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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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June012006

Using Blogs as a Novel Approach to Engage Students

Last week, I described the basics of blogging and promised to share stories of educators using blogs in the classroom. So today I’d like to introduce you to Janice Robertson, who’s using blogging to engage her students in some novel discussions.

Robertson teaches seventh grade English in Ontario. Her blog, Novel Discussions, encourages students to respond to her reading assignment questions online.

The blog, which uses Blogger as its website platform, is written as a series of questions. Some questions prompt students to discuss the content of the books; in other cases, Robertson asks the students to reflect on how they would handle a given situation from the book, or interview others on how they might handle it. For example, in one blog entry she asks her students to interview two adults and see if there was anything in their lives they would do over again. The students respond by posting comments to the blog.

“The beauty of it is that my really shy or my weak readers get to respond to the novel discussion with as much power as my mouthy or my ‘great’ readers,” Robertson explains. “I’ve asked them to post anonymously, except they have a code number so I can give them credit for participating.”

“The second great thing is that I don’t miss the discussions anymore,” she continues. “When we used to do them face to face, I wasn’t always able to be six places at once! Now, I can just log on and read the comments.”

The Novel Discussions blog has also helped connect her students across both classes. “In the past, my one class couldn’t have a discussion about the book with my other class because I never saw them at the same time,” she notes. “Now they can.”

Though Robertson considers the blogging project a success, she’s been stymied by her school’s filtering policy, which now filters all addresses ending in blogspot.com - including her own. But her students have already demonstrated they know how to get around the filters.

“The only sad thing is that my [school] board now filters the blogspot site because there are, if you search long enough, some inappropriate ones,” she explains. “I’m sure you can tell how I feel about this. The students took exactly one day to figure out how to bypass the filter and get to the site. So officially they only post at home, but in reality, they bypass the filter and post their novel discussions at school as well.”

Despite these hurdles, she’s proud of what she’s accomplished so far. “I also loved how easy it was to set up a blog. I don’t have the technical knowledge to set up a web site that allows for responses, so I loved that this was up and running in minutes!”

“I know I haven’t used it exactly the way a blog was supposed to be used,” she adds, “but it works for me!”

And that’s precisely the point. There is no absolute “right” or “wrong” way to use a blog; the beauty of the technology is that you can adapt it to your own needs. As long it works for you and your students, then you’re using it correctly as far as I’m concerned. -andy

Filed under : Blogging

Responses

It is clear that the time is ripe to move these early experiments off Blogger and onto an open source platform that can be easily hosted at the school or district level. There are a number of free options that work fairly well off the shelf, but could use some moderate customization to suit the needs of classrooms more precisely. What we need is some funding for a project to do that development. Unfortunately, activist bloggers don’t seem to be tied into the foundation world, so there hasn’t been any movement in that direction that I’ve seen. We need to harness a little collective intelligence to figure out how to make it happen.

Hi Tom,

Interesting idea… Blogger certainly wasn’t designed with educators in mind, though it has its strengths when it comes to introducing blogging as a concept.

What about Wordpress? It’s an open source blogging platform? Could something like that be a starting point, or do you think it makes sense building a new open source tool from the ground up?

Alan November (November Learning) has developed a blogging system that will work on school servers. It was created for educators and has all the features you’re looking for. From Alan’s site, “NL Communities helps schools and organizations provide a safe and globally collaborative blogging environment.”

Go to www.nlcommunities.com and check it out for yourself.

I don’t believe Alan’s tool is open source, though - but I could be wrong. As Tom first suggested, an open source platform would allow districts to customize the software to their individual needs. Next week I’ll be posting an interview with David Thornburg about open source software in education. -andy

I have used or experimented with Blogger, Wordpress.com (freely hosted on their sites) b2evolution, LifeType, Blojsom, pMachine, WordPress, and others (run locally).

WordPress is my choice as a blogging platform. Open Source, easy to install on a local server, the new version 2.0 supports clearly defined roles (Admin, Editor, Contributor, etc). For an Open Source application it is surprisingly well documented and it enjoys an enormous following.

For the education community, the features in WordPress (and the price, free) are the best I have found. Limiting access, controlling the ability to post or comment, comment moderation, are essential components and WP implements them in an easy to understand manner.

If you can’t run your own installation you can sign up for a free account at WordPress.com, but there are some limitations there just as there are with other free online bloggging services.

We are about to get underway with our first blogging project in my new district, a Summer Reading Blog for middle school students. We are using a local install of WordPress on an older eMac running OSX Server. Our tech guys, like running it as part of our district IT web space. Its will be ready for prime time shortly: Summer Reading

To see another example of what some teachers are doing with blogging, see Eric Langhorst’s “Speaking of History…”. Mr. Langhorst is an 8th grade history teacher in Liberty, Missouri, and uses podcasts to excite his students about history. His choice of blogging service is Blogger.

I can’t imagine the amount of time and dedication he puts into his blog. It’s well worth a visit.

Some of the teachers at our school are fortunate enough to have our own eBoards. We can set up iNotes that work the same as blogs. I have some set up for academics and some set up for plain old fun.

