Is it worth getting your class to keep a blog? Also: Google Docs

truly awful image

I recently started teaching English Language and Study Skills at University of Brighton’s International College. I’m also the guy responsible for the VLE there, which goes pretty well with the stuff we’re doing on H800. This week I’m blogging more than usual because we’re looking at how to use blogs for educational purposes.

I’ve been teaching for over five years now and until now I haven’t used blogs with my classes. I find this fact a little embarrassing to admit, as I like to think of myself as fairly tech-savvy. So I was pleased to find that things weren’t as cut and dried as blogs = modern = good. Excuse the lengthy quote:

“There have been several studies illustrating the potential for blogging to support learning. For example, students can use blogs to gather resources (Huann, John and Yuen, 2005) and share their materials and opinions with others (Williams and Jacobs, 2004). Also, blogging can support meaning-making (Fiedler, 2003) through reflective learning. Moreover, the development of knowledge communities through the exchange of hyperlinks (eg Oravec 2003), can foster the development of learning identities and reduce feelings of isolation (e.g. Dickey 2004).
Despite these positive examples of how blogs can be used to support learning, the perception of many students is more cautious. Krause (2004) reports haphazard contributions to blogs by his students, minimal communication between them, and found that posts demonstrated poor quality reflection upon the course materials. Williams and Jacobs (2004) introduced blogs to MBA students and although he reports overall success, he encountered problems with poor compliance as, for example 33% of the students thought they had nothing valuable to say in their blog. Similarly, Homik and Melis (2006) report only minimal compliance to meet assessment requirements and that students stopped blogging at the end of their course. Other issues include students plagiarising from each others’ blogs, the need for students to have developed skills in choosing which hyperlinks to include in their blog (e.g. Oravec, 2003), and an ability to manage the tension between publishing private thoughts in a public space (Mortensen and Walker, 2002). These findings suggest that students are often task-focused and outcome oriented, that often they find it difficult to understand the rationale behind the requirement to blog, and that they are unable to recognise how blogging could enhance pre- existing practices. It appears that the ideals of educators can be difficult to implement in practice.” (Kerawalla et al., 2007)

I think the second half of the above sums up why I haven’t got my students to start blogs (yet). It’s hard to see the point. They can do written work on paper, or if they do it electronically they can email it to me. But then there are some good reasons to publish written work online: students can learn from each other (slightly humourous how the above reports that this well-meaning intention results in plagiarism); it is a “social” kind of writing which creates a sense of community (quite different from the essay for the teacher which the teacher writes on and then gives back).

I might get some of my students to start blogs this term if I can find a good rationale for it. I want to avoid the technological tail wagging the educational dog whatever the case.

Google Docs has served me pretty well.  It lets you write a document and share it with others who can edit it. At the simplest level, you can just use it like you would use Word. But the collaborative side is quite powerful. Here’s what I did today:

The class (six students) were studying the passive voice. They had a standard textbook exercise I wanted them to do where they change an active sentence to a passive one (e.g. “Tolstoy wrote the book” –> “The book was written by Tolstoy”). Everyone logged into their Google Docs accounts. They did the exercise on a document and shared it with me. I was then able to bring up their work on the projector screen and open it up to the class for correction. The class discussed any mistakes and the person who wrote it could correct it from their computer, watching the version on the screen change in real time.

Now. I could have done all of this with pens and paper, right? How would that have gone?

Students write their answers on A3 paper with big pens. Blu-tack finished answers onto the board. Students discuss and correct together. Student who wrote it takes a pen and corrects their answers.

What’s the difference, really, between the digital method and the low-tech analogue method?

Digital:

  • gets around handwriting problems
  • is reflective of how students are more likely to edit their work (ie, on a computer).
  • is a bit different the first few times you do it
  • allows two or more people to edit the same piece of text without getting in each other’s way.
  • is neat and tidy

Analogue:

  • is cheap
  • doesn’t encounter technical problems
  • can be done anywhere.

One thing I am not is an educational technology zealot. If there isn’t a good reason to use the technology, don’t use it. However, I do like experimenting. I think experimenting takes you forward.

References

Kerawalla, L., Minocha, S., Conole, G. and Kirkup, G. (2007), “Exploring students’ understanding of how blogs and blogging can support distance learning in Higher Education”. In Wheeler, S and Whitton, N. (Eds) Beyond control: learning technology for the social network generation. Research Proceedings of the 14th Association for Learning Technology Conference (ALT-C 2007). Held 4-6 September 2007, Nottingham University, England, UK.

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One thought on “Is it worth getting your class to keep a blog? Also: Google Docs

  1. Incredible work! This is certainly the amount of tips that are supposed to become
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