I have been using a blog in my design class for a number of years now. I thought it might be a good idea to post about how blogs can be used and how I have mine set up. A sort of ‘Blogging 101’ for teachers.
What is a blog?
A blog (short for weblog) is an internet based technology that allows participants to post diary entries to the web site for others to read. Blog sites generally offer a free basic service which is adequate for general users. The income stream of the service providers is generated from subscribers who require advanced features such as domain registration and specialized page themes. Some providers also use advertising to generate income.
From the early blogs, which provided little more than a ‘roll’ of diary entries in order of date, modern blogs provide for embedded media and content pages accessed through menus, to provide something approaching a wiki. There is also the ability for readers to comment on entries. Integration with social media is also provided so that bloggers can link their posts to Facebook and Twitter feeds etc.
Blog sites offer a range of themes to allow bloggers to personalize their sites and make them attractive. Managing the sites is easy for a user with basic computing skills. It is possible to manage the access to a blog, but the process can be fiddly and usually it is assumed that a blog is a public document.
What are class blogs used for?
There are a number of uses for class blogs and it is important to decide on the purpose of the blog before setting it up. Possible uses include:
- Information source for class members
- Flexible delivery of learning materials
- Opportunity for students to engage in communicating their ideas
Information source for class members
In this scenario the blog is used to support the classroom activities of the students. The focus is on developing a class identity and increasing engagement with the curriculum by providing further activities and interesting peripheral information. For instance links could be provided to multimedia clips on the internet and other information around the curriculum to assist students to put the core curriculum material into a broader context. There is not always time to provide that broader context in our busy curriculum, but it does help students to add meaning to the core curriculum and engage more effectively with their learning.
Flexible delivery of learning materials
Not all students find the classroom environment, with its distractions, an effective learning environment. All students benefit from thinking about the lesson content between lessons. Thirdly, at times the teacher may elect to adopt a flexible delivery mode within the class and provide a work program for students to work through at their own pace during the class time. All these needs can be provided for if the lesson content is added to a blog. In this case the structure of the blog might be different and provide for a menu so that students can browse directly to the activity or lesson material.
True flexible delivery requires that work be submitted, progress through the program is monitored and student-teacher communication be formally managed. A blog does not provide tools to adequately perform all these functions and a virtual learning environment (VLE) is required.
In English writing classes there is an obvious use for blogs as a tool to develop writing skills in a modern context. Blogging has become a genre in its own right and students benefit from experiencing it. In other classes, however, there is also a place for a blog.
Many teachers come from an age when privacy was a virtue and most people equated privacy with safety and freedom to some extent. Students today often lack that reserve and think nothing of throwing information about themselves ‘out there’. While young people might view the privacy of the pre-internet age as secrecy and repression, which allowed many social ills top flourish (abuse, sexism, racism), the openness of our students also supports bullying, identity theft, and other misuse of the information disclosed.
I took that brief digression to make the point that it is important when establishing a class blog to educate students in how to protect their own safety. It is important not to imbue them with paranoia, but on the other hand they need to be aware of the safe boundaries. I prepared a wiki page on cyber-safety for the staff at my college which you are free to use at http://edict.wikidot.com/wiki:cyber-safety.
Blogging as a creative writing exercise
In this situation students will be writing about the topic of the blog, attempting to appeal to a wider audience. If this is oyur aim then students and parents should be consulted before a public blog is established. Students will not in general be posting personal information, but what they do post might still create a negative impression of them which may have consequences in the future. If there is any concern then a safer option would be to use a blog on the school intranet.
How do I get started?
The first step is to decide what the topic of the blog is and stay true to that. If there are several different purposes then consider multiple blogs. (Blog software generally allows users to establish a number of blogs under the same account.)
There are a number of free blog sites available. WordPress seems to be one of the best and most popular, and at my school ( Don College, Australia) we have standardized on that. I also like to encourage staff to use a standard theme and appearance, which gives our subject blogs a relatively consistent look and feel. In this way students readily identify the blogs as part of the college teaching program. It looks more professional as well.
The blog for the Don College Computer Graphics and design class is at http://doncollegecgd.wordpress.com. This blog has two aspects. The first thing you see is a traditional blog which reports once a week on the progress and direction for the classes. (Note though that lately I have not added a post, this is because we are into exams and then the long summer break will start.) Once a week is a good spacing between posts, as it maintains engagement and interest and doesn’t become tedious for the teacher writing or the student reading. It also provides an item of interest like an embedded animation which serves to attract students to the blog and inspire them a bit. The second part on the front page is a set of links to other resources. Thirdly there is curriculum content and copies of assignments etc. under the menus at the top. So that overall the blog acts as a sort of class home page where students go for information and resources they need.
In conclusion there are a number of effective ways in which blogs can be used, and with a little planning and support they are an effective way of presenting material to students and supporting their learning. They do not have the power of a fully functioned VLE but they are quite easy to set up and very easy to post information to. They are also free to use. The blog can become a sort of home space online for the class.