September 18, 2020

Course Blog: Lessons Learned

This semester I had students in my course, “Information Technology and the Law,” write for a course blog. This was an experiment, but it worked out quite well. I will definitely do it again.

We required each of the twenty-five students in the course to post at least once a week. Each student was assigned a particular day of the week on which his or her entries were due. We divided the due dates evenly among the seven days of the week, to ensure an even flow of new posts, and to facilitate discussion among the students. The staggered due dates worked nicely, and had the unexpected benefit of evening out the instructors’ and students’ blog reading workload.

To be honest, I’m not sure how religiously students read the blog. Many entries had comments from other students, but I suspect that many students read the blog irregularly. My guess is that most of them read it, most of the time.

We told students that they should write 400-500 words each week, about any topic related to the course. As expected, most students wrote about the topics we were discussing in class at the moment. Some students would read ahead a bit and then post about the readings before we discussed them in class. Others would reflect on recent in-class discussions. In both cases, the blogging helped to extend the class discussion. A few students wrote about material outside the readings, but within the course topic.

One of the biggest benefits, which I didn’t fully appreciate in advance, was that students got to see the writing their peers submitted. This was valuable not only for the exchange of ideas, but also in helping students improve their writing. Often students learn about the standard of performance only by reading comments from a grader; here they could see what their peers were producing.

To protect students’ privacy, we gave them the option of writing under a pseudonym. Seven of twenty-five students used a pseudonym. Students had to reveal their pseudonym to the instructors, but it was up to them whether to reveal it to the other students in the course. A few students chose pseudonyms that would be obvious to people in the course; for example, one student used his first name. Most of the others seemed willing to reveal their pseudonyms to the rest of the class, though not everyone had occasion to do so.

I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the writing. Most of it was good, and some was top-notch. Comments from peers, and from outsiders, were also helpful. However, it seems unlikely that many outsiders would read such a course blog, given the sheer volume of postings.

The logistics worked out pretty well. We used WordPress, with comment moderation enabled (to fend off comment spam). We sent out a brief email with instructions at the beginning, and students caught on quickly.

On the whole, the course blog worked out better than expected, and I will use the same method in the future.

[If any students from the course read this, please chime in in the comments. I already submitted course grades, so you can be brutally honest.]

Comments

  1. Nathan Williams says:

    Perhaps this works better now, but my experience in classes (taking undergrad and occasional grad classes, 1994-1998, and TAing them 1998-2001) was that students pretty much only read such class contributions if they were part of the student’s normal workflow. For example, class email lists worked pretty well, because everyone was already reading and writing email. Attempts to use web-based forums or other online structures that weren’t part of the normal flow simply got ignored by potential readers, even if writers were compelled by the class to contribute something. I’ve seen this in friend’s classes this year as well.

    If the class blog is in a format that integrates with their standard computer experience – are RSS readers common among students? LiveJournal has a lot of traction here as well – then I think reading and discussion could happen, but if not, it’s just going to be bits sprayed into the ether.

  2. Doug Chase says:

    An outsider’s point of view: I found the students’ blog interesting and very refreshing. The writing was surprisingly good! I was subscribed via Bloglines and read when I had time – but the volume was pretty high and it was difficult to keep up.

    I would have liked to see more interlocking posts and continuing threads of thought but I see how that could be difficult to maintain.

    Just the two cents of a bystander, but I wanted to say that I could see this blog’s descendents becoming important and widely-read: the thoughts of the very bright and very young deserve more cache than they’re given in the current idea-distribution infrastructure and this is a great way to accomplish that.

  3. Jordan Vance says:

    As a recent (a year!) graduate of Ed’s fine institution and his course, I can say I wish we had this when I was there. We would come in, start a discussion, and three hours later, we’d only be halfway as far as we wanted to be.

    One thing that I think could better enable an outsiders to chime in is to post the relevant course materials (if available) ahead of time. Yes, I know how to navigate the CS website to find your course, but far too often I’m to lazy to do so ahead of time.

    My biggest complaint? Now that the course is over, we have to sit here and wait 9 months to start picking on your students again. It would be neat to have a group blog by alumni of your course in which they could discuss topics of interest relating to the course.

  4. Having just moderated a panel at SSAW on blogging in the classroom, I find your class to be particularly interesting and have a few questions.

    What about the A-word? (assessment) That is, how do you assess blogging in your classroom and how much of the student’s grade was this?

    One of the things I have found very valuable about class blogs is the ability for outsiders to comment on posts. As you mention, many of us that tried to follow your class blog, simply couldn’t keep up with the sheer volume and length of posts that your students posted. Would you do this differently in the future? For example, have another blog where you put certain posts at a lower frequency that you’d like to see the world at large comment on?

