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Using a Blog Throughout a Research Writing Course

Submitted by Danica Hubbard, Professor of English, College of DuPage

This example addresses OWI Principle 3: “Appropriate composition teaching/learning strategies should be developed for the unique features of the online instructional environment.” The blog is a platform for ongoing conversation and reflection related to individual student research projects throughout a course. This in-practice example has been used in a community college setting in an online, primarily asynchronous, first-year composition course being delivered through Blackboard 9.1.

Explanation of effective practice

My practice involves having students in our first-year research writing course each start a blog in our course management system (Blackboard) early in the term to introduce themselves. Students are then required to revisit and update their blog as a way of collecting research material and reflecting on that material as the course unfolds. In addition to keeping their own research blog, students are required to view and comment on other student blogs. My use of the blog tool in this way helps students to keep research material organized, allows them to reflect on the research process as it unfolds, and helps to foster a sense of community in the online environment.   

In my experience, the blog tool is a good way for online students to collect, organize and reflect on research material. The blog commenting feature also makes it possible for students to read and respond to each other so that they can share research successes and frustrations. As such, blogs seem ideally suited to the online environment. They provide a kind of portfolio tool for students who could never otherwise deliver a physical portfolio to me as an instructor. Nor could they feasibly share a physical portfolio with others in the class. The blog tool allows them to do just this.

Since we use the blog on an ongoing basis throughout the course, I make it easily accessible from the main course menu in the course management system. This screenshot shows my online writing course menu in Blackboard. The link to student blogs is highly visible, rather than buried deeper in the course architecture (in a folder or individual unit in our course, for example).


Figure 1 – Link to Blogs in Course Menu

Early in the course, students are required to do an introductory post.  The assignment asks a series of five questions about their interests. The relatively informal questions tend to invite candid responses and students often discover shared interests with others in the class. The first blog post assignment also asks students to post a picture of themselves or an avatar image (a picture representing who they are in this class). The blog tool allows students to insert video or audio clips about their interests and include links to favorite websites. We are not necessarily focused on research just yet, but that will follow in subsequent blog assignments.

Below is a series of screenshots showing the “Introduce Yourself” blog entry assignment. Below the assignment instructions you can see a student’s introductory post and then an instructor comment.


Figure 2 – First Blog Post Assignment


Figure 3 – Student “Introduce Yourself” Blog Entry


Figure 4 – Instructor Comment

After the initial introductory post, assignments that require students to return to their blogs become much more focused on each student’s developing research project.

These blog assignments recur throughout our course, affording students the opportunity to update their research progress and to check in with one another to discuss research-related discoveries and frustrations. I will ask questions like these: Did your initial search yield too many general sources? Were you able to secure an interview with a professional in your field of research interest? Was the academic journal language difficult to understand?

Here is a screenshot of a typical assignment that asks students to return to their blog.


Figure 5 – Assignment Directing Students to Use Their Blog

This assignment occurs relatively early in the course, a couple of units after the “Introduce Yourself” assignment. It moves us beyond that introductory post and begins to focus students on questions about research and sources. These questions help me to uncover what students’ past experience with research is and what some of their biases might be.

This assignment, like others in the course, includes the invitation to students to read what classmates have written and respond: “What do you think? Why?” Again, the blog tool is well-suited to this kind of discussion-oriented approach to keeping a research portfolio. A more private research journal, for example, would only be viewable by an individual student and the instructor. It might organize entries effectively, but would not allow me to have students engage in dialog with each other about their research.

The following tips can help instructors to encourage active student blogging:

  1. Establish a rubric or sample blog for students to view.
  2. Assign points or credit for each blog response or a series of blog responses.
  3. Award “best blog comments” at the end of the semester.
  4. Utilize multiple venues to promote the research blogs such as the Announcement, Discussion Board and all class e-mail.  
  5. Emphasize brevity and simplicity — blogs should be informal and authentic. 
  6. Share graphics and links about the importance of student blogging.
  7. Emphasize digital citizenship — sharing and helping one another locate obscure source material, reviewing citations or changing research topic directions strengthens the class community.

The blog tool as I use it helps students to see how their writing and research progress and helps them to reflect on hurdles they face, like finding a topic. The fact that the blogs are open for viewing and commenting to each student means that research challenges can be shared. Sometimes students will share what they think is a useful research source, for example. In other cases, the commenting feature of the blog simply allows students to support one another and express shared experience.

Below is a screenshot that shows some back and forth dialog between students who have used the  “Comment” feature of the blog. The comments are not particularly long, nor are they written in a formal academic tone. On the contrary, they are friendly and supportive.

In an initial blog post, a student has mentioned the challenge of a research project seeming overwhelming, especially in the early stages. What follows is the commenting pictured below. One student comments that she also finds that research can sometimes feel “overwhelming” and suggests that taking frequent breaks can help make getting through material a bit easier. A student then responds with a quick “Thanks” and offers a suggestion for using a search engine effectively. This is followed by a comment in response, a final “Thanks” and the student indicates she may try the search advice provided by the earlier commenter.


