Stepping into the Dark: Reflections on Using a Blog in Teaching

Blog on MHIS201

In semester 1 this year I introduced a new piece of assessment into my 200-level Modern History unit – what I called a reading blog. It was weighted at 20% and students had to complete the blog every week, bar week 1. They were required to read two articles on a particular theme and then complete the blog. In the blog they were required to answer a question which I had set (sometimes they could choose between two questions) in no more than 200 words. In addition, they had to pose a question to their peers. My questions were generic and designed to enable the students to use both readings in their responses. This activity was in preparation for a weekly seminar.

The reason I did this was because I wanted to encourage student’s engagement with the readings in a way which developed analytical and critical thinking skills as well as reflection and inquiry. I was hoping that this would have a positive impact on seminar participation and engagement. I developed a rubric around 4 key learning criteria: demonstrated reading, comprehension, communication and engagement. Obtaining a D or HD in the latter required consistent ‘presence’ and engagement in the space, interaction and interest in content and peers, sharing of knowledge and a high level of inquiry. Responding to peer questions was part of this.

This was unchartered terrain for me and I wasn’t sure how it would go. I wasn’t particularly optimistic that the students would take to it or that it would necessarily achieve what I hoped it would. Yet, I was pleasantly surprised. From the start, the students participated enthusiastically. It was quite an energized space. The question to peers was, for me, the most encouraging aspect. From time to time there would be similar sounding questions but, most of the time, the questions were unique to each student and really thoughtful and interesting. Notably, although they could see each other’s responses to the key blog question, none of them were repetitive or copied.

In terms of marking it, I treated it as a cumulative exercise. They could use the rubric but they would only get their mark at the end. Rather than assign an individual mark each week, I calculated a mark out of 100 for the entire semester’s contributions per student. I did provide feedback along the way, encouraging more peer responses to questions and letting them know how heartened I was by the activity in the blog space. Indeed, I was positively enthused by it.

Having to do these marks at the end of the teaching was a bit of a hike but, with only 42 students, manageable. The set-up helps, too, as you can use ‘participation by user’ and you see a list of all students with an instant tally of their posts and comments across the semester. Clicking on a student allows you to scroll through their individual posts collectively. My sense is that, providing you have tutors and can put students into groups, the activity would be manageable in a bigger unit too.

Overall, as a convenor, I was greatly encouraged by the reading blogs. There were at least three clear benefits from my perspective. For the first time, I could see that students were reading and I could see that they were comprehending and sifting the readings to answer the question. The responsiveness, in some ways, surprised me. Of course, not everyone responded to all 12 weeks. Noticeably, by the last weeks, fewer were doing the blogs but there were also the regulars. When I do this again, I will change the requirements for the exercise reducing the number they have to do and the number I will select for marking. Most did their blogs prior to the seminar but, in some cases, they were completed in retrospect.

Secondly, I think they made for better class-room participation and engagement. From time to time we would use them in class and from time to time discussion turned to them in class. The external students were required to do the blog as well, so it meant that the internal and external students were in communication. Occasionally, the blog questions and comments would be raised in the online discussion forum as well. When I do this again, I will more actively use these questions as part of class-room/online activities. I might have a ‘question of the week’ or something along those lines.

Thirdly, I think the blogs helped build community. The better ones interacted with each other in the space and responded to peer questions. One or two even posted extra things: images, maps, etc, to help illustrate their points. One student regularly drew connections between what we were exploring that week and contemporary politics and issues which related. From quite early on I wondered whether I should intervene in the space but, as it turned out, I didn’t. I now think this was a good thing. Having to create a question for peers meant that the students were interacting with each other even before they got to class. Because many students have laptops, the blogs also acted as a set of notes, useful for discussion and reference.

The other thing that was noticeable was the way the assessment helped raise some student’s marks. Where they might not have been as strong in their research essays (with the biggest weighting), this activity pulled some students up. That which is sometimes harder to gauge in terms of engagement and participation became visible. Without it, they might well have gone the other way with their marks. This was really important for me because, although weighted differently, the skills on display were unlike those in a research essay but as important.

One of the most revealing aspects of the blogs was the way students would often turn my blog question around or on its head. For context: this unit was focused on Australian history, in particular, indigenous-settler relations from 1750. This time I taught it in comparative frame. Three examples of questions (my generic blog question followed by student generated question) are:

Week 3: Frontier Conflict
Me: Why don’t we recognize war on our own soil?
Student: The US recognizes wars with the native American Indians across the period of frontier expansion. Why does Australia categorise Indigenous conflict differently?

Week 12: Sovereignty
Me: Why do you think recognizing Indigenous sovereignty is so difficult?
Student: Is the concept of Indigenous sovereignty in itself flawed in that its legitimacy rests on the institutions of the sovereign power from which it seeks recognition?

Week 13: Indigenous Societies Today
Me: Can the Australian government learn from other government’s ways of recognizing Indigenous peoples?
Student: Why was the process of restitution in Canada so vastly different to that in Australia?

This was the first time I did this and there are things I will tweak the second time round but, on the whole, the results were pleasing. What struck me most was how putting the power in student’s hands to set the agenda and ask the questions can have surprising and gratifying results.

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