Mentoring with blogs

I began experimenting with blogs in 2005, as a way to promote collaborative writing in the classroom. I have to say that my first experience was a case of unbridled enthusiasm for technology, but I was utterly unprepared for what would happen. I had bought into the notion of the digital native, that mythical creature that is practically born with a silver keyboard in his or her hand, and that can seamlessly float from one technology to the next. Needless to say that this experience taught me a lot about how people think about and use technology. It’s not as simple as people like Marc Prensky make it sound.

My first attempt was in a remedial writing class. I was an adjunct, teaching at Ave Maria College of the Americas (now Ave Maria University – Latin American Campus) in San Marcos, Nicaragua. I wanted a way for students to post quick responses to simple questions, so that they could practice their grammar and spelling. What I did not expect was that my students would get bogged down by the technology, which became a distraction that took attention away from the true goal of the assignment. I never tried it again with that course, even though I taught it every semester I was at AMCA.

My next foray went slightly better. In fact, I started this blog because of it. I modeled my blogging assignment after Danielle Stern’s portfolio assignment, a version of which can be found here.  I also decided that if I was going to use a blog to mentor students as they made sense of course content, I should be writing as well. I started producing mini-essays, which used multi-media examples to illustrate course content. All of them are filed in the “class notes” category of this blog.

There are problems with this approach, though. You have to be very selective with the videos you include, because even though blogs make it possible for us to write with multimedia, we have no control over YouTube. Copyrighted content might be perfect to illustrate a point, but it is also likely to disappear. So now, I’m actually thinking about going back and cleaning house. The other issue to think about is the public nature of blogs. I may choose to make my writing public, but my students’ privacy needs to be protected. At a minimum, they should have a choice in the matter. That said, it is easier to protect student privacy when everyone is contributing a “centralized class blog,” rather than using the “hub-and-spoke” model (see Mark Semple’s post). I can create the blog as a private space when it’s centralized, but I can’t guarantee that in the “hub-and-spoke.”

That leads me to my current thinking about blogs. Part of it was inspired by Mark Semple’s entry on Professor Hacker. The other part came from reading about research diaries. First, I really liked the idea of creating different roles for students, which is something that Semple discusses. I find that it is a good way of giving them experience in different types of writing.  I adopted Semple’s roles (first reader, respondent, searcher), divided the class into teams, and created a posting schedule for them. I also created a rubric for the assignment, all of which can be accessed here.

I also became interested in using a research diary . The benefits diaries have been extensively documented, especially in terms of their value for the professional development of teachers (e.g., Jarvis, 1992). However, diaries can fulfill similar functions for researchers. They are a tool for reflection (Borg, 2001; Janesick, 1998). Borg specifically discusses several advantages of research diaries. They establish a record of project development, document past ideas and their subsequent evolution, help organize procedures, and document decision-making (p. 171). As I envisioned it, the diaries would also support collaboration among students.  They were expected to read and comment on their peers entries, and were encouraged to share sources, insights, and tips.

In terms of classroom management, the diaries helped me keep track of what students were doing, which allowed me to step in at the appropriate times, rather than waiting for their project’s conclusion.  The assignment description is available here. Since the assignment is still ongoing, I can only offer some preliminary thoughts as to its assessment:

1. Making the diaries into a relatively low-stakes assignment made a difference. Students contributed very detailed entries.

2. Modeling portions of the research process and sharing my own experiences as a researcher may have also been beneficial. It set the tone for the blog, and it may have reduced the level of stress that comes with assignments in general.

3. Students used the comments feature of the blog to brainstorm, provide feedback, and share resources. Peer reviewing has been ongoing, judging from what they have documented on the blog, and also by what they have expressed to me during office hours.

I am still trying to find ways to improve these blogging assignments, and I am thinking of adding some kind of an exit interview  if I decide to repeat this project. As it stands, their final reflection is a built-in tangible assessment of the experience, but I feel short interviews would be very beneficial for me, as the person who designed this assignment.

Anyway… work in progress.

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Works cited:

Borg, S. (2001). The research journal: A tool for promoting and understanding researcher development. Language Teaching Research. 5(2), pp 156-177.

Janesick, V. (1998). Journal writing as a qualitative research technique: History, issues, and reflections. Qualitative Inquiry. 5(4), pp. 505-524.

Jarvis, J. (1992). Using diaries for teacher reflection on in-service courses. ELT Journal . 46(2), pp. 133-143

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  1. Pingback: An entry from my research diary. « "Media" is plural

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