Supporting student development with public blogging


Summary

Emily Bowles of the English and Related Literature Department introduced blogging for her seminar groups undertaking ‘Global Literatures’, a first year core module that all English students are required to undertake as a part of the department’s BA English.

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Click/tap the above image to access the WordPress site

The full cohort numbered 211 students with Emily’s seminar groups numbering 24 students in total (two groups of 12).  The module runs for a term (8 weeks) and has an ‘every other week’ structure of: A 1hr lecture and a 2hr seminar / two 1hr lectures and one 1 hr seminar.

Lectures are taken together as a cohort with seminars taken in single seminar groups.

Assessment is via two 1500 word essays (one mid-module and one at the end).

Keywords: blogs, collaboration, module design, formative tasks, assessment & feedback, student skills, careers

Aims and Objectives

The main aim of asking students to post in a public WordPress site was to begin embedding social media and blogging skills into the degree and to provide them with hands on ‘real-world’ experience of blogging.  Emily wanted to illustrate to students how useful blogging can be in terms of their own self-development but also what the practical affordances of blogging are.

Further to the broader reasons for implementing blogging, Emily felt such an activity would target and reinforce the module’s underlying outcomes, such as students’ understanding of critical terminology for example.  Emily also thought it would help consolidate a number of other subject specific skills that students are required to develop, including students thinking critically about what they are doing within their degree and how it connects to wider issues.

Transferable skills, careers and employability were also a significant driving force.  Emily considered blogging to be an activity that could extend student learning by incorporating a clear careers development aspect.  This adds value for students by preparing them for some of the most common areas of graduate employment.  In 2015 for example, 13.9% of English Literature graduates went into marketing related roles, for Language graduates this percentage rose to 16.1%.  Blogging experience and skills are directly applicable in just such a communications orientated role and are also highly transferable to other disciplines.

The Global Literatures module is notably one of the few within the degree that results in students looking at contemporary material (written as little as two years previously for example).  As a consequence, the module is very much engaged with current issues and politics at a global level.  During seminars however, there’s not enough time to cover such a wide context in depth.  Emily felt the blog could provide a way for students to further engage with such contexts in a real way; something very much the focus of an assessed blogging activity in TFTV’s ‘Current Issues, in Film and Television’ module.

Methodology

As noted, Emily chose to use WordPress as the platform for blogging.  There were a number of reasons for this choice but, as one of the main criteria was to replicate ‘real-world’ activity, the ubiquity of WordPress use across the web suggested WordPress as the most obvious and sensible choice (a report by ‘W3Techs’ indicates that 25% of ALL websites use WordPress).  WordPress is (by default) public, comes in both free and paid versions (paid versions provide for an advert free and more customisable experience) and is very easy to use.

Emily structured the activity to require each student to make at least one blog post over the term with all students posting in one WordPress blog.  For a seminar group of twelve this meant there would be at least one post per week.  The deadline for a week’s postings was 4pm the day before the seminar.

Emily chose a model of moderating student posts before publishing them and provided individual feedback on posts by email.

The week’s posts were then drawn on and fed into face-to-face seminar discussions and there was no formal/summative assessment associated with the activity.

Emily introduced students to the activity at a start of term introductory meeting, which was not a part of the seminar programme.   At this session she gave attendees the opportunity to choose the week that they would post in (with a view to creating an even posting spread).

The personal feedback given to students was relatively light touch, in terms of volume, and typically focussed on what was good about a student’s post (‘you’ve picked up on this interesting point’ for example).  Feedback would also include referencing points and observations (that would be useful for the student to carry into formal assessed essays).  Feedback was notably not an ‘assessment’ of the post.

When Emily drew on posts during seminar discussions, it was also not to specifically critique the post itself but to stimulate discussion by highlighting a post’s interesting points and observations for further discursive exploration.

Student comments (in the blog itself) were encouraged but Emily deliberately didn’t comment on posts in WordPress (to avoid the potential for students to feel that posts were being assessed).  Emily specifically specified that students should be constructive when making comments on each other’s posts.

Framing blogging activity

When introducing the blogging activity Emily provided a framework that students could use to help them compose their posts but deliberately didn’t insist on this framework being rigidly adhered to.  It was there to help them better approach the ‘blank page’.  The framework included suggestions such as:

  • Identify an article and think about its strengths and weaknesses. What’s interesting about it and what is its relevance (to the current reading).

Asking students to write blog posts about an article or on a contextualised issue can help improve students assimilation of the concepts involved and provided a means for Emily to discreetly guide student understanding and development with direct feedback.  The broad framework for engagement also helped specifically target learning objectives such as that of students’ critical engagement with sources.

