Using Blogging as a Learning Tool

With the increased interest in introducing digital literacy skills in the classroom as a means of preparing students for the 21st century marketplace, our teaching and learning center has had more questions from faculty about using blogs as a teaching tool. The Innovative Instructor doesn’t advocate using technology for technology’s sake, but student blogging can be a way to achieve several learning outcomes for your course.

Diagram of interactions: Student Blogs-Classroom-Comments

CC Jeff Utecht: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jutecht/

For example, blogs can be used to improve student writing, especially for developing skill in analysis and critique. The blog format is particularly useful for shorter, less formal, assignments. Blog platforms allow for inclusion and display of multimedia, which may offer an advantage over paper submissions. Blogs provide a means for student response to or discussion of outside-of-class readings that are not adequately covered during class. They can be useful as a forum for group projects, or act as a collaborative authoring tool for students to develop and present a group assignment or project.  Blogs can be a place where students reflect on readings, much as analog journaling was used as a pedagogical tool in the past.

In order to achieve your curricular goals you could use individual student blogs (each student has his or her own blog), group blogs for team projects, or a class blog to which everyone contributes.

The Innovative Instructor gathered some tips for ensuring that implementing blogs in your class will be a success.

The most comprehensive advice comes from the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Professor Hacker blog columnist Mark Sample (assistant professor of literature and new media at George Mason University) in a somewhat tongue in cheek commentary entitled A Better Blogging Assignment.  Sample claims to be sick of student blogging, but then goes on to provide very useful guidelines for different ways of using blogs as a pedagogical tool. In fact, Sample is looking “for ways to re-invigorate [his] blogging assignments.” He outlines methods for structuring blog assignments using all of the course blog types (individual, group, class), and recommends having a schedule or assignments for posting and commenting. He advises being detailed in your expectations and provides this example of student guidelines:

Each student will contribute to the weekly class blog, posting an approximately 200-300 word response to the week’s readings. There are a number of ways to approach these open-ended posts: consider the reading in relation to its historical or theoretical context; write about an aspect of the day’s reading that you don’t understand, or something that jars you; formulate an insightful question or two about the reading and then attempt to answer your own questions; or respond to another student’s post, building upon it, disagreeing with it, or re-thinking it.

Read the post and the comments and don’t be disheartened by Sample’s momentary discouragement with ways in which he is using blogging assignments.

From the Georgetown University blog Initiative on Technology-Enhanced Learning – Engaging Students through Blogs in Large Classes comes this idea.

For his introductory course on the U.S. political system, which enrolls nearly 150 students, Mark Rom turned to a course blog to help stimulate class discussion and personal interaction among students. Because class discussion can be intimidating in such a large course, Rom decided to integrate a course blog into his curriculum in order to ensure that all students had the opportunity to engage in meaningful discussion about American politics.

As a side note, instructors should consider making blog participation a percentage of the grade to encourage student use.

Course blogs are often thought of as a way to provide an authentic learning experience. And yet the product often falls short of the promise. Read Using Blogs in a College Classroom: What’s Authenticity Got To Do With It? by Sarah Lohnes,  a doctoral candidate at the Teachers College of Columbia University. She cites the following “necessary ingredients” for creating effective class blogs:

  1. Blog posts should be original, “well-crafted,” “well- informed”.
  2. [There should be] an authentic purpose for maintaining the blog.
  3. A blog should offer a window into the author’s identity and community affiliations.
  4. A blog should take advantage of the medium to offer a sense of immediacy and intimacy.

Faculty have shared some lessons learned from experience with course blogs. Hillary Miller, Baruch College of CUNY, in her post Lessons from a First-Time Course Blogger talks about the “out of sight, out of mind syndrome” noting that “the blog can feel like that side dish you ordered but weren’t quite hungry for. It’s easy to lose track of the blog, and its implementation should be planned with an eye towards avoiding this. “… I had good intentions – I wanted to comment on posts frequently, but commenting is time-consuming…. From the student side, they were assigned a date for one post; once students posted, they didn’t have a strong incentive to return, which would leave me begging them to “visit the blog!” when I myself was embarrassingly behind on reading their old posts.” In other words, set specific expectations for students’ blog assignments and for how often you will grade or comment on their posts.

Miller writes that students not always comfortable with new-to-them instructional technologies and methodologies. She suggests “[m]aking some class time available to teach students the rhyme and reason behind some aspects of the blog is arguably essential, and yet somehow easy to overlook.” Letting students know why you are having them blog is a key to successful implementation.

Finally, what platform should you use? Here at Johns Hopkins, we have Blackboard, which has a built in blogging tool that can be customized for individual or group work and can be made private (between instructor and individual or group) or public – in the sense of being available for the entire class – not to the outside world. Course blogs, where all students contribute to a shared blog, are also an option. Other Learning Management Systems (LMS) offer similar tools. If you are looking for a more “authentic” experience or don’t have an LMS or blogging application at your institution, there are free, public options available. WordPress and Google’s Blogger are two popular ones. WordPress, in particular, offers the ability to easily create a full-fledged website. For facilitating multimedia assignments, tumblr might be a good choice. If you want more options, Six Revisions ( a website with useful information for web developers and designers) offers a list and descriptions of the Top Ten Free Online Blogging Platforms.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources


Image Source: CC Jeff Utecht,  http://www.flickr.com/photos/jutecht/

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