Avoiding the 5 Most Common Mistakes in Using Blogs with Students

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I've used blogs in my classes for five years with students. I've found them to be extremely helpful in certain circumstances but only when there is clarity for students in their use. Students who object to the inclusion of blogs in a course are usually objecting to what they perceive will be just one more task on top of a myriad of others or simply some busy work that will not benefit their learning. Older students can also reject the notion of "publication" that is inherent with blogging. Each of these objections can be addressed by an effective and innovative instructor by careful planning and skillful management. There are, however, several common mistakes that should be avoided when using blogs in instruction. I have made all of these mistakes and have learned how to address each one proactively.

1. Ineffective Contextualization
As with any instructional tool or learning support, without a clear context within which the tool is to be used, students will not understand the benefit to their learning and will, ultimately, reject the use of the tool. In order to effectively contextualize the use of an instructional tool, instructors must think carefully exactly where the tool will be used in the flow of the course, how often the tool will or might be used, and how necessary the tool is to the learning process. In the case of blogging, the most effective use of this tool is in the area of self reflection or thought processing. As such, there must be concepts for students to think through, various resources and content segments to process, or ideas to construct. To simply ask students to blog without this level of planning will lead to frustration for the students. In other words, there must be a certain amount of content preparation already covered or made accessible for students before blogging will really support the learning process. While a blog can also provide social placement of students or academic placement of students within a group, blogs are fundamentally individual in their purpose and essence. That is, while comments can be added or ideas posted following a blog entry, these sit outside the initial posting--blogs are not wikis or online discussion forums, therefore, if individual self-reflection is the central benefit to the learning process, instructors must plan carefully as to when in the course self-reflection will enhance the learning process for each student. Please note: there are additional benefits that instructors can glean from blogs in terms of helping access student voice and understanding student progress in their idea or concept construction, but the instructional use of the blog tool is mostly about the individual benefit to students first in deciding when and how to use blogs in instruction.

2. Unclear Learning Outcomes
Following on from designing the placing of blog use based on the instructional flow, is the notion of designing blog use based on learning outcomes. Learning outcomes are much more than course objectives. Learning outcomes begin with course objectives; however, include student learning needs and objectives, and future application of the learning. Therefore, understanding of the global nature of the learning outcomes of a course in crucial to good planning and use of learning resources and tools. Choosing the blog tool in a course would mean that the transferable skills of critical thinking, thought processing and knowledge construction would be well supported and recorded. If the instructor is unclear as to what the learning outcomes of the course are and is focused only on course objectives, the potential of the blog tool may not be maximized. The following are several ways in which the use of blogs in instruction can develop new higher level thinking skills:

Analysis: A blog can help students process their thoughts and ideas for analysis. There is no better way to begin to see the importance of analysis as when there is a goal of articulating your thoughts for explanation to others. That is, if two ideas are presented together in support of one concept, self-reflective students must learn to a) distinguish the ideas, b) understand the differences between and similarities between, c) understand where the connection points are if any, d) decide, based on analysis, which one (if any) they will include and build upon in their own learning process. This is a highly constructive process and the skills needed must be intentionally encouraged and can be visibly recorded in a blog.

Synthesis: As part of the analysis, it is important that students can synthesis the original ideas and the new ideas they will articulate. The synthesis of ideas is crucial to the process of working ideas and incorporating new ideas into their own thinking.

New ideas: Grasping new ideas through analysis and synthesis means that students can move ahead with their thinking and move closer towards transformation in learning and application. Information is not what makes a new idea. Information must be processed and applied before new ideas will emerge for students. Too many instructors remain at the information-exchange stage with students and do not move them towards new ideas. A blog can help develop these thinking skills as well as capture the new ideas well for others to view and absorb.

Application: Without application, new ideas are not "owned" by students in their learning. That is, new ideas can only become meaningful and relevant for students when then are directly applied in real life contexts of practice and use. This stage can also be well captured in a blog and, in fact, the entire thinking process of each student can be captured and made accessible for instructors and other students to explore.

Note: Each of these stages of thought development must be intentionally supported by instructors through comments and feedback and expectations communicated to each student. Additionally, grades should reflect the entire process of learning, not simply the end product, if students are to understand the value to their own learning.

3. Misuse of the environment
As I mentioned before, blogs are not wikis and they are not online discussion forums. The essential difference between a blog and other online tools is that it is intended to be an individual publication: a one-way monologue or self-post to which others may comment but do not contribute. The original post remains as the person who posted it wanted it to be. This is important to realize in the instructional setting. If a discussion is desired, then blogging would not be the tool of choice. In the same way, if journaling is the intended goal, then an online discussion forum would not be the tool of choice. It is important to realize, as an instructor, that if you desire a journal-type setting, then your comments should be supportive and constructive and not intrusive otherwise the student(s) will cease to post. Blogs can have a discussional nature if there are many subscribers and participants. That is, you can "hear" from every student on one topic or another by creating a blog ring to which they can subscribe. The self-posting, however, remains the same. That is, unlike a wiki, where changes can be made to posts and documents, in a blog, the initial post always stands and is simply responded to and not altered in any way. When using blogs to encourage students to articulate their thoughts students can become empowered and feel that they are developing their own voice in the learning process. Instructors can also "glimpse" students' thought processes and become much more aware of their learning journey.

4. Illusive grading practices
Grading of blogs should have clear rubrics so that students do not become confused as to how their work is being evaluated. As blog posts are essentially a series of statements, I have suggested elsewhere that, depending on the learning outcomes of your course, specific statement types to recognize in your assessment rubric might be:

  • Reflection statements (self positioning within the course concepts);
  • Commentary statements (effective use of the course content in discussion and analysis);
  • New idea statements (synthesis of ideas to a higher level); and
  • Application statements (direct use of the new ideas in a real life setting).

As already mentioned, blogging can move students forward in their thinking, help them process to a higher level of understanding, and apply the learning to a practical context. If the grading is not clear and the tool is simply made available to students, not only will students become discouraged, they will likely not participate. As I have seen on numerous occasions, it is when students continue regular use of the blog throughout a course that their learning is truly supported and their thinking truly challenged. It is, therefore, important to keep students focused with regular reminders and to keep expectations clear and grading transparent. Timelines for completion should also be set so that students know how much time they have to use the blog tool.

5. Inadequate time allocation
The notion of adequate time is not discussed often enough in the use of technology in learning. Just as students are different in their processing time within any learning context, so adequate time should be given for every student to complete work using online tools such as the blog. Instructors should be reasonable and if possible, leaving the blog tool open until the end of the course. This will help students maximize the benefits of the tool and will also provide more time for students who need it. As online tools provide a more immediate learning context for students, they also usually encourage more participation from students. This participation in turn provides more text or other response types from students and ultimately more for instructors to read through or view and grade. Therefore, instructors should plan ahead and plan well for the increased work that will likely take place when their students are using online tools.

Students should be fully aware of what the expectations are and how the tool is being used in their learning process. Once students understand this, they are more likely to participate and to a greater degree of critical awareness. While there are many mistakes that can be made in using any new tool in instruction, instructors should have a question and answer mindset in their use. It is important to find out what problems or challenges exist and to find solutions quickly. Instructors who use online tools must be innovative in their approach, creative in their course design, and flexible in their methods in order to ensure successful learning experiences for their students. While there is no one-way to use any instructional resource well, it is important to integrate the use of any tool or learning resources intro the overall course design intentionally and totally supporting the learning outcomes for the students.

About the Author

Ruth Reynard, Ph.D., is the executive director of academic programs and faculty at Daymar Colleges Group and an education consultant. She can be reached at ruthreynard@gmail.com.

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