Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Blogging in the Classroom: Results of an Experiment...

For years now, academics have touted the potential of blogs as a learning tool. They can foster discussion and dialogue among students and, as a low-stakes form of writing, may also help improve writing skills and develop a stronger understanding of the course content.

The only problem... no one knows if they actually work.

As an educator, I've grown increasingly frustrated with the complete lack of quantitative data on the subject. There does not exist any research study on the value of blogs on the classroom, only hypothesizing and conjecture.

This summer I sought out to address this. Here are the details of my experiment... Teaching three sections of "U.S. Government & Politics", each with approximately 35 students, I assigned one of the three main blogging methods to each section as a required part of the curriculum.

  1. Method #1 - There is one class blog. The instructor writes the posts, and the students are required to leave comments on those posts.

  2. Method #2 - There is one class blog. The students are required to write at least one original post, and also to leave comments on other student's posts.

  3. Method #3 - There is no class blog, but instead each student creates and maintains their own blog. Students are required to write original posts on their own blog as well as leave comments on their classmates' blogs.

I'm currently in the process of analyzing the quantitative data that resulted from implementing each method in each class section. What I'm interested in discovering is to what extent blogging affected, or did not affect, students' 1) formal writing assignment grades and 2) grades on exams, which focus on course content.

Here's a preview of the results. First of all, Method #3 was a complete waste of time and I strongly urge other instructors to never even consider it. The topics of the students' blog posts were all over the place, directionless, and, consequently, the comment-based discussion, never got off the ground. Many students spent more time playing with the blog's graphic design than on the content itself.

On the other hand, Method #1 was fabulous, and this is what I'll be implementing again in my classrooms in the future. Since only the instructor was writing the posts, those posts were able to stay on topic and focus on themes covered in class. Students' comments, as a result, also largely stayed on topic, and several students expressed how the activity clarified ideas for them in writing their formal term paper. Many also seemed to enjoy having a venue to express their opinions on political issues to an audience, despite occurring within the limits of academic guidelines.

Finally, Method #2 came out somewhere in the middle. Having the one class blog translated into the students staying focused on the content of the blog assignment, rather than being distracted with design and maintenance, and that's a positive thing. However, similar to Method #3, the freedom to write original posts led to students often veering quite a bit off topic (at least from my instructor's perspective). While I wasn't thrilled at that development, the bright trade-off was that students were far more active in leaving comments on each other's posts, often going far beyond the minimum requirements of the assignment. This terrific bottom-up discussion and dialogue took on a life of its own which, while it may not have always been ideal as far as the course material, is nevertheless one of blogging's principle characteristics and, in that sense, was still quite worthy.

In conclusion, to any instructors out there, my experiment doing a comparative analysis of all three methods of blogging in the classroom leads me to recommend, whole-heartedly, Method #1. Actual quantitative data to follow shortly...



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