By reflecting upon my experiences of introducing this new form of assessment into two different modules at two distinctly different year-group levels, I have been able to account for the results and, consequently, to consider certain aspects of the assignment.
One of the strengths of a blog is that it fosters interactive, independent and autonomous learning; something which, judging by their feedback and their results, the year 2 & year 3 students relished and, more importantly, were able to adapt to alongside learning the subject matter. Conversely, at year 0 the students are undoubtedly on a steeper learning curve to begin with and although all of them were able to learn and manage the practicalities of blogging, the acquisition and maintenance of those skills detracted from time spent studying the subject, hence their weaknesses in knowledge and understanding. This is also reflected in their feedback as they did not particularly rate or value the exercise as an especially suitable means to learn more about the topic.
Interestingly, this sentiment was not overly expressed by the year 2 and year 3 students (who rated that aspect of the task quite highly). I think this can be accounted for by looking at the relationship between the task itself and the subject matter of the module as much as it can by looking at the level of the students involved. For the years 2 & 3 module, which was on the topic of social movements and popular protest in history, the blog assignment was a close and relevant fit for the module topic because blogs and social media have become such integral parts of social and protest movements. However, the year-0 module was on nationalism and national identity and while developments in communications technology and social media have, undoubtedly, had some influence on those issues, there is, historically, less of a relationship between things such as blogging, social media and nationalism which might also help to explain the disconnection between the blogging and the subject experienced by the year-0 students.
Students in both modules were, by and large, allowed to entirely select their own topics and case studies for the blogs which, again, with the year 2 & year 3 students was enthusiastically and capably embraced. For the year-0 students, however, it appears to have been slightly too much of a challenge to choose, research and refine their own topic as well as manage everything else; comments from students suggested that they struggled to know where to start or how to progress. It would appear that the year-0 students also struggled slightly with the independent and autonomous nature of the blogging assignment and because their critical and investigative skills are, by and large, still being developed they would, in hindsight, have benefitted from more rigid boundaries at the start and more guidance and intervention as the module progressed.
Going forward, I have decided to continue using blogs as a summative assessment tool in both year 0 and years 2 & 3 level modules, but I have learned a great deal from my initial experiences which has led me to make some alterations to the assignments.
At years 2 & 3 level, I have altered how the blog is weighted in terms of the overall grade for the module as student feedback suggested that the task involved too much work for 40% of the grade. I am running the same module again in 2017 and the blog will constitute 70% of the overall grade. Also, at years 2 & 3 level, I am introducing blogging into another new module but I will be setting up and administering a single blog that all students then contribute one or two posts to as authors. This will constitute 30% of the assessment for that module and will mean that, although students will need to know how to make a post onto a WordPress blog, they won’t have to design and manage the whole blog themselves.
At year-0 level, the changes are more extensive. I have redesigned the assessment as a small-group blog project, whereby four or five students work together to create, edit and publish one blog, each contributing to setting it up but then making posts as authors on just one or two aspect of a particular topic rather than tackling the whole subject and managing the blog themselves. This will not only reduce the blog management workload and allow more time for studying the subject but will also facilitate teamwork, allow for peer support and make the exercise more structured while still allowing for individual creativity.
I am also planning to offer additional guidelines and boundaries for year-0 students, setting each group particular aspects of a specific nation to investigate, rather than placing the onus on them to completely direct the work. I will also be providing, right from the start of the process, much more specific tuition and guidance as to what kinds of things they might blog about, ideas for when to post blogs and where to source relevant information, as well as more closely following their blogs as they update them and offering support and feedback on their posts via the ‘comments’ facility.
Having now introduced and employed student blogging as an assessment tool I most certainly stand by my initial declarations that it provides an inventive, creative and legitimate platform for student work and it provides students with valuable transferable skills suited to new types of workplace and work practices. As with any other type of new and innovative method of assessment, there have been minor aspects and issues which have needed tweaking and things which, with hindsight, I might have approached differently. Nevertheless, the majority of students undertaking the assignment engaged well with it, expressed interest in it and found it to be an enjoyable experience, with a significant number of them producing well-researched and creatively deployed work of a high standard.
I have continued to use student blogs and blogging (my students are doing it this term) and, in the months to come, I will continue to document my experiences and provide updates on if and how my alterations and adaptations have impacted upon results and the student experience. I would certainly encourage others academics and tutors to give student blogging a go and see if it works for them; I’d also love to hear how it goes!