From the History and Technology column of the May 2007 Perspectives
Blogging for Your Students
David Voelker, May 2007
Historians commonly use the World Wide Web to enhance their courses. In so many ways, the internet has moved us "into an era of abundance," as John McClymer points out in his insightful AHA Guide to Teaching and Learning with New Media.1 Scholars and students alike can use the Web to access a wealth of primary and secondary sources. Furthermore, over the past several years the Web has evolved into what technophiles call the "read-write web" or the "Web 2.0," which refers to the internet's newly enhanced capability to serve as a nexus for sharing and collaboration. The weblog, or "blog," is one of many recent innovations that instructors can use to interact with students. A blog is a web site that easily allows an author—or many authors—to make regular updates in the form of log entries, which are automatically archived as new material is posted. Like most web sites, blogs often include links to outside materials, and they are easily searchable. Crucially, most blogs also allow readers to comment, thereby enabling interaction with the author and other readers. Blogging has achieved rapid popularity: between early 2006 and early 2007, the number of blogs tracked by Technorati (a blog indexer) mushroomed from just under 25 million to over 66 million (one of these new blogs was the AHA's own "AHA Today"). Because of their ease of use, their public and archivable nature, and their ability to foster interaction, blogs have excellent potential as teaching tools.
I have been blogging for my students for two semesters, and I am convinced that it is worth the effort (for them and me alike). For certain purposes, the blog has significant advantages over e-mail and over the Web-based course platform that I use for tracking grades and managing uploads and downloads. Blogs are open to the public, which means that students and colleagues can visit the site without worrying about password barriers. Furthermore, when students post comments, as I encourage them to do, they do so with the recognition that they are making public statements. As a result, I have noticed that their comments are more thoughtful and substantial than they usually are in walled-off online discussions. Another advantage is that any internet user can conveniently access archived blog entries through category lists, keyword searches, and hyperlinks.
Currently, I blog primarily to communicate with students before class in order to help them grapple with assigned readings. Because my blog serves multiple purposes, I do not use it to publicize course minutiae (due dates, word limits, and so on), although one could use a blog dedicated to a single course for that purpose. Nor do I intend my blog posts to achieve brilliance or profundity. Rather, I find that blogging for students requires self-restraint. A blog does not make a good substitute for a lecture. Blog posts work much better, I think, to guide students to some important questions that they can begin to pursue as active readers and that they can continue considering in class discussion and in subsequent assignments. In short, I try to craft blog entries that will increase student engagement, both outside and inside the classroom. My students seem to appreciate the guidance that I offer through my blog, especially for difficult readings. Additionally, I can ask students to elaborate on their blog comments in class as a way to prime discussion.
The most straightforward way to use an instructor blog is to require students to read your postings prior to class. To make this requirement more useful, you can give students credit for making comments in response to your posts. (Again, this is a good way to encourage students to think about readings prior to class.) Students may need guidance on what constitutes a good comment, so you might want to post a model.2 More elaborate assignments are easy to imagine. To help students understand the connections between the past that you are studying and the present within which they live, you might make regular "in the news" posts to briefly situate news stories within the context of your course. You could send students to online news stories to get more detail and ask them to report back with a comment. Alternatively, you could design an online "historical dig" by providing links to a set of primary sources. You could thereby guide students' inquiries as they examine sources, and they could report back their various findings via comments. You could also use a blog to bring new perspectives to your course by inviting a "guest expert" to interact with your students. (The guest need not be a historian; a biologist or astronomer, for instance, could help students understand some aspect of the history of science, such as evolution or Newtonian physics.)
Of course, writing a blog entry a couple of days before class (so that students can read it) takes time. I have found, however, that the effort is worthwhile. If I spend 30 minutes reflecting on the reading, gathering my thoughts, articulating them, and formulating several essential questions, I am mentally prepared for class. Furthermore, the blog entry is an investment that can pay off in future semesters, as it can be used to review before class, and it can be revised and reused as needed. At the end of the semester, the dedicated teacher-blogger will have a well-organized set of reflections on the course material.
There are additional advantages to having an instructional blog site that may not be immediately apparent. Blogs have a flexible interface that allows users to sort contents by blogger-assigned categories and to search using keywords. I am using my blog as a repository of instructions, advice, and supplementary information for my students. In addition to making posts about Louis Menand's Metaphysical Club, for instance, I have a number of posts that give advice and instruction about writing historical essays. The blog gives me an efficient way to keep these and other instructional materials up to date and readily available. The online format also has an advantage over paper, because I can include helpful links to more information.
Creating a Blog
Fortunately, setting up a blog is fairly simple (see, for example, Manan Ahmed, "Blogging: It's Easier Than You Think!" in the May 2005 Perspectives). There are dozens of free blog hosts available on the Internet. Good choices for education users include Wordpress, Edublogs, and Blogger. The easiest way to set up a blog is to use one of these free blogging services, which provide both web-hosting and templates for blog layout. If you know what you want to title your blog, you can set up a free blog in a matter of minutes. (Before doing so, however, you should check with your campus information technology staff, because they may already be running blogging software on your campus server.) Because your blog will be public, you should include an "About" or "Profile" page that will establish your credentials. Blogging is a form of self-publishing, and you may find that colleagues and students, known and unknown to you, visit your site.
James Farmer, founder of Edublogs, recently enjoined educators: "[Blogs] are the tools that people are using, and they are using them for a reason. And that reason is that they help us communicate better. And if we as educators believe that the primary form of learning takes place through communication, in a socially constructed way, we have to pay attention to these tools."3 Blogging for your students provides a way for you to become comfortable with blogging technology, but you may find that it is only a starting point. The next step, pedagogically speaking, may be to get your students themselves blogging.
—David Voelker teaches history and humanistic studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. He is the proprietor of "Historytools.org: Resources for the Study of American History," and he blogs for his students at http://expostfacto.historytools.org. For an expanded list of resources on instructor blogging, see http://expostfacto.historytools.org/blogging-for-your-students.
2. For a model comment of my own design, see http://expostfacto.historytools.org/anatomy-of-a-comment.
3. James Farmer, "Blogs as Personal Learning Environments," April 2, 2006. Screencast available at www.higheredblogcon.com/index.php/blogs-as-personal-learning-environments. Accessed February 10, 2007.