Updating the BlogRoll

The Center for Educational Resources launched The Innovative Instructor blog four years ago in September 2012. Recently, in my role as editor, I was checking over the pages and links to be sure that everything still worked. I realized that several of the blogs featured on the BlogRoll had ceased to be or were no longer being updated. Three down.

Screenshot of WordPress administrative menu to add new content.What to add? There are many good education-related blogs out there so it was difficult to narrow the choice to three. And I wanted to find candidates that didn’t overlap in too much in focus and philosophy. Here are the winners, which you can find linked on the right sidebar under BLOGROLL. Scroll down past RECENT POSTS, RECENT COMMENTS, ARCHIVES, and CATEGORIES.

Agile Learning is Derek Bruff’s blog on teaching and technology. Bruff is director of the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching and a senior lecturer in the Vanderbilt Department of Mathematics. He says about Agile Learning, “This is my blog, where I write about topics that interest me: educational technology, visual thinking, student motivation, faculty development, how people learn, social media, and more.” Recent posts have covered Teaching with Digital Timelines, Flipping the Literature Class, and In-Class Collaborative Debate Mapping, or How a Mathematician Teaches a Novel.

Pedagogy Unbound is a regular column covering pedagogical advice from Vitae, a service of The Chronicle of Higher Education. David Gooblar is the editor/columnist. Gooblar is a lecturer in the Rhetoric Department at the University of Iowa. He describes the site as a place for college instructors to share teaching strategies. Recent columns include Learning More About Active Learning, 4 Simple Ways to Help Them Persist, and Start Planning Now for Next Semester.

Faculty Focus  from Magna Publications “…publishes articles on effective teaching strategies for the college classroom — both face-to-face and online.” Magna Publications serves the higher ed community.  Faculty Focus covers a range of topics primarily teaching-related, but also things such as academic leadership, edtech news and trends, and faculty evaluation. There is a lot of useful content on the site from practical to pedagogical. The Teaching Professor Blog will be of particular interest with recent posts on What Does Student Engagement Look Like? and a follow-up Six Things Faculty Can Do to Promote Student Engagement.

If your summer “to do” list included catching up on new teaching strategies, these sites will provide you with plenty of inspirational reading material.

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Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Images source: Pixabay.com

Using a Course Blog as a Class Ice-Breaker

In the fall of 2014 I taught a course, Stuff of Dreams: How Advances in Materials Science Shape the World, in the newly created Whiting School of Engineering’s Hopkins Engineering Applications & Research Tutorials (HEART) program. The program introduces undergraduates to engineering research in specific disciplines in a small class taught by advanced graduate students or postdoctoral fellows. The classes meet once a week for two hours for six weeks. The challenge of teaching these one credit, pass/fail courses with no requirement of the students beyond class attendance, is getting the students engaged.

Image showing the word Blogs dropping onto a sheet of cracked ice.The students in my class were freshman, sophomores, and one junior. Not all were engineers, there was one from the School of Public Health. The students had a mix of backgrounds, interests, ambitions. With a two hour class session, I did not want to lecture; I wanted the classes to be discussion based. With no requirements to do assignments, I had to rely on intrinsic motivation to get students to do reading outside of class and participate in discussion.  My first priority was getting them engaged by relating materials science to their interests. I thought I could use a blog to determine what they wanted to learn.

In general, blogging can be an effective way for students to respond to course readings or to work collaboratively in groups. Blogs can also be used to improve students’ writing along with developing their critical and analytical thinking skills. In this case, I used blogs as a way to get to know my students and their interests, specifically as those intersect with materials science.

Materials science is a very broad field. My research uses computational methods based on quantum chemistry not likely to be accessible to beginning students. Before the course started I polled the students using a Google survey to determine which social media platform they would be willing to use. Facebook and Twitter were among the choices that students rejected. I decided to use a blog based on their responses. There are a number of options for blogging platforms, including Blackboard, which offers both course and individual blogs. I used Blackboard for other course materials, but the blog tool didn’t have some features I wanted, including making the blog available to the public, so that it would stand as a record and could be referred to after the course ended. WordPress is a free, easy-to-use option.

I introduced the blog in the first class session, asking the students to spend up to an hour outside of class to pick an area of interest, then research and post two links to resources on their topic on the blog. The students were then asked to do enough background reading on their topic to give a five minute presentation in class at what I called a Wikipedia level. When the students presented in the second class, I used the links they had provided to teach them how to think critically about information on the web. There was a wide range of content collected, everything from Buzzfeed lists to high-level research articles in scholarly journals. I asked the class how they could evaluate the materials. What claims were being made? Were sources cited? Were those sources credible? It was a good way to educate the students on evaluating content for research purposes, something they need to know as they move forward in their education. In this course, I didn’t ask the students to go through the exercise a second time to find better or more appropriate materials, but in a more traditional course, this could be a two-part exercise.

For the second blog assignment, the students were asked to go through the posts made by their peers, read some of the articles, and comment on them. This helped the students get to know each other and to see where their interests in materials science aligned. They engaged by commenting on each other’s posts. Because the students were determining the topics for discussion in these first couple of weeks, it meant that I was teaching on my feet to some extent. If I didn’t know the answer to a question, I would have the students do just-in-time research, using their laptops or other mobile devices right there in class to figure it out.

The blog worked very well as an icebreaker, getting students interested in the course content and engaged in discussions. Student interaction outside of class was another challenge for me, with the course running only six weeks. The blog provided a way for students to continue their work outside of class in a collaborative way. As researchers and instructors our work doesn’t stop at 5:00 PM, neither should class discussion be confined to the time students spend in the classroom. When students are reading they can immediately post what they are thinking, and their peers can respond with comments. This was the case even with the limited use of blogging in my HEART class, but could be even more effective if used throughout a traditional course. I certainly will use a course blog in the future, and have students write more extensively, perhaps in response to assigned readings. I like the idea of having them do peer review of classmates’ posts. Students seem take pride in their writing, especially when it is open to the public and judged by their peers.

Being able to give formative feedback to students for the first assignment was a valuable teaching strategy. I think the students benefited from gaining an understanding of how to evaluate content on the web.

From my perspective there were no disadvantages to using a blog. WordPress was easy to set up and the students found it intuitive to use. That said, there is a need to think about how you set up the WordPress or other blog instance. It is important to organize the pages so that students are clear on where to post each assignment. You will also want to consider what aspects of the blog to make public if that is applicable. As the site administrator you can make these choices. On my blog only the assignments, posts, and my comments are visible to the public; to view and post comments, users have to be registered. This prevents spam comments, which can be a problem. The blog can be seen at https://h2stuffofdreams.wordpress.com/.

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Anindya Roy,
Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Materials Science and Engineering, JHU

Anindya Roy received his Ph.D. in 2011 from Rutgers University. As a computational physicist, Roy’s primary research focus is on understanding materials important for energy harvesting, storage and management, using calculations based on quantum chemistry. Besides materials research, he is interested in teaching at the undergraduate level, and understanding the pedagogical aspects of physics and engineering education.

Note: This post has appeared previously in our Innovative Instructor print series: and in interview form in the Center for Educational Resources February 2016 edition of Research & Teaching Tools.

Image source: CC Reid Sczerba, Center for Educational Resources

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/