Friday, August 28, 2009

Teaching with blogs - first impressions

Given that I've been blogging for four and a half years, it may be surprising that this semester is the first class I've taught where the students have blogs. Actually, it's not much of a surprise. I had only one prior opportunity, since I don't teach so frequently, and in that prior effort, a course in economic principles for honors students, I didn't see how to fit in my approach (I had taught the course one time previously) with blogging.

This time around I'm teaching a newly created course of my own design and I wanted the students to do reflective writing as a way for them to make for their own what we are reading and talking about in class. And I wanted students to be able to read and comment on the reflections of other students. Then, too, I wanted to be able to showcase what they produce. So blogs seemed a natural here on all counts.

What follows are some observations one week into the course. I'm going to lead in with some emotional/psychological issues and then turn to the the straight technology things. I'm more intrigued by the former. I know that people sometimes find this blog for the latter, so I'll do it both ways.

Having recently finished a chapter of my book where I argued that every instructor needs to be a pied piper to draw the students in, I believe I put myself under some self-imposed pressure to do likewise for this class and felt a need for the students to react favorably to it from the get go. It may also be that I'm a little out of practice with making public performance. At the Learning Technology Leadership Program back in July, I had a huge adrenalin rush during my first session, which was a sidebar on budgets. I hadn't planned to be that intense. Sometimes the emotions seem to have a mind of their own. In that session I felt inside like a rhinoceros on a charge. Fortunately it was right before lunch and I got to chat with some of the attendees during the meal, so I was calmer though still with the adrenalin pumping during the session Shelli Fowler and I did that immediately followed.

My first class session was this past Monday and again there was a big adrenalin rush. The class ends just before 2 PM. I was still pretty wired after 5. The first hour of that class session I believe worked very well. In advance I wondered what it would take to get the students to participate in the discussion. There was a very brief warming up period where we felt each other out. Then they all seemed ready to jump right in. That' the pleasure of teaching very good and committed students. They want to participate and welcome the discussion.

After the break I went into presentation mode to show them the class Web site and to explain to them their immediate obligations for getting ready for the Wednesday class and for getting their first reflection piece done. That went less well. There are only 18 students in the class and when we're in discussion mode the physical distance between me and any student is not that great. I'm more remote when standing behind the technology cabinet, which in this room is in the corner, and some of the students had to change their seats and move to the back of the room so they wouldn't be so close to the screen and could then see the projected image. Also, I pretty much talked the whole time through this part, so had no feedback from them till the end about whether I was reaching them. As I mentioned in my previous post, I made some flubs during this presentation because as an oversight I hadn't tagged some of my syllabus posts that I had planned to show but ultimately did not. There has been a fair amount of traffic on the site since, indicating the students are able to the roll with the punches and figure stuff out on their own.

I'm a bit more fragile than they are and I believe that experience made me feel on the defensive. For Wednesday's class, where we discussed the micro credit idea of Muhammad Yunus, I found myself defensive for a different reason. The early part of the discussion went fine and I felt in control. As we pushed on the topic there was a need to get into more detail on some issues and I couldn't recall much of that. The students were better informed than I was and I felt a loss of control. I should say here that I don't ever recall having that feeling in teaching an undergraduate class in economics. But this is not an economics course. It is a course of my own creation called Designing for Effective Change. Conceptually, I believe I have a reasonably good plan for how we will proceed in the course. But I don't have as intimate a connection with the readings we will do as I should have. Most everything on the reading list I've read for the first time in the last two years. The general sense of the pieces survives in my memory. The specific narratives do not.

There is the further matter that I hadn't fully scheduled the student activities for the course ahead of time. I knew what work I wanted them to do. But I hadn't thought through due dates for projects and whether I'd be over burdening them from time to time with too much work in a small time window. After going to the dentist, scheduling might be my least favorite thing to do. So I procrastinated in doing it. The students, however, wanted that information straight away. I didn't fulfill that need immediately. (I hope to do that at the next class on Monday.) Noting that contributed to my being defensive.

