Blogging #3 – Choosing a platform

Having chosen to employ blogging as an assessment tool, one of the first decisions to make is which type of platform to use. If your institution already employs a Learning Management System (LMS), more commonly known as a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), such as Blackboard or Moodle, then you may already have the facility to set up a blogging task within that system. Some benefits of using a tool that is already incorporated in your existing system are that technical support for setting it up and administering it should be available through your IT department, students will be creating and submitting the assignment through a familiar online interface and, particularly in the case of Blackboard, there is a facility to grade the blog (in detail) in the same way as you would any other assignment.

There are also, though, downsides to using these inbuilt tools. Although (particularly in the case of Moodle) the assignment can be set up so that posts are visible beyond the VLE the likelihood is that these types of blogs will be predominantly inward facing and generally only accessed and viewed by staff and students rather than the wider world. From a security perspective, this might seem like a benefit but, actually, getting students to publish work in the ‘real world’ and interacting with people beyond the university environment are key strengths and advantages of blogging in this context. Also, one of the overarching benefits of getting students to create blogs is to provide them with valuable transferable skills by educating and training them to interact with and use Web 2.0 platforms. Keeping the blog exercise ‘in house’ within the VLE environment severely curtails the accumulation of these additional skills and so it is, perhaps, not the most rewarding methodology.

Once you decide to operate outside of any existing Learning Management System, you then have a much wider choice of possible platforms, all of which are far more powerful and adaptable than those provided within an LMS.

Before you choose your platform, you have to decide whether you want to use a hosted service or download the relevant software and host it yourself. If you are setting up a blog solely for your own use, then there are undoubtedly benefits to purchasing your own hosting and then downloading and installing the blogging software; you can purchase a more relevant domain name, you can fully customise the software to suit your needs and the software will be free of advertising.

However, I would suggest that for running a student blog assignment, the easiest method by far is to use an online blog service that comes complete with hosting. These usually offer a basic free-of-charge package, they require relatively little technical knowledge to set up, they are extremely quick and easy to get started with, you and your students should be able to sign up to individual accounts without any difficulty and you don’t have to worry about buying and setting up internet hosting services or running out of space on the server.

So, you decide to go for a hosted service; what are your options? The big players in hosted services are WordPress.com, Blogger and Tumblr with lots of other smaller options on offer. Out of these three, WordPress is by far the largest in terms of users and is, I would suggest, one of the easiest packages to use while still offering a good and sophisticated range of options. When choosing to use WordPress, be careful to make sure you go to the correct website depending on which service option you require. Basically, for a hosted service you want to go to WordPress.com. The other option, WordPress.org, is where you would go if you wanted to download the software and install it on your own server.

Because WordPress is based upon open-source software there is a vast online community of people providing free guidance and advice on how to set it up and use it so if you or your students get stuck trying to do something there is usually someone online who has provided the answer. Blogger and Tumblr are viable alternatives but they are both owned and run by large internet corporations (Google and Yahoo! respectively) and so, especially in the case of Blogger, you have to sign up for an account with the parent organisation before you can start blogging and that is not always straightforward or preferable. I use WordPress for running student blogs and so all the guidance and advice that follows is based upon that platform (although much of it would apply to others as well).

So, having decided which platform you want to use, the next step is to sign up your students and get them blogging.

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