    Do you have plans for the blog to continue in any form, or does it stop now?

    Did any of your students learn other things or in other ways? For example, have any of them expressed interest in starting their own blog? Do they use aggregators? Did any of them have to learn something to keep the debate on the blog up that they wouldn’t have had to read for class?

    Would you have done this experiment if you were pre-tenure?

    In general, I’m basically asking questions that I asked panelists here: http://sims.berkeley.edu/~jhall/panel_prop.html

  5. What was the feedback loop? Did you or other course graders ever summarize what was being discussed? I am interested in hearing how the traditional part of the class was impacted by the online portion.

  6. Hmmm. A URL would have been nice.
    http://www.cs.princeton.edu/courses/archive/spring05/cos491/writing/

    [Sorry about that. I added a link. — Ed]

    Feel free to make the course blog more prominent on your site next time – if you want axe grinders like me to add a few comments. 😉

  7. Stephen Cochran says:

    As an outsider who frequently read the blog, I found it very interesting. The one area I felt needed improvement was followup to comments. It seemed that most of the bloggers weren’t aware of comments made to their posts, or didn’t bother to respond to them. Not sure if this is a failing or not, but it seems to me that the value of having outsiders comment is to interact with them, hearing other perspectives than what are heard in class.

  8. One way to make everyone react? Give people bonus points for making an argument contra to what someone else says. They don’t necessarily have to agree with the point they make, but it forces them to reason from both sides of the table: something that will help them greatly on their regular assignments. I guess this borders more on a debate blog, but the one thing that bothered me was that people would write whole posts effectively negating what other people said. I suppose this was done often enough, but you could say, in addition to your one post per week, we’d like one argument against someone else in the comments. This forces the students to read every post (up until they’ve made their argument), and decide which one they can make a case against. Just thinking out loud, and I do realize there are a lot of problems with this, but I remember you saying in class how you appreciated when we a)disagreed with you and b)made arguments for opinions we personally disagreed with.

  9. David Robinson says:

    The blog apparently was a great success for students who were taking the class — a welcome change from Blackboard discussions during my undergraduacy whose only driving impetus was the threat of grade sanctions.

    But as an outsider who cares about the topics, wants to stay current, and regretfully lacks the room in my budget of reading time to pay attention to the blog as closely as a student in the course would, I found it a challenge to follow at all. That is, the posts were referential to each other, and presumed readers to have the background knowledge of class discussions and of the topics themselves that a participant in the brick-and-mortar seminar would have.

    There is probably an inevitable tradeoff between making the blog accessible to outsiders (in a social rather than just a technological sense), and making it maximally useful to students in the course. The same contextual background that would help outsiders follow the discussion would clog the works and be repetitive of what students were already reading and hearing outside of the blog itself.

    Insofar as this tradeoff exists, I think it ought to be made entirely in favor of the course’s current students. How to make the tradeoff is a normative question and could be an interesting debate; the short version of my view is that I profited from lavish professorial attention as an undergraduate, I think it’s what makes Princeton special, and the current undergrads should reap the same benefit.

    But I agree strongly with the earlier thought that the course readings (and, if available, outlines of the presentations that you give at the start of each seminar session to lay the ground for discussion) ought to be posted. This would be very much in the spirit and mold of MIT’s open courseware initiative, which I think is a wonderful resource. More importantly, it would dramatically increase the value and accessibility of the blog to outsiders without getting in the way of current students.

  10. I’m about done with my course of study. I think the program is in dire need of a more extensive level of interaction. I’m definitely forwarding this to the CS department chair.

  11. Malcolm Tredinnick says:

    I would mostly echo the sentiments of David Robinson, Doug Chase and Stephen Cochrane: I was an outsider reading the blog sporadically. It was always very interesting and I was impressed with the general quality of the writing and arguments (I do enough technical and business writing and editing that I tend to be reasonably intolerant of poor writing; the students’ blog rarely made me cringe).

    The high volume was a bit of an issue, but if you have 25 students posting uniformly across Monday to Friday, it’s going to be heavy volume in any case. The main difficulty with tracking this blog from the outside was, as mentioned previously, the lack of context about what had been talked about in class (i.e. the students were usually writing with other students in the class as their audience) and the fact that comments were more or less ignored. One suggestion to the students in future iterations of this course might be to spend alternate weeks addressing feedback from the previous week, if something substantial came up.

    But really, the fact that there was always interesting commentary going up in the form of the main posts was fantastic. Congratulations on the good idea, Ed, and congratulations to your students for “coming to the party”. I look forward to the next group of students doing this.