Using a Blog in Your Teaching

The word "blog" is an abbreviation of "weblog". A blog is a web publication which consists of a series of message posts (possibly with comments by visitors). Blogs archive each post chronologically, with the most recent posts showing up at the top of the main page. "Blog" may be an ugly word, so it was not for looks that it was named Merriam-Webster's "Word of the Year" for 2004. There must have been some other reason.

For better or worse, blogs have become a significant part of our mainstream culture and public discourse. Since the first one was started in 1997, blogs have rapidly become the instrument of grassroots organizers and citizen-journalists, a PR tool for corporations and politicians, and the romping ground of juvenile exhibitionists and their voyeuristic visitors.

It is into this rangy territory that we now venture, asking, "Can blogs be of use in higher education, too? And if so, how?"

Definition of 'Blog'

A blog is a website that obeys certain rules for the creation and display of content. The building blocks of a blog are dated, timestamped, and sometimes categorized 'posts' written by one or more authors, with the most recent several posts showing up on the main page of the blog. Blogs generally allow readers to interact with authors and other readers by adding comments to posts.

Given the basic features of blogs -- web-based, made up of discrete, chronological posts, enabling user interaction via commenting -- we can begin to imagine what some different blog-based assignments, which support the learning objectives of college courses, might look like.

The word "assignment" here, of course, is not incidental. While the blogosphere may seem to have spontaneously arisen from the collective enthusiasm of the world's technology- and media-savvy geeks, educationally purposeful blogs require educators to carefully plan, structure, and, yes, assign student blogging in a way that serves a defined educational end.

Why use a blog?

Consider the following hypothetical example: The instructor of a literature course gives a blog-writing assignment as a twist on the traditional "weekly response paper." Our instructor wants students to identify and develop themes that run through and connect assigned readings over the course of a semester. To that end, she asks students to individually blog their responses to each week's reading. Students are encouraged to use their cumulative work from week to week as a platform for exploring emergent themes in greater depth and with increasing precision, using the functionality of the blog (namely, hyperlinks and comments) to explicitly reference peers' thoughts and rework their own.

If she doesn't define them from the beginning, our imaginary blog-venturing instructor will doubtless have to figure out ways to maintain control over a potentially sprawling or explosive or underused forum. Her tricks might include:

  • Clear guidance on the tone of postings. Since publishing on a blog is so immediate and so publicly performed, students need to know how to post respectfully.
  • Enforced ground rules on the length of posts. Our instructor does herself and her students no favors by allowing them to sprawl on and on: ramblers may not be killing trees, but they're being ineffective--and they're harder to grade.
  • Assignments might require students not only to post regularly, but also to comment on a peer's post, to ensure that students react to other students' work on the blog.
  • Integration of blog postings into class discussion. This raises the stakes for the blog assignment: standout work gets recognized as it comes in, perhaps even shaping class discussion.

We can anticipate that students will not only experience blog-writing as different from, say, writing response papers, but that the ends will differ, as well. An individual student's blog postings at the end of our hypothetical class, for example, becomes a narrative of his discovery and development of ideas within a community of peers, a work that will serve both instructor and students towards the end of a class, as they assess the class as it's evolved over the semester.

Other uses of a blog

Blogs aren't just for student writing; there are innumerable other ways to frame and use the features of blogs to support teaching and learning.

  • An instructor in the social sciences might establish a single, collaboratively-authored blog to collect student research around topics of shared interest to a course, an approach sometimes called "distributed research". The use of defined categories might help organize the blog around topics, not just chronologically.
  • A professional school instructor might use blogging to expand the academy walls and establish an exchange between students and experts in their profession or the public at large.
  • An instructor in the natural sciences might use a blog to chart and share her own research with her students, modeling expert practice and affording students a forum in which to ask questions of that practice.

Clearly, the task of reading or writing blogs may not be appropriate to every class or context. Where doing so presents students with challenges germane to the enterprise of the class (e.g. students in an urban planning class putting their ideas before a critical public), blogs hold out to us the possibility of deeply enriching in-class learning. But while increasingly efficient and easy-to-use technologies have reduced the costs and mechanical demands of introducing blogs in college classes, much hard work remains to make blog use a purposeful and effective educational exercise.

No doubt the Columbia community will keep on the cutting edge of this effort as our faculty and staff experiment with the new media, while holding our experiments accountable to that vision of "purposeful and effective" use. Maybe, while we're at it, we can coin a prettier word for our kind of blogs. And no, "cublogs" won't cut it.