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:
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.
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!
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: firstname.lastname@example.org