Getting Started: Tips for Starting Student Blogging

I began blogging with students in January 2013 at www.writinglives.org on a new third year undergraduate module in the English department at Liverpool John Moores University. Writing Lives developed out of my involvement with a research collaboration to establish a digital archive of working-class autobiography, beginning with the memoirs at Brunel University Library collected by John Burnett.

My students, I thought, could participate in preparing material for the prospective project’s website. To this end, I borrowed the ingenious ‘Adopt an Author’ model used by a pioneering digital project (1998-2009) at Sheffield Hallam University, where MA and final year undergraduate students produced material for an online journal, Corinne, using the Corvey collection of women’s writing.

Initially I didn’t envisage students publishing their work while studying the module but hoped that, if we got project funding, we could select good student work for the website. My plans changed when I found out about Jim Mussell’s ingenious Hacking about the Book module at Birmingham University where students acquire hands-on experience of digital humanities by contributing to an online class blog and reflecting on their learning in private individual blogs:

On Hacking the Book, blogging allowed students to write and publish digital text and, using the analytics software provided with most blogging platforms, see that it was being read around the world.  By making students blog, we make them think harder about the role of text, and the technologies that permit it to be read. Jim Mussell

This was my ‘Road to Damascus’ moment or, as I sometimes now see it, my ‘Road to Perdition’ moment. The scales fell from my eyes. If students were to produce materials for a public audience and learn online research skills, of course they should publish their work rather than keep it hidden in a Virtual Learning Environment!

In all sorts of ways, Writing Lives students (and now students on my second year Prison Voices module) have surpassed my expectations. Most relish the opportunity to write in a less formal style for a public audience, are professional and dedicated in their approach to blogging, and publish work which is lively, creative and informative. However, it’s a steep learning curve for them and me. Working on these modules has been the most rewarding experience of my teaching career but also the most challenging and time-consuming.

So, if you are considering using blogging as a form of learning and assessment, here are some initial do’s and don’ts, which we will expand on in subsequent posts.

Top tips for starting student blogging: 

Plan ahead

Take time to structure and resource the module long before you begin teaching. You will need to take into account the teaching facilities at your university.

Get support

Does your university have expertise in setting up or teaching blogging in the IT or Learning Support departments? If so, get to know these people and find out how they can help you.

Negotiate your timetable

This form of teaching is far more intensive than traditional seminar and lecture teaching, and feedback and marking require far more time than standard coursework. Can you get a reduced teaching load? Can you limit the number of students taking the module? Ideally, I would recommend 15 students per class, having taught 25 on Writing Lives and 50 on Prison Voices.

Is it possible to team teach?

Working as part of a team means you can share decision-making as well as the workload, talk over problems and solutions, and learn new expertise together.

Become a blogger first

Your students need to see examples of blogging. Writing your own blog means you can set standards appropriate for scholarly blogging but also understand the challenges they will face. Use the same blogging platform as your students.

Investigate different platforms

Is blogging the right platform for you or would a website or wiki be better? We’ll be exploring different options here.

Don’t expect your students to have digital awareness or skills

Most of my students have little or no experience of blogging or using social media outside their friendship circles and leisure activities. You will need to teach the basics. But don’t overlook those who have expertise. Make use of them and those who learn faster than you!

Be prepared to teach literacy as well as digital literacy

Blogging tools are similar to word-processing and fairly simple to learn. The real challenge is helping students improve their writing and research skills so that they can produce reliable and readable work, accessible to a general audience. Be ready to go back to basics.

Schedule lots of time for practicing, editing, and re-drafting

Begin with short blogging exercises so you can give early feedback and enable your students to practice new skills and hone their style.

Get your students to collaborate

Teach your students how to proof-read and copy-edit their own and each other’s blogs. This extends their skills and saves you work.

Involve your students

Make them responsible for promoting their own and each other’s work. Build this into assessment. 30% of the marks on my modules are for collaboration (group work, editing/peer review, dissemination via social media etc.). This helps build a sense of collective responsibility, respect and trust which also makes students individually more confident about sharing their work in public.

Build self-reflection into assessment

My students write a reflective blog on their experience of online research and blogging which they can choose to make public. This helps students become aware of their new skills and how they can transfer them. It also provides valuable evidence of student experience to feed into course design and developing digital learning across the degree programme etc.

Don’t take on too much

Whatever you do, don’t set up more than one blogging module consecutively. You will pay the price!

Any other advice

Please add your tips and warnings to comments below!

 

Coming soon

Discussion posts and resources for blogging in and beyond the classroom

If you would like to contribute to this site, please get in touch with Helen Rogers:  h.rogers@ljmu.ac.uk

4 thoughts on “Getting Started: Tips for Starting Student Blogging”

  1. This is very helpful advice. Students on my third-year module produce a seminar portfolio of four short essays of 1000 words on specific topics. I am wondering about reshaping this into four blog posts per student – perhaps using our virtual learning environment – Moodle – as the blog platform. Then, perhaps, selecting a range for publication on a public blog.

    The portfolio marking is already massively time-consuming, so I hope that blogging wouldn’t add too much – but I suppose setting out ‘how to write for a blog’ must be tricky.

    Anyway, I’m so glad of the advice you are publishing here.

    1. Thanks for your comment Joanne!

      It sounds like your current model could be adapted quite easily to incorporate blogging. We’ll be sharing experiences of blogging within Moodle in near future.

      When we mark coursework we tend to highlight a few issues for improvement. I try to work with students to make their blog as good as possible before publishing (perhaps I shouldn’t). That’s what takes up much of time. I’ll be talking through these issues re marking & editing in future posts.

      Getting students to identify what makes a blog interesting, informative and attractive by reading good ones (like your own) is great starting point for ‘how to write a blog’! And, as with all mediums, there’s more than one way to blog well!

      Glad to hear you are finding the site useful.

      Helen

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