Using the Blog to Enhance Learning: Practical Applications

A large number of students today come to higher education with understandings and expectations of technology aligned with Web 2.0. Over eighty percent of Americans, ages 18–24 use social networking sites. (Smith, Rainie & Zickuhr, 2011) And surveys have shown that spending time on social networking is not always what we would think. And as it turns out, a study soon be published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, found that students who “frequently shared links on Facebook or checked the site to see what friends were up to tend to have higher grades.” (Ruiz, October 21, 2011)

Many colleges and universities are requiring laptops of all students, some universities even providing pre-loaded laptops. Students expect to utilize these laptops and Web 2.0 skills in their courses. (Orr, Sherony, & Steinhaus, 2008) Studies have shown that blogs have educational value in the classroom. (Churchill, 2011) About one in ten internet users contribute to a blog; one in three internet users read blogs. (Lenhart, Purcell, Smith, & Zickuhr, 2010 ) Therefore, a weblog is a viable social networking tool to introduce into the pedagogy of a course.

Blogs, or web logs, are useful to enhance teaching with a generation of students who are already using the internet and social networking. Blogs are usually free and easy to use. (Some blogs, such as WordPress, will remove the advertisements for a small fee.) There are no sophisticated skills required to set up a blog. In fact, most students are already familiar with blogs. Due to ease of use, even older students that initially have difficulties with the blog soon overcome these issues. (Churchhill, 2011) Blogs work well with other Web 2.0 skills and can include graphics, video, and hyperlinks. Most can accommodate RSS feeds, Flickr, Twitter, and uTube, among others. Therefore, blogs may be used in many constructivist activities and is useful in almost any classroom.

For educators, blogs require a minimum effort to create and maintain. The anytime- anywhere nature of the blog makes it easy for teachers to give fast feedback and display information for students to read before coming to class. An educator may store handouts on his/her blog and post reminders of upcoming assignments. The weblog is also useful for tracking participation. It not only is a forum for the shy to speak up, but also a system of giving everyone a chance to contribute. Opening and keeping track of student’s blogs is streamlined by using a RSS feed to directly collect the posts into a wiki or aggregator. In addition, each student’s weblog may be grouped together into a mini “blogosphere” by connecting the blogs with hyperlinks.

When appropriately managed by the educator or other facilitator, the blog supports teaching and student centered learning. A blog is a convenient tool for students to journal their learning processes. Because the blogs are archived, the postings are easily reviewed for progress as well as represent knowledge learned. Plus, the web based nature of the blog makes them easily accessible to peers for commentary. Over time, blog authors may form networks of conversations in the blogosphere and further learn from each other.

One of the most effective ways of achieving content goals and developing creative thinking skills is to find ways to engage students outside of the classroom. The blog may be used by students to discuss assignments, review peer work, and share results. A report by Daniel Churchill (2011)stated that students felt that the aspects of blogging that contributed most to their learning was the assessing and reading of other student’s blogs. Bloggers find that the environment in a blog creates a sense of community. A student publishes their writing in a blog for all the public to see. The blog fosters a sense of pride and gives a student a sense of worth as the blog is a platform for the blogger to have their opinions recognized.

A blog enhances the use of constructivist teaching philosophies by supplementing traditional activities with student involvement with the course material. Without the time constraints of the classroom, blogs give the student more time to improve their writing and reflect on the task given. Peer pressure is removed and students more reticent can speak up within the blog.

Utilizing blogs in the classroom is beneficial to teachers as well as students. By reading blogs, an instructor can see what students know and fill in the gaps. (Paulus, Payne, & Jahns, 2009) A problem of the classroom is focusing too much time on the mechanics and precious time on the conceptual understanding of the material. Students profess a lack of knowledge or preparedness as a reason for not participating in the classroom. (Mandernach, 2006) While reading can be effective in preparing students for class prior to the discussion, it is hard to enforce. Therefore, a large amount of class time is spent reviewing basic concepts rather than deeper discussion and critique. A blog can help shift the basic concepts out of class using a social adaptation of just-in-time teaching developed by Jude Higdon and Chad Topez (2009).

