At the CATS conference in May 2010, I attended a presentation by Philippe Caignon, who talked about his experience integrating blogs into a terminology course. (Incidentally, Philippe has just one of the prestigious 3M National Teaching Fellowships, an honour he richly deserves, and which you can read about here). After the conference, when I finally got around to writing a post about Philippe’s presentation, I resolved to add a blogging component to at least one of my courses in the next academic year. I felt that doing so would expose students to a platform they might use after graduation, since they might be maintaining a company blog, translating blog postings, or creating and sharing their own blogs. I also thought it would provide us with more flexibility, allowing students to reflect on the coursework and exchange ideas outside of the classroom. Although I never wrote a follow-up post, I did, in fact, integrate blogs into the MA-level Translation Studies course I taught in 2011. Since then, I’ve taught the course twice more, and I’ve made some changes to the way I incorporate blogging activities. I thought I would share some of the things I’ve learned in case others are considering adding a blogging component to their courses. I’ll focus on three aspects:
- Blogging platforms
- Designing the assignments
Although Learning Management Systems like Moodle and Blackboard have integrated blogging tools, I wanted to have students work with a platform they’d be likely to use again outside of the classroom. So I asked students to create their own blogs using WordPress or Blogger, and then and send me the URL so I could add a link to these blogs on the course website. This solution has worked out well: the blogs are easy to find (since they’re all listed in the “blogroll” of the course website), students can express themselves more creatively because they can customize the look and feel of their blogs, and I don’t have to deal with emailed assignments and incompatible file formats because every graded assignment must be submitted as a blog post.
So what about privacy then? You might be wondering why students would want to share all their coursework with a) everyone on the Internet and b) everyone else in the class. The answer to the first issue is easy: blogs don’t have to be visible to search engines, nor do they have to be accessible to every Internet user. Once I told students they had to create their own blogs, I made sure to explain how to adjust the privacy settings so that the blog remained invisible to search engines and/or could be accessed by invitation only. Most students chose to make their blogs invisible to search engines, because if they made their blogs private, they would have to email invitations to everyone else in the class. I did mention, though, that they could always change the privacy settings once the course was over, making their blogs as accessible or inaccessible as they wanted.
As for the second issue, whether students might be reluctant to share their coursework with their classmates, I invited everyone to use pseudonyms. Some students liked this option, and named their blogs something like “Translation Studies 5100” or “Glendon Translation Student.” Others didn’t seem to mind either way and used their real names. I also informed everyone that when commenting on their classmates’ blogs, they had to be respectful and constructive, rather than negative. To date, I haven’t had any problems with inappropriate comments. Generally, students have found the feedback from their peers very helpful. In fact, many of the comments offered a perspective very different from mine: details about cultures and languages with which I’m unfamiliar, references to sources I hadn’t seen, etc. And as one student mentioned to me last year, students are able to get a better sense of how they compare to their classmates, in terms of their writing skills, their background knowledge and their familiarity with theoretical texts, which can give them greater confidence in their own skills or alert them that they may need to do some catching up.
Designing the assignments
A big mistake I made the first time I assigned blogging as part of the coursework was not indicating specific deadlines for the blog posts. Although students were required to post five critical reflections on the assigned readings, I didn’t assign a specific due date for each post because I wanted to provide some flexibility about which readings the posts could cover. Unfortunately, most of the students procrastinated and posted nothing until the last week of the semester, leaving their classmates with very little to comment on (more on that in a minute). Ever since then, I’ve assigned fewer blog posts (just two critical reflections this year), and I’ve also set specific due dates for these posts: the first is due on Week 4 of our 13-week course, and the second is due on Week 8. These deadlines still allow students to choose which course readings they want to comment on in their post, but it also ensures they are submitting their posts throughout the semester rather than at the end.
As part of the coursework, students are required to comment on at least six different blog posts over the course of the semester. This means they can read six different blogs and leave comments on each one, or they can leave several comments on just two or three blogs. After my experience the first year, I’ve set deadlines here as well: comments are due by Weeks 6 and 10, though of course everyone is welcome to leave comments at any time. And based on some of the advice Philippe gave during his presentation, I also require students to respond to the comments they receive from their peers: this helps maintain a dialogue rather than a one-way discussion.
The critical reflections, along with all the other coursework (like an annotated bibliography and the final paper) are submitted via the blog and are all marked in the same way I’d grade a traditional paper: based on the clarity of the argument, the relevance of the examples, the extent of the documentation, etc. I send students an individual email with my feedback and their grade because I don’t feel this is something that should be shared with everyone.
As for the comments, I assign a mark for completion, provided the comment meets the standards I set out in the syllabus (i.e. it offers thoughtful constructive criticism that also highlights some of the argument’s strengths). At the end of the term, I tally up the number of comments and replies, award an A+ to any student(s) who went beyond the requirements, A’s to the students who left the required number of comments and replies, B’s to the students who missed a few, and so on. In total, comments are worth 15% of the final grade for the course (10% for comments and 5% for replies).
Overall, I think blogs are a useful tool to integrate into the classroom. Although this was a graduate course, Philippe’s presentation focused on his experience with an undergraduate class, so blogs can definitely be used in a variety of contexts to achieve multiple learning objectives, include peer collaboration, asynchronous discussions, and critical reflections on the coursework.