My History Using Blogs as Digital Classroom Space

This is a blog post intended for my ENG 725; Teaching Writing Online class, but also one that others may be interested in too. Yes, I”ve used blogs in the classroom for a long time. What I don’t talk about much though, is how early on I used a blog AS a classroom. My first try at that was in 2003 with Drupal. It was pretty successful, I think, mainly because I was very comfortable with it being an open space where reflective written work and discussion happened in public. It didn’t have to be–Drupal has the option to be a wholly password-protected space–but the publicness and what it enables, I think, is the advantage of using blog space as classroom space. Here is a list of what I see as advantages to this method:

  • A real audience means real attention to the concept of audience in writing and real, not theoretical discussion about writing choices made because of audience.
  • That real audience will sometimes comment and join in. Even authors from readings have done this. Wow!
  • The boundary between real writing and school writing blurs.
  • Accountability. It is clear who is participating and who is not. A little peer pressure in a good cause is not a bad thing.
  • Community. Making learning visible means more opportunity for cooperation and collaboration, a great thing if you believe in student-centered pedagogy (I do).

Now, to be fair, there are things that don’t work well using a public or partially public digital classroom. If your class is wholly online, a blog can still be your central space with linked branches leading to other tools, but it can’t be Walmart (or Blackboard), the home of one-stop shopping. You will have to put some thought into how you construct the class online and what tools you want to use (and how you want to use them). For example, time has taught me that student essays need some protection, otherwise you site becomes a harvesting ground for those who either don’t want to do their own writing or who want to profit from other people’s writing. That is why I love the workshop module in Moodle and the upload links. When I used blogs to house my courses, I had them turn in work off blog, either in person or via emailed attachment. Workshop was done on the blog, but drafts were drafts, and the work needed to make them polished was as expected–more than a harvester would be willing to invest in.

If I were using a blog now as the main classroom space, I would use something like a shared folder or upload link using Dropbox or Sugarsync for turning in work. Sugarsync especially has some neat options now and has the advantage of being open sources.

Another objection I received, although it was from someone involved with continuing ed which at that time mandated Blackboard, not some one who was faculty, was that blogs have no secure way to deliver grades, i.e., no functional grade book that is private. I pointed out then that I never used the grade book in Blackboard and kept my own spreadsheet, noting that students received grades (and comments!) on assessed work already and university students should have the mathematical smarts to computer their own grades. The reply was basically, but they LIKE it, it being the grade book. I do not doubt that. In the end, I guess I was okay with pushing the responsibility for keeping a running tally back onto the student. Ultimately, correctly calculating semester grades is always your responsibility as instructor, and I did not trust the Blackboard grade book, which had a lot of potential even then for error by well-meaning but math-impared writing instructors. As a past composition director, I had an inside view of just how badly the Blackboard grade book can misfire due to instructors not setting it up well. Grades are important. I like a simple spreadsheet that I keep in more than one place in case of catastrophe. You may feel differently.

Yet another objection to using a blog for digital classroom space is that it is inadequate for securing classroom materials. Let’s unpack that idea a bit. First, not all instructors feel that their classroom materials (assignment sheets, links) need to be “secured.” They are not only comfortable with sharing materials, they have an ethical imperative to share materials with those newer to teaching writing. For example, if someone lifts my Writing I textual Analysis assignment from my teaching space and does not give credit where credit is due (I use Creative Commons non-commercial attribution share-alike licensing), It is really no different from the person who does the same with the version of my analysis assignment that was published as “Textual Analysis.” in Marcy Carbajal Van Horn’s Teaching with Hacker Handbooks (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010. 4 pages, 840 words). However, ethical teachers share and ethical teachers cite. When I use an assignment originated by someone else, even when I significantly tailor the assignment, I add under the assignment title, “Based on an assignment originated by Chris Fabulous.” I think most instructors do that, or do it once the implications are pointed out to them.

So, how much you reveal about assignments online is up to you. My openness quotient is admittedly high. If you use the sidebars of the blog to link to other spaces, one of those spaces could be for materials. It looks like I could also do a post on how to use the cloud in writing classes, and if I do, I will link it here. Ultimately, how locked down your materials are depends on you.

At the same time, I am advocating a bit here for more openness and less of the locked-down lockbox metaphor for online education. Just writing this makes me more aware of just what I have given up by defaulting to password protected in Moodle. Don’t get me wrong, I still love Moodle and prefer it to past teaching solutions. SInce I am comfortable with paying for my own server space and having my own domain, Moodle was more than feasible. I can’t imagine not having my own online space, and choosing not to would make my scholarship far more difficult. I need space to try new things and space to house webtexts in progress so that peer reviewers can easily access them. At the same time, I think I need to look more deeply at the possible settings and see if I can craft  a space that is somewhere between all open and all closed

Choosing publicness has unexpected benefits. For example, those who teach more than one section of the same class and do it semester after semester, as is the case for many of my community college colleagues, can then set up one blog for all classes and let the participant level double or triple for workshop. When I did this, I also had students use pseudonyms on the blog, which I think is a good idea that I implemented after reading what Jill Walker Rettberg had to say about pseudonymous vs anonymous vs real name blogging on her blog, jill/txt. She later expanded her thoughts on this in her must-read book, Blogging. For me, using pseudonyms had the unexpected result of longer and more thoughtful feedback given for workshopped drafts. As one student told me in class (and the others agreed), it was far easier to give helpful and accurate feedback to a student who might be in a different class.  The little bit of online persona that the pseudonyms gave also added a bit of personality, a bit of fun to the class.

Finally, I chose to use blogs as my central digital classroom space for about ten years (and still do somewhat) because I simply did not like the alternatives. My primary alternative at the time was the 2003 version of Blackboard, which, upon reflection, is not in essentials that different from Blackboard today. It is still an excellent way to lock down education. If education is seen as private and perhaps a bit embarrassing in public, like flatulence, this setup makes sense. Also, if the classroom is seen as all or nothing in terms of privacy, i.e., everything public or everything locked down, this also makes sense. For example, in the past, FERPA has been cited as a reason to not use blogs at all or to at least make then password protected, completely invisible. Some even speculated that students seeing what was in essence each other’s homework in the form of blog posts was illegal disclosure. That view transposed to the face-to-face classroom would mean even allowing students to see each other’s draft for peer review in class, a standard practice, would violate FERPA, and we all know it does not. teacher assessments remain private in both settings. I haven’t heard that objection for a while and sincerely hope it is dead at last, but tropes in education seen to run in cycles, so it may surface again.

Perhaps the dominance of proprietary LMSs like Blackboard has changed how we envision a digital classroom, made us measure all against what I think of as the unwieldy behemouth paradigm. It does not have to be that way. Even when an instructor is teaching a wholly online class, the face-to-face component is still there (video! Skype! An old fashioned phone call!) and there is no need to have every single component and interaction housed in one spot. The advantages of publicness are too great to be cast aside for some overwrought idea of security. I will be taking another look at my Moodle settings and consider some changes for the fall semester. For those of you looking to set up your first digital classroom, whether it is wholly online, blended, or face-to-face, please consider all the options and know that it doesn’t have to be all locked or all open; there is middle ground and you as an instructor need to be the one making the choice, not a default setting on a learning management system.

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Author of the poetry collection The Tethered Ground and Professor of English at Missouri State University. Contact me for readings or for workshops on writing/publishing and on teaching writing online.

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