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It looks like I’ll be teaching my very first course next summer. This will be my chance to experiment a bit and get some practice on what kind of teacher I want to become. I have my role models but ultimately, to be successful, our teaching has to agree with our personalities. I have an inclusive personality so I tend to focus on giving everybody a chance to participate and get engaged. The key is to get students to participate. And as I’ve mentioned before, this is where I think blogging can be useful. Blogging has made me not only more aware of my surroundings but also more politically and socially engaged. If that sort of dynamics can be reproduced in the classroom some real learning can be achieved.

But how to do that? How exactly do I get 45 students to actively participate in a course blog? Do I make it an assignment? Do each student has to post something? How often? Under what criteria? How do I integrate it to the curriculum and what goes on in the classroom?

In order to get some ideas, I registered to a workshop last week on blogging offered by the Resource Centre of Academic Techonology, at U of T. I was very excited but unfortunately, unable to attend. A more urgent academic engagement came up and I had to miss it. So today I went by RCAT to ask if there were any handouts from the talk. They gave me not only a copy of the ppt presentation but also the presenter’s blog address where I could find further resources.

Her name is Michelle Mazar and her blog is subtitled Diary of a Subversive Librarian, which I think it’s quite brilliant. She wrote a very inspiring reflection about blogging and academia on the day of the workshop.In it she says:

(…)Which leads me to something that bonked me on the head yesterday while reviewing for Learning Inquiry. I read this fantastic article that used some extremely bang-on terminology: productive failure, and unproductive success.

Here’s what I’m currently considering: we tend to reward unproductive success more than anything. If a student walks into a class knowing the subject material, that student will probably do extremely well. If a student spends 3/4ths of the class struggling with the material and getting things wrong, not understanding, struggling with concepts, and then really gets it, that student will probably not do as well. But that student is actually learning, and demonstrating learning. We don’t have an effective way of rewarding real learning.

Which is the key reason why I object to switching out the word “student” with the word “learner”, though I know it’s trying to get at the same idea. We don’t know whether we have “learners” or not, on a grand scale. Often we have a group of already-knowledgeable students who will unproductively get As and we feel good about it the learning experience. How do we measure learning? Real learning? Going from confusion to understanding? How do we even see it when undergrads often don’t even open their mouths in class? Do we really have a “Learning Management System”? Really? How do we really support and reward learning rather than merely unproductive success?

So I think blogging done well, set up with good expectations and with a fostered honesty, can reveal the actual learning going on, and can give students the option of displaying the learning they’re doing. And we can reward it that way. If a student struggles for the first half of the course and demonstrates that struggle, and then suddenly GETS IT, you’ll have evidence of their learning. You can reward that, you can grade them according to how they learned and how articulate they can be about the way in which they learned and why. At the moment we grade them based on whether or not they get it fast enough, for the most part. So you can use these tools to support and encourage productive failure as a means toward productive success. I’m not saying it’s enough to just try. Unproductive failure isn’t the goal either. Failure that builds into understanding is productive.

I’ve began to consider this very process lately. I’ve had students who have clearly benefited from the class and through informal interaction with me showed me they “got it” at the end of the course. Yet, I could not reward their learning since these didn’t translate into their first assignments. I think there should be some room for that.

In her powerpoint presentation, Michelle gives some useful tips on using blogs effectively. My favourites are blogs as reflection paper and blogging as conversation. She suggests four possible ways to use a blog as a reflection paper:

  • Pick a quotation from the reading and relate it to the lecture
  • Pick a CC-licensed picture from flickr and relate it to the readings, lecture
  • Pick a comment from a fellow student, agree or disagree with its content
  • Ask a question that remains after the lecture and the reading

I think these could be easy to implement and would create a connection between readings and lecture as well as conversation among the students.

Her powerpoint doesn’t specify what she means by blogging as conversation but I’ll definitely ask her directly. This is very exciting stuff.

The university where I teach uses Blackboard as their main course management/website platform. This year will be my first year using it but after taking a couple of workshops, it doesn’t look bad at all. In fact, it looks sleek and has lots of potential useful tools.

Browsing through some of the documentation, I came across an optional tool that might be useful. It’s called EduBlogger and once enabled, seems to all each student in the course to have a blog and the instructor to track it all. Blackboard also has a forum, of course, so it got me thinking about what would be the pros and cons of using a blog vs a forum to encourage either student participation outside of the classroom or allow the students to engage with the material in a media other than essays/exams.

I was thinking of using the discussion board feature of blackboard this term. I’d perhaps post some questions about the readings ahead of time and invite students to respond to them or post reactions of their own to the readings before the class. They could earn extra points for doing so, particularly if they engage in fruitful discussion with their classmates. The bonus would be to get them thinking before class and to allow shy students to get some extra marks.

In future, when I design the course myself (currently I’m just a TA), I’d create a class blog and make it more of an assignment. For this term, I might stick to the discussion board.

As an aside, I found this post on education blogs that was interesting and had many useful links. A lot of resources on using blogs on education seem to be related or geared towards primary and secondary school. Let me know if you find any discussions of it in a university context.