A few weeks ago, I posted the following statement over at a new collaborative history website organized by a fellow historian, Katrina Gulliver — Transnational History: Cultural History Discussions — in response to a query about people’s experiences with Web 2.0 technologies in teaching. Since it’s a nice summation of my experiences and failures with my blog project in Fall 09, I figured I would post it here as well.
Maybe not so much inspiration as a cautionary tale, but hey…
I did a blogging experiment in my two World History to 1500 classes last semester (cap 33, nearly all HST or ED majors/minors). Students were divided into groups and had to manage their own group blogs that nominally dealt with the various themes of the course (certain weeks they had to make postings relating to a theme, while other weeks they could do what they wanted; in total the assignment ran about 8 weeks in length). Without a doubt, the experiment was an abject failure, but the reasons were almost entirely because me and certain choices I made (or didn’t make) in structuring the assignment. One problem was that I found, much to my surprise (and why I didn’t already *know* this is baffling to me, but eh…), that my students being digitally tech savvy when it comes to their gizmos and social networking dross does not necessarily translate across into other aspects of the Internet or internet conventions. In other words, most if not all of them had little understanding of what blogging was. And while I did offer some primers in what blogging was and why people did it, it was rather superficial because, well golly gee, they all *must* know, right? (All me.)
Another problem was the sheer scale of the commentary and criticism I had to engage in; with two classes of 33 students each were talking about 66+ blog entries a week for 8 or so weeks. In a normal semester, I could probably handle this just fine, but last fall was my first semester at GVSU, and it just became too overwhelming for me, which meant my interaction and grading pace declined. And this kind of assignment needs some fairly consistent, regular feedback, or else the students will simply keep churning out regular doses of crap.
The last main problem I found was a combination of my fault/their fault. Often times, students did the bare minimum in terms of crafting coherent, engaging blog posts, exhibiting a level of intellectual laziness that I see in a lot of my current students (i.e the can’t-be-bothered-to-work-it-to-find-the-answer phenomenon). This meant that much of their early output read like warmed over encapsulations of Wikipedia entries, not blog posts. Again, not crafting assignment guidelines that were more clear on the purpose of the exercise was all me, but I only had a few students actually come to me in person for more specific help on what they should be doing, and I’m pretty sure that most students never even bothered to look at the HST group blogs I pointed them towards to see how others were using blogging to talk about history. They did have a rubric of sorts that explained what kinds of blog posts they could engage in (I believe there were eight on the list, from a larger group of twenty blog post types I found on the web), but nearly all the students did maybe only two of those eight kinds of posts.
Some students did seem to enjoy the experience, letting me know both in the course evals and in private discussion. And some students really took to the project, producing interesting, engaging, well-crafted blog posts about world history topics that interested them. But the overwhelming response was “This is pointless; don’t do it again.” Alas, I’m stubborn, and will most certainly inflict this on another class in the future, but with some substantial modifications. If anyone is curious, you can head over to the main course blog, GVSU World History Round-Up, and find the links to the various student blogs to see the triumphs and the tragedies of it all.