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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Blogging #2 – what’s a blog?

In the most basic terms, a ‘blog’ (derived originally from the term web log) is ‘an easily created, easily updateable website that allows an author (or authors) to publish instantly from any internet connection’ (Richardson, 2010, p. 17) and also ‘a website with dated entries, presented in reverse chronological order and published on the internet’ (Duffy & Bruns, 2006, p. 32). Those who write and publish blogs are known as bloggers and the online community is known as the blogosphere. Creating web logs used to require knowledge and experience of HTML, but in recent years the creation of free and easy to use software and web-based applications has bridged the gap between the user and the technology meaning it has never been easier to get involved; essentially, if you can write and send an e-mail you have the skills to create, edit and publish a blog.

Blogs are a product of a series of profound changes in the World Wide Web which have come to be known as Web 2.0, or more simply, the read/write web. Precise definitions of Web 2.0 are difficult to pin down but, basically, the shift was from the internet being a place where static information could be found and consumed, to it being an environment where user-friendly software and social media facilitated user-generated content and ‘a whole range of newer applications that foreground interactivity and collaboration around shared content’ (Davies & Merchant, 2009, p. x). Since the advent of Web 2.0, internet users have become producers as well as consumers and this has radically altered our participatory relationship with the technology.

According to WordPress.com, the largest online host of blogging software, more than 409 million people worldwide view more than 15.5 billion pages every month and WordPress users publish about 41.7 million new posts and leave around 60.5 million new comments every month. It would seem that reading, creating and contributing to blogs is a popular and widespread pastime, particular among internet users under the age of 30, and yet the platform appears to be relatively underused as a teaching tool, particularly in UK universities. Davies and Merchant (2009) have highlighted that ‘Blogs are now a well-established and widely recognised form of digital communication, and this alone suggests that they should be taken seriously in educational setting’ (p. 34), yet when I recently decided to employ a blog as a summative form of assessment, I was surprised to find comparatively little advice and guidance as to the practicalities of employing blogs in higher education and only a limited amount of published case-study research into the pedagogical influences of such assignments in the UK HE sector.

Thus, I decided to publish my experiences and findings on my own blog.

References:

  • Richardson, W. (2010). Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms (London: Sage)
  • Davies, J., & Merchant, G. (2009) Web 2.0 for Schools: Learning and Social Participation (New York: Peter Lang)

 

Blogging as assessed coursework #1

In this first series of posts, I will be exploring the use of online blogging as a form of assessed coursework for undergraduate history students in UK higher education and offering a practical guide to educational blogging for tutors, lecturers and academics who might be considering employing the tool but who are unsure why and how to go about it.

My experience suggests that blogs are relatively straightforward to implement as a form of summative assessment. Furthermore, they substantially repay the effort, as they provide a highly engaging and interactive method of stimulating and assessing learning, while at the same time equipping students with a set of new and highly valuable transferable skills that more traditional methods of assessment do not tend to deliver.

In a world where web 2.0 platforms and multimodal communication are becoming central to the dissemination of knowledge and information, graduate students will increasingly need high levels of digital literacy when seeking employment outside academia and I would argue that blogs provide an ideal opportunity for delivering that.

My insights have been derived partly from my own experiences of using blogging as a form of assessed coursework in several modules that I teach and additional research into the use of digital technology in educational settings.

I welcome constructive comments and discussion about any aspect of learning and teaching practice in higher education and it would be great to hear from people who have similar experiences of blogging.