Contributed by Kevin Howley, Associate Professor of Media Studies in the Department of Communication and Theater (Ph. D. Indiana University, 1997)
When it comes to using new communication technologies, students often have the upper hand on teaching faculty. By the time they walk into a college classroom–ear buds in place, laptops fired up, and cell phones at the ready–our students are immersed in digital culture. The generational difference between today’s tech savvy students and teachers of, shall we say, a more mature vintage, can be daunting and not a little intimidating.
While my generation grew up with manual typewriters, vinyl records, and party-line telephones, this generation grew up in front of the computer, downloading MP3s from the Internet, and text messaging one another across the schoolyard. Without putting too fine a point on it, today’s wired students know a thing or two about connectivity that we children of the analog era could only dream of.
In saying this, I’m not being at all dismissive of technological innovation, or of the students who use these tools. Recent developments in communication and information technologies are truly astounding and their potential for enhancing teaching and learning must be harnessed, not ignored. My aim in this brief article, then, is to relate some of my impressions about using weblogs (blogs, for short) in some of my course work. This semester marks my third foray into using blogs in my classes and I daresay that I have learned a thing or two about how to maximize the effectiveness of this medium in the context of the liberal arts tradition.
Luddites Need Not Apply
The wired campus is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, I appreciate the utility of students making use of the Internet for basic research while sitting at their desks. On the other hand, I’m far less sanguine about students’ tendency to do a bit of online shopping while I am conducting class. But this is not a technical problem per se. This is simply a matter of classroom management, a skill set that most faculty have mastered over the course of their teaching careers.
Conversely, the technical proficiency of individual faculty members varies considerably. Some faculty members are quite comfortable with new technologies and make excellent use of these tools in their course work. Others are less comfortable with anything beyond word processing and email.
Whether you feel intimidated by new technologies or simply don’t see the need to incorporate such tools into your teaching, I’d urge faculty to give it a go. Students take to blogging quite readily and with proper incentives–a topic I will address presently–class participants make good use of a blog to expand their knowledge of course content, extend class discussions outside of the classroom, and relate course content to their daily lives and experience.
The thing about blogging is that you don’t need specialized technical skills to put together a fine learning resource for your classes. If you are familiar with WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) text editors, common to all of the popular word processing programs, then you are “good to go.” What’s more, blogging software, like the WordPress program in use on the DePauw campus, is very easy to use. In addition, you can choose from a variety of templates to give the blog a professional look and feel. That said, if you need assistance, the good folks at FITS are always available for consultation, training and technical support.
The real fun starts when students incorporate multi-media elements–audio files, still images, and embedded video–into their posts. The web really is worldwide and students are willing and able to find material that relates directly to course content. In this respect, students are, quite literally, making the sort of connections between abstract concepts and real world examples that demonstrate their ability to think critically: the very stuff of liberal arts education.
Learning Communities 2.0
My motivation for creating a class blog stems from a longstanding desire to get students engaged with course content beyond the confines of the classroom and curriculum. I have had limited success using email distribution lists for such purposes, but I have found blogging to be far superior in this regard. That said, whatever success I have had has been part of an iterative process of trial and error.
For instance, in spring 2007 I had students conduct research on various issues in media and cultural policy. Working in small groups (4-5 people), students were responsible for investigating policy debates surrounding topics such as radio payola, low power FM, commercialization, net neutrality, and the rise of so-called fake news. As part of the blog roll–a list of links to external web sites–I pointed students toward a number of online resources such as the FCC, the bipartisan media reform group Free Press, and the Canadian magazine Adbusters, to name a few. Finally, students were encouraged, but not required, to post findings and short observations to the blog.
Some students took to the blog, and the multi-media and viral capacity therein, others less so. What I found was that in the absence of strict requirements, the blog would be under-utilized. The following semester, I altered the assignments and made posting to the blog a course requirement. Specifically, I required students to post no fewer than 5 substantive posts to the blog. While this new requirement fostered greater use of the blog, the majority of students waited until the end of the semester to post their thoughts to the blog. And only a handful of students felt the need to comment on one another’s posts, despite my repeated requests that they do so.
This semester, I believe I have hit upon the right formula to get students writing and reading blog posts. In the context of a writing intensive course, I felt I had the license to require students to post one substantive (500-700 word) essay per week to the class blog. I also require students to post two short (150-200 word) comments to another student’s work per week. While I do not have 100% compliance, the majority of students are thoroughly engaged in this ongoing exercise.
For instance, this semester we are looking at the rise of infotainment, or the blurring of news and entertainment. Students have located all sorts of material that illustrates this trend in contemporary media culture. Aside from embedded video from the likes of The Daily Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live!, students have posted examples of “happy talk” and celebrity news from traditional news outlets. In doing so, students are engaging in a thoughtful conversation about the state of contemporary journalism and the implications of all of this on democratic values and processes.
What’s more, students are discovering for themselves the value of diversifying their news sources. Students have posted items from foreign, alternative and independent news outlets that consistently produce hard-hitting investigative reports and first-rate analysis of the sort that is becoming increasingly rare in US news media. And in a recent post, one student offered her classmates a primer on Twitter, the popular social networking service, along with an explication of how this latest technology is being used for newsgathering and dissemination.
This last instance is illustrative of the community-building capacity of blogs. Nowhere is this dynamic more visible than in the comments section of the blog. Here, students respond to one another’s posts in a civil and, more often than not, an intellectually engaged fashion. The comments section encourages readers to become writers–an especially useful dimension of blogging in the context of a writing intensive course. That said, blogging should not be limited to writing intensive courses. Any course that is designed to promote critical thinking and self-reflection would benefit from a class blog.
To be clear, blogging is only one type of writing assignment I employ in this course. Blog posts are an instance of what writing instructors refer to as “low stakes” writing. In tandem with “no stakes” writing–in-class exercises that provide the basis for class discussion–and “high stakes” writing such as term papers, blogging offers students and instructors alike an opportunity to discuss course content outside of and in addition to class time. In so doing, blogging becomes a new tool for building and nurturing learning communities that support the goals and values of liberal arts education for the 21st century.