these tools both from my perspective and from the students’ perspectives. Here are some of my thoughts. I’m going to focus on the course blog I used in Intimate Relationships a few years ago.
I taught Intimate Relationships (a social psychology course) at a small, liberal arts college in the Midwest that operates on the block plan (one class at a time). I was still in graduate school when I taught this course and had recently participated in a “Writing across the Disciplines” course during my fourth year of graduate school. Two vibrant, young rhetoric professors – one who had graduated from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, another who was pursuing his PhD in language, literacy, and culture – taught/led the course. They used a wordpress blog for us to share snippets of our writing so we can read, comment, revise, and discuss each other’s writing. I enjoyed the format of this and though Intimate Relationships might be a good course to try a course blog.
The Intimate Relationships course was centered how the media portrays intimate relationships and whether such depictions of relationship are accurate based on psychological science. Because of this, the use of a blog seemed especially fitting, as it would allow students to efficiently share their analyses on how the media portrays relationships and whether this portrayal is accurate.
I decided to set up a private blog, because I didn’t want breach privacy or cause anxiety among the students. Before the course started (and before I met any of the students), I invited all of the students to be “authors” on the blog, with a short message about the purpose of the blog. They had to create a wordpress account in order to be authors. Shockingly, all but one or two students created their accounts and joined our blog as authors before the course started, before I had met a single student. I have to admit, I think this was more due to the college’s atmosphere and this particular student body’s willingness to participate in “out of the box” activities. This student group was also conditioned to do things quickly because courses only lasted for 3.5 weeks, so waiting 1-2 days to engage in an activity was like waiting 1-2 weeks in a typical semester.
The students were charged with posting two different kinds of material on the blog. I assigned 6 short critical analyses of the media’s portrayal of relationships. These were the equivalent of 2-3 double-spaced pages. I also assigned 3 “participation” posts, which could be comments on their classmate’s posts, or interesting things they found related to the course, such as cartoons or articles or youtube videos. For the latter posts, they didn’t necessarily need to go into depth as long as the connection to something we discussed in class was clear. Beyond the students’ authoring posts, I used wordpress as my LMS. I posted readings, deadlines, the syllabus, etc… on our blog – pretty much everything but student grades.
With that background in mind, there were both advantages and challenges to integrating wordpress into my course. I’ll start with the advantages.
I enjoyed using a blog as a course management system. With the flexibility of menus, categories, tags, widgets, etc… it is possible to create a great site that is more navigable than Moodle (imho). With that being said, it took me a long time to set up, and I think that is why I haven’t turned to this in other courses. Also, there are obvious features lacking that may be important in other classes (quizzes, grading).
I also found students’ contributions to this blog to be insightful and well written. I was impressed throughout the semester at the quality of student work. I think posting their work in a semi-public place pushed them write posts that were engaging and well thought out. Although I did not formally analyze these distinct works in any way, I think that students’ quality of writing was higher on the course blog than on similar assignments that were handed in to me alone. This would be interesting to test more scientifically.
Overall it was really neat to see students collaborate to create this portfolio of their work. Students seemed to find the course blog meaningful as a skill. Here are the comments from course evals:
”course blog posts increase understanding of material”
“I liked the style of assignments through the blogs”
“[the course was] challenging, thought-provoking, and connected course material to real life application. The integration of media and the blog was great.”
Now for the challenges. I’ll start with the blog-related criticism I got from one student on my course evals:
“The feedback on blogs was not extremely helpful.”
I can definitely see where this student is coming from. I struggled with how to give feedback to posts. This stemmed (imo) from two mistakes I made:
First, I did not specify deadlines, aside from requiring half of their critical analyses to be complete by the halfway point of the course. This meant that half way through the block many students scrambled to post 3 of their 6 analyses. The same thing happened again at the end of the block. In other words, posts trickled in for 1.5 weeks and then floodgates opened for blog-post-a-palooza. This is hyperbolic – there were several students who posted at intervals and did assignments early. But I was at the mercy of the student’s posting schedule. Also, I didn’t have a regular grading schedule. It was easy to fall behind and neglect their posts.
My second mistake was not commenting on their posts within the blog. I felt weird commenting on student posts. It felt like I was evaluating them in front of their peers. In retrospect, my comments did not need to be evaluative or connected to their grade. I could have pointed them to additional resources, commented on a particularly strong passage, or simply said “interesting!” I am facepalming myself for missing out on this chance for interaction. Although commenting on every post may not have been realistic, I should have commented on students’ work within the blog at least twice per student, starting early on. Instead, I gave feedback in lumps (after they had made a few posts), privately. In my vision for the course blog, I hoped students would comment on each other’s post and have discussions. I didn’t see this happen, which is probably because I did not model the behavior.
Overall, I was overwhelmed following posts. I also felt some context collapse (although I wasn’t familiar with this jargon at the time). I’m used to reading blog posts or similar material in a different mindset than an evaluative/grading mindset. Also, I didn’t put in place enough structure or make some critical decisions about how to interact with students in the blog before we dove in. This lack of structure/indecisiveness led to a sense of chaos (I think/hope mostly perceived by me).
FINAL THOUGHTS/THINKING FORWARD
To give myself a break, some of this chaos may have related to the block schedule. All of this happened in 3.5 weeks and it was the first time I had taught on this schedule, the first time I was teaching this course, and only the 3rd time I’d taught independently. I may have also been overwhelmed, considering I was working on my dissertation (okay, I was thinking about working on my dissertation), applying for jobs, and working on a manuscript revision during these 3.5 weeks…Obviously the perfect time to try a new digital tool in a class I’ve never taught.
But all in all, I lacked expertise in digital identity and pedagogy at the time. I was kind of just trying something out. You know – took a course (i.e., “writing across the discipline”), saw something neat, and said, sure I can do that.
I didn’t do research on using a course blog or think about it as “digital pedagogy.” I certainly learned a lot from my experience using wordpress with this course. I saw at least some of my mistakes after the course ended. I continually consider new improvements based on the readings and discussions stemming from #digpins, now 2 years later. Also, I’m gaining experience and cultivating networks, which will help me make those key decisions about how to interact etc… before I throw myself into the course. Not only that, but I’m able to make more informed decisions and (hopefully) receive feedback over the next few weeks to help build a meaningful, high impact experience for the students, and for me.
In the next few weeks, I’ll post on my plans for Physiological Psychology this semester. I will be using Twitter and WordPress (in a different manner than described above). I’d love feedback from anyone who has experience, thoughts, or ideas.
Today’s post in a word cloud: