A Class Blog to Thin the Classroom Walls
As an educator, in all contexts, I focus on pedagogical approaches that create spaces for learner agency, a sense of belonging, and collaborative participation. Some of my favourite and most memorable teaching moments come from learning contexts outside of the classroom, both in-person and online. One such moment occurred when I used a class blog to open up a course assignment to a public forum.
Rethinking my Practice
In earlier years of teaching, I used a relatively conventional approach to assessing learning, with students submitting assignments to me during the term and then producing a larger piece at the end of the course. As such, students were demonstrating their knowledge only to me and learning conversations were limited. This made me question how I could use technology to extend learning beyond the contact hours of the class.
Learning indeed happens in many places and spaces outside classrooms. Will Richardson suggests that we rethink our roles as teachers to:
- Thin the classroom walls and send work out into the world
- Make connections beyond the classroom
- Learn along with our students
Blogging satisfies these 3 criteria:
- It takes learning into the public sphere.
- It allows for a shift from teacher-centered to student-driven learning.
- It invites teachers to learn along with students.
This is how the idea for creating a class blog emerged.
Thinning the Classroom Walls: An Experiment
I experimented with using a class blog with a group of 37 students, many of whom were in their first term at McGill University. Although I taught the course that is the focus of this article in a university rather than a CEGEP context, I think you will find similarities in the diversity of the students and recognize some of the challenges they experienced.
The blogging assignment made up 30% of the final grade. I asked students to write about connections between what we were reading or talking about in class and their own experiences.
I set up 1 central class blog, with me as the sole editor. I provided my students with a single generic login and password. This meant that they all logged in using the same credentials and had limited editing rights. They could create posts and then would be asked to submit their post for review. This made it possible to:
- Ensure that nothing inappropriate was published
- Easily consult everyone’s contributions without having to navigate between individual student blogs
- Maximize readership
When I introduced the blog assignment at the start of the term, I wasn’t sure if we would find an audience beyond the class cohort. Over the 13 weeks of the course, we published 113 blog posts and almost 400 comments. By the end of the course, there were over 5,000 hits on the blog from 37 countries. This number has more than doubled since. I think it is fair to say that we did indeed find an audience!
Every student had to write 3 posts any time over the 13 weeks of the semester (6% each = 24%). There was also a small percentage (6%) of the grade for blog engagement; that is, commenting on at least 6 other blog posts. I didn’t evaluate the content of the comments – if they posted 6 times, they got 6 marks. A lot of the students commented more than 6 times and many of their comments were longer than the blog posts, but they were always constructive.
As the teacher, I also participated in the blog and wrote 3 posts during the term. I tried to comment on all the blog posts. This was a lot to keep up with, but I loved it because I learned so much from their writing. I kept up with all 37 of the students and their posts until the end of term crunch.
For technical support, I provided students with instructions on how to submit a blog post, how to embed media, and how to post comments. To my surprise, there were no technology-related questions along the way.
After my final grades were submitted, I sent my former cohort of students an invitation to participate in a focus group followed by an anonymous survey. I did a thematic analysis of the collected responses and found 4 prominent and interconnected themes:
- Learning from and with peers: “Usually we come to class, we hear presentations or lecture, then we go back home, and we never know our classmates. But the blog created a place for us to really know our classmates, their thoughts, their language, their story. And I think it feels more like a community.” — Miley
- Reflecting: “[The blog] actually pushed me to engage. There were always ideas percolating in my head for blog posts. I wrote 3 and I had probably 10 formulated in my mind that just didn’t materialize.” — Sky
- Writing for an audience: “I was thinking about trying to make it interesting. How to make things you have read be accessible to others who haven’t read the paper you’ve read. That’s way different, because if I write for a professor, I would presume she has read a lot and what I’m talking about, she must know this, so I don’t bother that much to make it interesting.” — Vera
- Having a voice: “I’m afraid of speaking in public and also in the classroom… But, whenever I have some ideas when you’re lecturing or people are giving their presentations, I just note down the ideas and then I will share it on the blog later.” — Monica
Not everyone loved the blogging experience, but the sense of cohort in the class was the strongest and most supportive I have ever experienced as a teacher. Students took chances, listened to each other, challenged each other to see things differently, and helped each other. Some of the students developed their final course assignments based on a blog post and the discussion around it. Overall, the blog became a space where students could develop identities as writers and become part of a learning community, not just to display knowledge to the teacher for marks, but to engage an audience, connect with readers and share ideas.
This article is based on a presentation given at the Annual AQPC Symposium held in Rimouski, from June 5-7, 2019. For more information, consult the blog page used as visual support for this presentation and the author’s article Thinning the Classroom Walls: Graduate Student Perspectives on Blogging as Pedagogy.