Oliver Walton, University of Bath, October 2016
Why use blogs in your teaching?
Blogs are becoming more widely used in higher education, and a growing body of evidence has explored how they can enhance learning and teaching (Oravac 2003, Williams & Jacobs 2004). Blogs provide opportunities for students to write short pieces of text that can be easily shared with other students and teachers. Blogs are generally written in a more reflective, argumentative or informal style, and can encourage students to experiment with new arguments or ideas. In general, blogs provide scope to ‘broaden learner-learner and learner-teacher’ interaction (Blackstone & Harwood 2011).
The findings of this project confirm existing evidence, which suggests that blogs can help students in a number of ways, by
- supporting peer learning,
- helping students to develop a critical voice,
- helping students to develop confidence in writing about new topics,
- allowing students to gain experience of writing for a non-academic audience,
- and developing practical written communication skills, which can support careers in policy or the media
- generating a useful resource of information and ideas, which all students can draw on
- fostering a ‘community of practice’, where students can exchange ideas and information
In addition to these benefits for students, blogs provide opportunities for teachers to check student understanding and identify areas where further clarification is needed. Blogs also allow teachers to provide written feedback to the group as a whole.
Six tips for incorporating blogs
Blogs work best when the unit convener is fully engaged and committed to using this approach. Think carefully about what blogs might offer for your course and make sure you are clear about the learning outcomes you are hoping to promote through using them.
Here are six practical tips and things to think about when incorporating blogs into teaching.
1. Ensure that the rationale for using blogs is clearly explained at the outset and develop clear guidelines
Students engage most in blogs when the benefits are made clear to them at the start of a course. It may be useful to highlight both the instrumental and intrinsic benefits of blogging (e.g. it can help you develop useful material for your essay, and it is an opportunity for you to experiment with particular ideas/cases/arguments or to practise writing in a different style).
Blogs also tend to raise a range of concerns around anonymity, plagiarism, and the use of technology. Both the benefits and students’ concerns can be addressed fairly easily by producing a short set of guidelines which students must read before posting their blogs.
2. Maximise opportunities for teacher/peer feedback
Students greatly appreciate receiving feedback on their posts. Blogs provide built-in opportunities for students to peer feedback via the comments function. In practice, however, it can be difficult to encourage students to engage with each other’s work in this way. While it would be ideal if the lecturer can provide individualised written feedback on each students’ blog, this may be too time consuming, particularly for large courses.
Alternative methods for providing peer feedback include encouraging students to work together on a blog post, or inviting students to give a brief presentation based on their blogs in seminars. Some students (particularly those studying a subject area for the first time) draw considerable encouragement and confidence from the lecturer’s verbal feedback on their blogs.
3. Give students flexibility.
While it is necessary to set some ground rules, it is also important to give room for experimentation and for students to link the blog to their own interests. Blogs work best therefore when guidelines are not too prescriptive about content or style. I have also found that students engage with the exercise better when they have more flexibility about when they blog (see next point).
4. Accept that students have different priorities/motivations and try to accommodate these.
While some students were keen that blog-related exercises were graded, others particularly enjoyed the freedom and scope for experimentation that came when these exercises were not formally assessed. This divide is difficult to reconcile entirely, but one compromise solution is to incentivise participation without making the blog ‘count’ towards their mark. Providing students with a chance to vote on their favourite blog, asking bloggers to work with at least one other student, or requiring them to present their findings in the next seminar, have all proved to be successful methods for incentivising participation.
This study also found that the main reason students gave for not engaging with blogs as a formative assessment was the need to prioritise graded work and time pressure arising from other assignments. One solution to this problem is to give students the option to write their blogs early in the semester when they are under less pressure.
5. If blogs are used as a formative assessment, make clear links to summative assessment
In the three units examined in detail for this study, student feedback was most positive and participation highest in the unit where students were encouraged to use the blog to develop ideas and arguments that could be subsequently used for their summative assignment.
6. If blogs are used as a summative assessment, be clear about what you are looking for
Provide examples of good practice and clear marking criteria to ensure that students know what they should be aiming for. Students are generally not used to writing blogs and some may be familiar only with lifestyle blogs (fashion, fitness etc). It may therefore be helpful to expose them to good blog posts in your own field during the course.
Blackstone, B., & Harwood, C. (2011). Pedagogical blogging for university courses. In Global Perspectives, Local Initiatives: Reflections and Practice in ELT (Selected Papers from the Third CELC Symposium for English Language Teachers), Centre for English Language Communication.
Oravec, J. (2002) ‘Bookmarking the world: Weblog applications in education. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 45 (7), 616-621.
Williams, J. and Jacobs, J. (2004) ‘Exploring the use of blogs as learning spaces in the higher education sector’, Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 20 (2), 232-247.
About these guidelines
These guidelines are based on findings from a University of Bath Teaching Development Fund (TDF) project conducted in 2016 ‘Learning from Blogs – evaluating the learning and teaching benefits of using blogs in higher education'. This project sought to evaluate the use of blogs across 3 modules in the Social and Policy (SPS) Department with the aim of improving existing practice, improving understanding of how students’ learning can be enhanced by blogs, and identifying any barriers to their effective use.
The project findings are based on online surveys and focus groups conducted with undergraduate and postgraduate students from three SPS units in the area of international development over a period of 2 years. These findings are supplemented with quantitative analysis of traffic to student blog sites. These units were convened by different people and the blogs were used in different ways (including their use as part of students’ formal assessment, as a means of generating students’ research ideas, and as a focal point for discussion in seminars).
For further information about this study, please contact Oliver Walton: firstname.lastname@example.org