In terms of tone or ‘voice’ Emily very much wanted students to ‘blog’ rather than write in a rigid academic manner and was, as a consequence, clear to inform students that a more relaxed tone was required (for example contractions were fine) but that posts should be referenced correctly and use the analytical and research skills being developed in line with the degree’s learning outcomes.  Emily very specifically wanted to model a real-world blogging experience where you couldn’t necessarily assume a reader’s background knowledge or understanding of discipline specific jargon but where appropriate rigour is still required in terms of analysis, research and referencing.

To further help students, Emily shared links to other example blogs (to illustrate tone) and provided additional blogging tips including links to academic phrasing sources (but with the relaxed tone caveat) on the blog itself.

In terms of post tagging, including links in posts and media (such as images) the onus was put on the student to tackle use of these so that they could think about how this aspect of blogging works and what the implications of such inclusions are (including that of search engine optimisation).

Reflections

Emily hopes to use blogging with students again and observed that other academics teaching on the module would also be interested in attempting similar interventions.  The module’s convenor set-up a workshop for academics in the English Department for which Emily was asked to outline how she had implemented the blogging activity and to discuss what the benefits were.  Emily noted that blogging activity may also be included in other modules within the department.

Overall Emily considered one of the main benefits to be in students writing the posts as well as in their reading each other’s posts, and that students did end up with a greater awareness of the public facing context of blogging along with the language considerations that come with public facing material.

Having experienced and evaluated how the blogging activity was received by the students, particularly how it worked pedagogically, Emily noted that, were she to be in a position to run such an intervention again, she would ask students to post more often.  Emily considered that it was ultimately limiting as to how much a student could actually develop their voice and writing when only posting once and that they would benefit formatively from the opportunity to practise and also to receive further feedback.

Emily also felt it would have been good to incorporate consideration of ‘view counts’ into blogging activity with a view to exploring with students why some posts were read more than others.  Insights in to this area could be built upon to help students improve their writing in further posts.  A further result of exploring this could be a slightly more competitive aspect to the process as students try and improve their writing to increase their views per post.  A small chocolate prize for the most viewed post was on offer to help stimulate engagement and introduce a slight competitive angle to proceedings with the first seminar groups.

Emily allowed students to comment anonymously and observed that, when commenting by students did occur, they produced positive constructive comments.  Commenting wasn’t a requirement however.

Feedback from Emily’s seminar groups indicated that they appreciated contributing to something with a wider outlook than one seminar group (this particular module is structured in such a way as to keep seminar groups largely separate).  Awareness of what other seminar groups were doing was reassuring while also widening students’ perspectives.  As a consequence, Emily will leave the current blog intact and add to it with future students (rather than setting up another blog for a new cohort) as she feels it will be useful for future students to be able to see what the previous cohort posted.

Transferable lessons learned

It’s common for students to be a little terrified at the prospect of public blogging so it pays dividends to make it very clear what the blogging activity’s learning goals are and how students should write for and engage with the blog before the activity gets under way.  Providing at least a loose or simple guide/framework for engagement is particularly useful.

It’s critical that blogging activity doesn’t sit outside of face-to-face activity.  This is something we’ve seen in other blogging interventions used around the University.  Drawing upon online activity during face-to-face sessions helps embed it as a part of the teaching and reinforces its relevance and usefulness to students.

Consider having all students post in the same blog and, particularly where the activity is formative, don’t worry about separating students/groups unnecessarily.  Emily observed that she initially had her two seminar groups posting to separate tabs in WordPress but that this was really only of benefit to her (to keep track of which group had posted).

Emily specifically set up a session outside of the lecture and seminar timetable where the blogging activity was covered and students given the opportunity to choose the week in which they wanted to make their post (with a view to creating an even posting spread).  Emily found that this was not well attended and had to allocate students with a week in which to post.  Bearing this in mind it may pay dividends to utilise a small portion of an early scheduled session to introduce such an activity to students.

Top ten blogging tips from Emily:

  • Link to other blogs and reputable websites
  • Start a conversation
  • Include images and videos
  • Tag correctly
  • Aim for a low bounce rate
  • Emphasise your keywords
  • Use social media to publicise your content
  • Keep it short
  • Link to current affairs
  • Blog regularly

Alternatives to WordPress

If you are looking for something officially supported by the University (WordPress doesn’t fall in to this category) then you could implement a similar intervention using Blogger which is provided as a part of the University’s Google provision.

If you would like to implement a non-public blogging activity with enrolments/ability to edit automatically handled for you then you might consider using the blog tool built in to the Yorkshare (the VLE).

For information on either of the above don’t hesitate to contact the E-Learning Team or check out our online resources to learn more.

Next Steps

Cast Study last updated: July 2016