Just-in-time teaching utilizing blogs works like this. Every student has a blog and the instructor has a single digital location like a wiki or a RSS reader where the posts are aggregated. The evening before every class, students post on their blog the answer to the two questions below. The questions are not changed with content of the class and are not discipline specific.

[1.] What is the most difficult part of the material we will discuss in tomorrow’s class?

[2.] What is the most interesting part of the material or how does the material connect to something you have learned…?
(Higdon & Topaz, 2009)

The day of the class the educator reads the answers to the questions and adjusts class time to address the areas identified by the students as problem areas. The rest of the class is spent on higher learning. If the assignment is graded, students will likely do the assignment and supplying a rubric is helpful to obtain useful responses. (Higdon & Topaz, 2009) It should only take a few minutes to go over the posts; however, if the class is large and a teaching assistant is unavailable, it is possible to sample the responses as long as the students are unaware the posts are not being graded.

Another framework in which blogs can contribute to learning is the What, So What, and What Now technique developed by Gregory Gifford. (2010). This system uses blogs by requiring students to ask these three questions to enhance reflection and critical thinking.

What?   The student address the facts without judgement or interpretation.

So What? Students interpret meanings, describe emotions, state the impact and why they came to that conclusion.

Now What?   The student considers the big picture and the broader implications.

This study showed that bloggers using this method of reflection more consistently meet the objectives of the assignment than students that were simply given questions provided by the instructor. (Gifford, 2010)

There are some drawbacks to blogging in course work. Unless the instructor plays a key role, the blog may be superfluous. Students participate better when they are graded and are provided detailed requirements and expectations from the blogs. (Churchill, 2011) It may take practice for students to understand how to think critically. For high quality discussions, the instructor needs to be present to model the dialogue between the students and to provide feedback. (Churchill, 2011)

Some students may have privacy concerns using a blog. They may be uncomfortable with their thought in a forum where anyone can read them. Some may feel that their thoughts are silly, or not good enough. (Churchill, 2011) If this is an issue, the blog may be made private so that a user has to log in in order for the post to be accessed.

Used correctly, social networking does not need to be a distraction to learning. Rather than discouraging student from using a technology that they engage with daily, the instructor can leverage this technology to deepen comprehension, reinforce retention, and create a broader virtual classroom.

Reference

Churchill, D. (2011). Web 2.0 in education: A study of the explorative use of blogs with a postgraduate class. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 48(2) 149-158. Routledge

Gifford, G.T. (2010, Winter) A modern technology in the leadership classroom: Using blogs for critical thinking development. Journal of Leadership Education, 9(1).

Higdon, J. & Topaz, C. (2009, Spring) Blogs and wikis as instructional tools: A social software adaptation of just-in-time teaching. College Teaching, 57(2). Washington, DC: Heldref Publications.

Lenhart A., Purcell, K., Smith, A. & Zickuhr, K. (Feb 3, 2010) Social Media and Young Adults. Pew Internet. Retrieved from: http://pewinternet.org/topics/Blogs.aspx

Mandernach, B.J. (2006). Thinking critically about critical thinking: Integrating online tools to promote critical thinking. Insight 1.

Orr, C., Sherony, B., & Steinhaus, C. (2008, June). Student perceptions of the value of a university laptop program. College Teaching Methods & Styles Journal.vol 4,(6).

Paulus, T. M., Payne, R. L., & Jahna, L. (2009, Spring). “Am I making sense here?” What blogging reveals about undergraduate student understanding. Journal of Interactive Online Learning Vol 8(1) ISSN: 1541:4914

Ruiz, R.R. (October 21, 2011) Facebook’s impact on student grades. The New York Times.
Retrieved from: http://thechoice.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/10/21/fbook-grades/

Smith, A., Rainie, L., & Zickuhr, K. (Jul 19, 2011) College students and technology. Pew Internet Retrieved from
http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2011/College-students-and-technology/Report.aspx

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