I committed to making comments on each of their reflections the first couple of weeks. About a third have completed the first round. The rest should get them done this evening. I became aware that my feeling defensive was making it harder for me to write comments. I felt a need to validate my approach with the reflective writing, though more objectively my first responsibility was and remains to put the students at ease so they can do their best work. For one student who appeared to be struggling, I spent an inordinate amount of time to write just a few short paragraphs. This student may very well need some introductory rhetoric instruction. I had read Stanley Fish's piece earlier in the week where he argued that many students don't seem properly trained to write understandable sentences I felt inadequate to respond to the need. What I wrote for this student seemed very strained to me.

Then yesterday, going through the rest of the syllabus and not being satisfied with one of the readings I selected on Double Loop Learning, I eventually found this paper by Chris Argyris on The Executive Mind and Double Loop Learning. It helped me frame the issue. I was using what he calls Model 1, trying to create a situation where I win and am not at risk. I needed to embrace Model 2, an open inquiry where we are free to put our cards on the table and work things out together. I know that in the past I've felt that my friends who teach writing are among the most generous intellectually, constantly being a cheer leader for the works of others, making them feel appreciated. Only when that base has been established do they take on issues with the student writing. I've vowed to embrace that approach and have tried to do so in commenting on subsequent student posts. I'm curious whether I can maintain that commitment and if doing so eventually becomes second nature. At present I'm still self-conscious about it.

Let me turn to the technology itself. After considering a few other options, Ning for one, WordPress for another, I opted to use Blogger for the course blog and let the students choose their own blogging site for their reflections. I did this because I was already quite familiar with Blogger and knew how to set up a site with the features I wanted. There were a lot of tasks to do; I didn't want to spend the time learning a new software even if it ultimately would be more feature rich. As a consequence of this choice, most of the student blogs are also in Blogger. A couple are in WordPress.

Probably the biggest single issue in doing this was giving the students the option to have a site in the Campus Learning Management System, which I did, but then praying that none would exercise the option. If some students are in the LMS and others are making public blogs, that might work FERPA-wise, but it will retard the ability to have students read and react to other student posts and it will make it much harder for the class to become a community. I had one close call on this score. Fortunately, the student who had asked for the site in the LMS was sensitive to what I was trying to accomplish teaching-wise and understood the technology well enough to learn that she could have her blog without the search engines directly indexing it. Also, around that time another student created her blog under an alias. (I had given no prior direction on that, but if they all used aliases it would be harder for me to know them, at least in the early part of the semester.) So the reluctant blogger learned she could mask her identity and in that way alleviate some of her concern of having a public blog that wasn't on a Campus-branded site.

On that latter issue, whether to use Campus applications or those freely available on the open Internet, I have a preference for the latter. The students will maintain access to the work after they graduate and, frankly, the tools will work better because they are being produced for a much larger audience that just Higher Ed. In that regard Blogger has improved a lot in the last two years. There are many very effective gadgets, including the integration with Google Calendar and the dynamic blogroll tool. I use the latter for the student blogs. That looks pretty slick to me.

Of course, there are glitches. It wouldn't be a new technology implementation if there weren't glitches. Some I just have to laugh about. Something must be wrong with Internet Explorer and the blog. It shows the dates of my Google Calendar posts as from the year 3909 instead of from 2009. It also doesn't show the icon for the student blogs done in WordPress. And for one of the Blogger blogs, it shows up some of the xml for the post right in the blog page. You can use IE nonetheless, but it is clunky to do so. So far none of these issues happen with Firefox or Chrome. Then a different problem. One of the students using Blogger has a malformed atom feed. I hope that resolves itself. In the meantime her blog is not updating in the class blogroll.

Time-wise, setting this all up took some doing. It's not the anticipated work that I mind. It's those little things I didn't expect that got to me a little. Some of the students, properly, set their blogs up with moderated comments. Then after I commented on a post, I realized my comment might sit there for quite a while unattended unless these students had an alert that comments were made on their site. In other words, I tend to think of blogging as quite simple, so anyone should be able to do it, but in using it in this class context there is a modest amount of user education/training that is necessary for it all to work well. I hadn't expected that. But it is needed.

With that we're off an running. All but one student (who added late) has set up a blog. Let's see how we do from here on out.

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