One of my tabbed boards is for MATHCOUNTS — my students are encouraged to respond to MATHCOUNTS problems of the week (POW’s) via designated “iNotes.” The best correct answer receives a “Lightbulb Award,” which gives them 2 to 5 extra points (depending upon the difficulty of the question and the quality of the response) to be added to a quiz, test, or homework assignment.

There are several different “boards” available which can be tailored to different topics, so I set one up for each course I teach. In the past, I have used Notes for posting homework assignments on the calendar and have used iNotes for students to carry on discussions pertaining to their assignments — if a question goes unanswered too long or is “seconded” by another student, I usually step in and answer it or at least give them a hint on what to do next.

The “fun blogs” were designed mainly for providing my students with an open forum for sharing ideas and opinions about school events and activities, favorite songs and jokes (clean ones only), or for just being silly. We even had a “Favorite Recipe” blog last year! I would set up iNotes to address whatever topics the students suggested … as long as they were acceptable. Even some of my “shy” students posted their views and comments, allowing their peers to get to know them a little better.

If necessary, eBoards can be set with passwords, restricting public access and making them even safer for our students. So far, I have not felt the need to do that. I encourage my students to use only their first names when signing in (or first names with last initials or “code names” which are known by many at our school).

Having active eBoards after Hurricane Katrina was wonderful — our local servers (local internet and school) went down, so our regular email access was out of commission for a while. Our eBoard access helped members of our student body and faculty get back in touch with one another in a more timely fashion during our evacuation. Announcements and updates about our school were posted regularly, and iNotes were set up for parents and students to ask questions. This provided an open line of communication between our faculty, parents, and students.

I just finished a PBS Teacher On-line Course which used a form of blogging for our class discussions. It was great! We were able to share many ideas about what we were learning as well as activities that we use in our classrooms. Although relatively new to blogging, I see many benefits!

Despite all of its powerful, built-in, and totally free features, WordPress is quite easy for even a nontechnical person to install and even easier to setup, use, and maintain once it’s in place. That is definitely the way to go for a self-hosted or school-hosted blog.

Hosting a free blog on WordPress.com also has many features that make it a good choice for schools. You can set up an unlimited number of blogs. You can choose to have them be “unlisted” by search engines. They have good, built-in spam protection. They’re definitely a higher class neighborhood. And they have a great user community always willing to help and answer questions.

I’m a teacher of third graders. In my school district, all blogspot.com, all free wordpress blogs, and flickr.com sites are blocked - along with plenty more. Now, most teachers don’t have access to a server to set up and configure a blog for their students. What’s left?

I use David Warlick’s ClassBlogmeister to host the blogs of my third graders. It is free. Blogging has transformed the writing curriculum in my classroom. I encourage anyone interested in looking at the impact blogging can have to take a look at what my 8 and 9 year olds had to say about it as they looked at the end of the school year:

From my blog, excerpts

Their blogs at roomtwelve.com (look at the 6/2 entries)

It seems like most of the comments here are focused on the technology, the methods and particulars. I think some of you are missing the main thrust of Andy’s post, that “the beauty of the technology is that you can adapt it to your own needs”. ..whatever it is, blogger, wordpress, movable type, etc etc etc.. The tools aren’t the story. It’s what you do with them that counts.

First, congratulations on your new baby daughter, Andy! Next, I wanted to mention Edublogs.org, and Uniblogs.org and ESLblogs.org, all of which are run by the same people, but offer free Word Press blogs to educators, students, and ESL students/teachers respectively. They are also connected to wikispaces now, and offer free wikis as well. These may be a nice alternative to Blogger and other commercial services, and keep things in the non-profit, education community.

Next, wondering if you’re going to the Campus Technology conference in Boston in early August? I’d like to meet you.

Cheers,
Clark Shah-Nelson

This is a great idea. I am currently a senior in college and beginning to explore more ways of integrating technology into the classroom. As Robertson stated above, teachers can respond to more students faster than they would in the regular classroom. It is also a great opportunity for students to talk with other students who are not in the same class but are still reading or learning the same material. The more students work together the more they will learn from one another!

Well, I think our world is full of things that can be used by educators even though ther are not mainly created for that. I like what you have done very much and I think of doing the same thing with my students. I agree with you that blogging as well as other advances in technology which maintain anonymity would help our shy students a lot. It would also help facilitate the interactions whether among students themselves or between students and teachers.

I like blogs…i like to use it for teaching…but in our context(Sri Lanka)people are having problems with resources.(infrastructure,knowledge etc)But in the masters programs people have access to net…for them i think i can test this as you suggested…

Blogs are definitely a great opportunity for English students to share and participate. I haven’t really used them and that’s why I am taking this online course on blogs. I really want my students to be engage in the class. Sometimes, class time is not enough for everyone to participate, especially those who are shy. Therefore, blogs are a good way to get everyone involved as mentioned in the article. Besides, the new students now are into technology. A teacher gotta do what a teacher gotta do to keep up.

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