Figure 6 – Blog Comments

The research advice is not necessarily profound. And there is no mechanism in the course to require the final commenter to actually try out the search advice provided by the earlier commenter. But this is not really the point. The idea is more to get students talking to each other, exchanging ideas, and building that sense of community that comes from sharing successes and challenges. Using the blog tool  enhances our sense of community in the online environment.

Here is a final series of screenshots that show a student post and then comments from classmates. At this point in the course, students are still refining their topics, paying particular attention to narrowing their research from broad topics down to manageable theses. They are also actively evaluating sources, differentiating fact from opinion, and considering what sources might be applicable to their topics. (One requirement for the research assignment is that students must use video/film of some kind, which is what this post begins with.)


Figure 7 – Blog Post About Ongoing Research


Figure 8 – Blog Post Comment


Figure 9 – Blog Post Comment

Here the commenter notes that finding specifically focused research material can be challenging–a challenge seemingly shared by others in the course. The student suggests using “specific keywords” when searching. Perhaps more valuable than this specific piece of research advice, however, is that via the blog tool and its commenting feature, students see that their individual research challenges are shared by others.

Challenge this practice addresses

The blog tool as I use it allows students to organize research material and reflect on it throughout our composition course. The blog acts in the way a physical research portfolio might but offers us the digital equivalent, ideal for use in the entirely online setting.

More than just acting as a digital portfolio, though, the blog tool as I use it facilitates discussion among online students: discussion that becomes more focused on each student’s developing research project as our course unfolds. I find the Introduction blog a great starting point to open the lines of communication and get the class “buzzing.” Communicating online can be difficult because students may feel vulnerable, experience writer’s block or believe they do not have common experiences to share. However, the blog reinforces my commitment to encouraging group interaction. Students contribute constructively to the group and share some of their personal experience – this forms an important bond of trust. Once the discussion begins, students often reveal their research-related hurdles and successes as they progress from assignment to assignment in the course. In other words, in addition to the blog allowing a student to develop a nicely organized research portfolio, it also affords the opportunity for students to become part of a community–not necessarily an easy thing to do in the entirely online environment.

The practice of establishing and maintaining an Introduction Blog is within the theoretical framework of the Community of Inquiry (CoI). The CoI Model presents a process of creating a deep and meaningful (collaborative-constructivist) learning experience through the development of three interdependent elements:  social, cognitive and teaching presence. Social presence is “the ability of participants to identify with the community, communicate purposefully in a trusting environment, and develop inter-personal relationships by way of projecting their individual personalities” (Swan, 2009). Teaching presence is “the design, facilitation and direction of cognitive and social processes for the purpose of realizing personally meaningful outcomes. Cognitive presence is the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm reflection and discourse” (Anderson, Rourke, Garrison & Archer, 2001).

Anderson, T. Rourke, L., Garrison, D.  R., & Archer, W. (2001). Assessing teaching presence in a computer conferencing context. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 5(2), 1-17.  Retrieved September 6, 2011 from  http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.95.9117&rep=rep1&type=pdf

Anderson, T. (2007).  Social and cognitive presence in virtual learning environments. [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved September 6, 2011 from http://www.slideshare.net/terrya/social-and-cognitive-presence-in-virtual-learning-environments

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.

Garrison, R. Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2003). A theory of critical inquiry in online distance education. In M.G. Moore & W.G. Anderson (Eds.), Handbook of Distance Education, 113-127. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
http://communitiesofinquiry.com/model

Garrison, D. R., & Anderson, T. (2003). E-learning in the 21st century: A framework for research and practice. London: Routledge/Falmer.

Swan, K., Garrison, D. R. & Richardson, J. C. (2009). A constructivist approach to online learning: the Community of Inquiry framework. In Payne, C. R. (Ed.) Information Technology and Constructivism in Higher Education: Progressive Learning Frameworks. Hershey, PA: IGI Global, 43-57.

How to implement this practice

How to Create a Blog



Creating and Editing a Blog Entry



When creating a blog, start by asking interesting open-ended questions that allow for feedback and reflection.

To begin a new blog:

  1. Click on the tab “Create Blog Entry.”  Each blog entry will be time stamped and dated for ease in archiving. 
  2. Use the “Blog Instructions” tab to insert instructions for students including a possible due date, expectations and examples.  You can start the thread to establish the conversation or encourage students to begin the thread. 
  3. Manage the posts by using the “delete” and “availability” tabs in Blackboard.  You can change the Blog settings at any time. 
  4. Provide comments to your students and encourage feedback amongst your students.  Students can view each post by default or you can change the privacy or group settings.  You can also categorize the blog posts in order for students to easily find the posts they are most interested in. 
  5. Insert links within blog posts for reference to related websites or references.  You may also provide a picture library to store photos or images of interest.

Blackboard 9.1 includes a blog tool as do most learning management systems. No additional tools, accounts, or applications are required.  There are, however, many stand-alone blogging tools available, most of them free but requiring account creation and sign-up. Some of these blog tools include Google’s Blogger or open source software WordPress.

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