Blogging with Students: A Primer

Caroline Ellwood of IS (International Schools) magazine asked me to send her a 1000-word introduction to blogging with students, and this (with some minor variations) is the result:

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.

I also find blogs very useful in higher-level courses like IB Theory of Knowledge, or IB English A1, where they 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.

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.

Getting Started

1. Begin by reading some blogs. You can find blogs on any subject that may intrigue you. Go to http://blogsearch.google.com/, type in a topic that interests you, and begin browsing.
2. Do some blogging yourself. The easiest entry-point is one of several free blogging sites such as Blogger.com 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.

[If you are in a country where blogging sites are blocked, try using Anonymouse. In some cases, the blog itself will be accessible, but the FeedBurner rss feed will be blocked; again, Anonymouse works for me.]

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.

1. 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 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.
2. Edublogs.org. 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. 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.
3. 21Classes.com. 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 such a problem, 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

For international schools in developing countries, especially, accessing sites hosted in the U.S. can be difficult. Ideally, a school would install WordPress MU 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.

[Update, July 2010] My views have shifted on this question. I now strongly favour a class blog, with each student being an author on the blog. My experience with 21classes.com showed that students rarely read each other’s blogs, when each student had his or her own. Putting everyone’s posts on one blog builds a much stronger sense of a learning community.]

Finally, to get started trying to imagine a future in which all students blog in almost all of their classes, see my discussions here.

And let me know how it goes!

Eric MacKnight has been teaching English since 1980 in public, independent, and international schools in the United States, Morocco, Switzerland, Austria, Canada, The Netherlands, and China. He currently teaches at Suzhou Singapore International School in Suzhou, China.

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School-wide blogging #3: the questions

[Adapted from a comment I posted replying to ‘Julie’ on EduBloggerWorld.]

I agree that one blog per student is best. The problems follow from there, however. Questions like these arise:

  • Who controls content on student blogs? What happens when students post something inappropriate?
  • Who manages updating the blog software? Can it be done one time for all school blogs, or must each blog be updated individually?
  • How are blog posts managed so that on my English class blog, for example, I see links only to my students’ English posts, not to their math, history, and science posts, too?
  • Are the blogs hosted remotely, or on school servers? What are the pro’s and con’s of each?
  • Is the blogging software commercial, or open-source? Pro’s and con’s?

If we imagine even a small high-school with 500 students, plus 50 teachers, and let’s say 4 class blogs per teacher, we’ve got 750 blogs to manage—a big job!

So far I know of WordPress MU (multi-user) and 21classes.com, and I know of remote hosting solutions like Edublogs / Learnerblogs, which uses WPMU. I’d like to hear from folks with experience hosting WPMU blogs on school servers, and also from folks using 21classes.com on school servers. How do the costs and benefits of these two solutions compare? Are they equally good in meeting the needs of blogging students and teachers, or is one superior, or is neither quite yet what we need?

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School-wide blogging #2: why do it?

All of us involved in using blogs with our students understand the value of the activity: students become real writers with a real audience, can read and respond to each other’s work, become a community of thinkers/scholars/readers, etc.

But is there any added value to blogging school-wide?

I can think of two advantages of school-wide blogging over blogging in a class here and there.

First, a student’s blog—including posts for all of her classes—would become an automatically updating digital portfolio. We all remember student portfolios; did they ever take off where you work? Me neither. But imagine a student’s blog including work for almost all his classes extending over several years of schooling. What a document!

Not all blog posts are equal, of course, and casual writing typically predominates in a blog. But nothing would stop students from posting more formal, polished work in their blogs as well.

And with the ability to tag and categorize and archive posts, there’s no need for such an online portfolio to become unwieldy. It would be simple for a student applying to university, say, to select posts from a variety of classes over the last 2-3 years of high school, tag them all ‘portfolio’, and send them as a single hyperlink to any interested admissions office.

The second advantage of school-wide blogging? Think of all the paper a school could save. Or a school district. Or a whole nation of schools.

That’s a lot of paper.

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School-wide blogging: how would it work?

At the moment individual teachers here and there are using blogs with their classes in various ways and for various purposes, using various platforms and hosting solutions.

I’ve started to imagine how things might look in a school where students blog for almost every class, just as they have traditionally handed in assignments on paper for almost every class. If this blogging business really takes off we could have some serious scaling problems.

Imagine a secondary school in which students blog for almost every class. A separate blog for each class would soon become unwieldy, so they would have one blog, with categories or tags for posts in each subject. Each class would have its own blog, where the teacher would post assignments and links to all the blogs of the students in that class. Or would only a student’s history posts, say, appear in links on the history class’s blog? One of the main values of blogging in schools is that it allows students to read each other’s work, but what setup would make it easy for a student to see his classmates’ work in a particular subject without having to wade through 20-30 blogs searching for the history posts?

Perhaps it makes more sense for students to post all of their history work on the history class’s blog, their English work on the English class’s blog, etc. But then the student’s own blog becomes . . . what? A poor substitute for a Facebook page? It makes more sense for a student to post ALL of his or her work on his school blog, where it can remain and be easily accessed, serving as a kind of portfolio that updates automatically. But I’m not sure how these separate blogs could be linked selectively to show, say, links to all the history posts on the history class blog and links to all the English posts on the English class blog.

Here I am getting out of my depth, technically. Is there a solution for this problem already out there? Would individual RSS feeds for each subject tag show up on the class blog for that subject?

In short, if educational blogging really takes off, how will we manage it? Does anyone out there have experience that would shed light on this problem?

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