As a secondary-school English teacher, I use student blogs primarily as a form of ‘independent writing’, very similar to the ‘independent reading’ that my students have been doing for years. See the post I wrote about this in February 2007 for more details. (All links will open in a new window.)
I also find blogs very useful in higher-level courses like IB Theory of Knowledge, or my IB English A1 classes, where I hope they will help to create a community conversation among class members.
Finally, blogs make it much easier for students to read and comment on each others’ work than was ever possible using traditional methods—an occasional paper copied and distributed, or papers posted on the classroom wall for others to read.
For one example of what a class blog might look like after a year, have a look at my Grade 8 blog from 2006-07. (Note that, as usual with blogs, the most recent articles [‘posts’] come first, so to see what the students wrote at the beginning of the year you will have to dig back several pages, or use the archives links. Or you can explore by topic, or by author.)
If you are a teacher inclined to dip your toes into this student blogging pool, you may benefit from some of what follows. Please note that I am not an expert, just a teacher with a bit of experience, but I will point you toward some sources of information that will take you beyond the confines of my own limited perspective.
- Begin by reading some blogs. You can find blogs on every subject under the sun. Go to http://blogsearch.google.com/, type in a topic that interests you, and begin browsing.
- Do some blogging yourself. The easiest entry-point is one of several free blogging sites such as Blogger or WordPress.com. Even if no one reads your blog, you will become familiar with the conventions of writing a new post, saving a draft, publishing, and adding tags or categories.
- Read some blogs about educational blogging. Try Will Richardson; Konrad Glogowski; Anne Davis; and Bud Hunt. Those four will provide you with plenty of links to other blogs about teaching and learning. [UPDATE 23 October: In a perfect example of how connections are made on the web, I discovered a great blog from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education when they linked to one of my posts on The Good Habits Blog. Instructify is a great introduction to blogging in general and educational blogs in particular.]
- Start using RSS. By now you will be having trouble keeping track of all those blogs unless you use an RSS reader or aggregator. My RSS primer will show you how.
Blogging with Students
So you’ve played around a bit reading and writing blogs, you’re convinced that your students would benefit from blogging, but what’s the best way to manage a classroom of bloggers? What blogging software should you use? Where should you host your blog?
I don’t have definitive answers to these questions, but I will share my experience and the preferences that go with it.
- WordPress: When I started out I did a fairly extensive survey of the various blogging platforms that were then available. As I wanted to host the blog on my own site, I needed something I could install and manage myself without having to hire a web site technician. I soon found, as thousands of other users have also, that WordPress was my best option. It’s open-source, which means not only that it’s free, but that hundreds of amateurs and professionals are out there producing new themes and plug-ins and helping to make each new version of WordPress even better than before. WordPress.org will get you started downloading and installing on your own server. If you don’t have a server of your own, you can use WordPress.com, which provides hosting for your WordPress blog. I use WordPress for this blog, for my Good Habits blog, and for my English A1 blog.
- Edublogs. Last year I used Edublogs for my class blogs during the first part of the year. They use a special edition of WordPress, WordPress MU, designed for blogs that have multiple authors. I found that they provide an excellent service, easy to use both for me and for the students. James Farmer does a wonderful job administering the site and responds personally and very quickly to calls for help. I had problems, however, connecting to the site with a whole class of students at one time, at least from China. Even when we limited the number of simultaneous users we continued to have serious slowdowns, so I had to move all the class blogs to my own domain.
- 21Classes. This year, following a suggestion from Konrad Glogowski, I switched to hosting four of my class blogs on 21Classes.com. With 21Classes, each student has his or her own blog, and the class blog is a ‘portal’ where the teacher can post messages. Performance has not been a problem—perhaps because each student’s blog has its own address—and the portal can be set up to include links to all the student blogs, recent posts and comments, etc. If you come to 21Classes after using WordPress, as I have, you will notice the differences in the user interface and perhaps not always be pleased by them, but none of the site’s idiosyncrasies present more than a minor annoyance. You can see 21Classes in action on my current blogs for English 7A, English 7 B Adv, English 9 B Adv, and IB Theory of Knowledge.
My Ideal Set-up
Ideally, the school would install WordPress on its own server, ensuring that connection speeds would be as fast and direct as possible. Every student could have his or her own blog, and the teacher could link to all student blogs on the class’s blog. This would combine the advantages of 21Classes with those of WordPress. Of course, if every teacher starts blogging and each student has a separate blog, things could get out of hand both technically and otherwise, but at the moment we’re a fair distance from having to confront those problems.
I had to shut off comments on this blog following a flood of comment spam, but if you have read this far and still have a question, please use the ‘Contact Me’ link at the top of the left-hand column and drop me an email. And good luck with blogging!