For most people, a blog is essentially their own demarcated space on the internet where, at any time, they can freely post their ideas and comments about anything that interests them, for anyone else to read and comment upon. Because each post is date-stamped and, one by one, they develop into a long list in reverse chronological order as each new post is made, blogs are often considered to be little more than an online diary or journal; and to some extent, for many people, that is what they are.
However, at their most basic level a blog is, essentially, a tool and platform for online publishing and, to all intents and purposes, they are more or less a ready-made website into which the user can deposit their own content without having to first design or create the site itself. In fact, millions of websites are now underpinned by WordPress software but they do not, in any way, resemble the traditional journal format of a blog.
A blog is also a place for interactivity and interaction, where people can publish their content individually, collectively or collaboratively and where they can also comment upon and enter into dialogue about the published content. So, before creating and setting a blog assignment, you will need to think about how you want your students to use the platform, what you want them to get out of the process and, to some extent, how you want to assess it.
Let’s start with perhaps the most basic form of assignment; each student individually creating their own blog, with their own content over the course of the module.
This might take the form of a weekly journal in which students continue or develop seminar discussions or perhaps respond to a question set by the tutor. Individual student blogs can also be used in the same way as a scrapbook might once have been used and, week by week, students might collect relevant material and post it on their blog along with their own discussion and analysis of it in relation to the themes of the module. Individual student blogs are good because they encourage independent and creative learning and investigation and they represent a space where, within stipulated boundaries, students can formulate and explore their own pathways through the subject.
Individual blogs also have good potential for being very reflective and one of the benefits of using a blog is that each post is archived and students can read back and evaluate ideas which they previously put forward. This means that blog posts can be quite speculative in nature and students can be encouraged to put forward their initial responses to an issue with the knowledge that they can revisit and rethink those ideas at a later date. Individual student blogs are also quite easy to administer and to grade as each blog relates solely to the work of one student.
Another way in which bogging can be used as a summative assignment is to create a single blog and subscribe all the module students as ‘authors’ (in WordPress) so that they can all post their ideas to the same blog.
The lecturer, using the role of ‘administrator’, maintains the overall blog and can also make posts of their own or comment upon others. This type of blog is excellent for creating a collective resource of student ideas and responses to the module topics and it also encourages students to read and respond to the work of others when composing their own. Over the course of the module, the single blog builds into a collective resource far in excess of anything that one student alone could create and it also allows students to build upon foundations laid by other students and learn from their peers as well as the module tutor.
This type of assignment can be more difficult to administer and involves subscribing each student to the blog as well as ensuring that work is being undertaken collectively rather than being plagiarised. If this is a concern, then students could be subscribed as ‘contributors’ rather than ‘authors’ which means they can write and edit their own posts in draft format but they must be approved and published by an ‘editor’ or ‘administrator’ before they appear on the site. This means a lot more work for the person authorising the posts but it does perhaps also provide opportunities for a peer evaluation element by making some students editors.
These blogs can also be more difficult to grade because they become a collective piece of work which may, in the end, represent more than the sum of its parts and working out the proportionate contribution of each student to that end product may be complicated and not simply a question of how many posts they have made or the number of words contributed. That said, issues with collective or group assignments have been addressed and overcome in more traditional classroom based activities so similar protocols can be applied in the case of collectively created blogs.
In addition to collective composition, blogs can be used to stimulate a closer collaboration between students.
By dividing them into smaller groups within a module and getting them to work as a team to create their own collaborative blog; perhaps getting each group to work on a different topic or element in the module so that, overall, the blogs cover all the module content. These types of projects are an excellent middle ground between the individual and the collective assignment because they encourage collaboration between the students but they are much easier to administer and keep track of than one large collective blog.
In fact, an additional benefit of collaborative blogs is that the students themselves can be required, as part of the assignment, to elect an administrator to manage their group’s site and perhaps one or two editors to act as moderators and ensure, for example, that content is not being duplicated across posts. In this way, small group blogs can be used to foster collaboration and produce module-specific coursework, but they also acclimatise students to processes and procedures of managing and maintaining collaborative projects; a very valuable set of transferable skills. As with a collective blog, there are similar issues with the potential for plagiarism and the complexity of grading collaborative work but these are no different to any group work and most departments have some form of assessment structure or criteria for such work (and if not, create one!).
All of these types of assignment involve students as creators and publishers of content but this overlooks another very important collectively element relating to blogs and that is the ability of people to post comments in reaction to other posts or to other comments made about posts (discussed later). However, if you choose to do this, make sure that you have suitable assessment criteria that take this into account when marking or else you will not be able to reward (or sanction) students who do, or do not, comment on the work of others or respond to comments made about theirs.
Before moving on to discuss further practical elements of setting up and using blogs, it might be useful to see, through a case study, how they can work in practice.