Jane B. Singer | University of Iowa
Below is the (slightly modified) text of a handout that I used for a new faculty orientation here at Iowa.
Q: Is it hard to start a blog if you're not a tech whiz?
A: It's incredibly easy. Blogs have become so popular so fast largely because they're so simple. Everything you need is available online for free or at low cost. I used blogger.com to create mine, though there are other similar programs available; with Blogger, it's three steps and you're done.
Q: Is it hard to teach students how to use them?
A: No, although at least some of your students probably will never have used a blog before, and they may be a little nervous about it. I used a single-page step-by-step handout to get them started. In courses that met in computer labs, we took a few minutes during the first week to have everyone post a comment. In classrooms without student computers, I did a demo; picked a student at random to come up to the instructor's computer and post, to show how easy it was; then asked them each to post something before the next class. They can post from any computer connected to the Internet. Even the easily intimidated were fine after their first time. I got comments on evals about how much fun they had even though they were scared at the start! A minor problem is that sometimes the program is slow and posts don't appear right away. But that's easy to talk through with them.
Q: Are blogs better than course management tools such as WebCT or Blackboard?
A: It depends on what you want to do. If you want one tool that allows both public AND private postings (for instance, both discussion areas and a place for students to see their individual grades), then WebCT and the others are better. But they require students to log in each time, they're not used in the "real world" … and they're not "hot." They also can be clunky, though newer versions have improved the way they look and work.
Q: What sorts of classes do blogs work best in?
A: I have used blogs in seven different classes over the past two years, including skills courses, conceptual courses, and a graduate seminar. I'd give an edge to the conceptual classes because the blogs are great for getting students to discuss ideas; they worked especially well in my Journalism Ethics course last spring. But they can be structured to work well in skills courses, too, including Editing. For instance, they can be used for workshopping student work; for identifying online examples of good writing, headlines, design and so on; for generating and updating story ideas or source lists … you name it. In general, blogs work in any situation in which you want students to share information.
Q: How do you keep non-students away?
A: As the class blog's administrator, you can adjust some settings to limit participation. But I left all my blogs open to comments from anyone, and I never had a problem. The odds of anyone finding it without knowing the URL and/or the name of your blog -- both of which you choose when you set it up -- are slim. And you can always delete inappropriate posts if need be. That said, it's an important lesson for students that what they post anywhere on the Internet, even in an innocuous class blog, is published. Anyone can, in fact, see it, including boyfriends, teachers, sources … potential employers. The semester will no doubt present a teaching moment or two on that topic!
Q: What are the benefits of using blogs in classes?
A: Aside from their value to future journalists and PR practitioners (a growing number of media outlets offer blogs by reporters and columnists, and companies are starting their own blogs, too), their accessibility and conversational structure encourage students to easily share and electronically discuss ideas about course material. Students get to know and learn from one another in ways that may not be easy to replicate in the physical classroom, particularly in larger classes. They expose students to each other's ideas - not just the instructor's - and encourage them to engage in a dialogue. The result is a classroom experience that facilitates the sort of give-and-take that enhances knowledge and strengthens community. Blogs also get students to write regularly. They provide opportunities for students, including the shy ones who never open their mouths in class, to communicate, sometimes eloquently. Perhaps most important, they give students a degree of control over their own learning experience. It is exhilarating to watch students work through course ideas and come to an understanding of those concepts that they otherwise might never attain through less involving activities.
Q: Are there any pitfalls to watch out for?
A: Your students may be different, but most of mine are interested in whether/how much anything you ask them to do counts toward their grade. So if you want them to use the blog, make it a required, graded component of the course. And figure out how that grading will work. I think you should be more hands-off than you are with formal writing assignments, but not so hands-off that students see the blog as mere busywork and consequently put in a half-assed effort. Regularly posting "seed" messages, reading student comments weekly, and (very) occasionally joining in the resulting conversation worked for me … but you'll find your own best practice.