Why use blogs in university teaching: A Socratic dialogue

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Guest post by Anamaria Dutceac Segesten*

When I first told my undergraduate students that we will have a blog connected to the one of their first semester courses, they looked at me with incredulity. A blog? Why, a blog can have nothing to do with academia, right? Well, wrong, was my reply.

I have written elsewhere about the up- and downsides of academic blogs, so I intend to focus here less on the practical how-to but on the principial question of why blogs may be a useful complement to traditional pedagogy.

I will use the form of a dialogue between a person skeptical of the idea (Scepticus) and one proponent (Benivolus), both professors at a respectable university.

Benivolus:  I use blogs in my teaching and both my students and I enjoy it very much.

Scepticus: Blogs, you say? What are these blogs? I have heard of the name but never quite understood what it stands for.

Benivolus: Well, blogs are not far from the diaries or personal journals of old. They are online platforms where a person or a group communicates their thoughts, usually in writing but also through other means (audio podcasts, photographs or videos).

Scepticus: You mean, anyone can have a blog?

Benivolus: Yes, anyone with a computer and internet access can have a blog. Of course, this means that a very large percent of people living in poverty are excluded from the digital universe. At any rate, even if it is hard to count, there are about 156 million public blogs as of February 2011.

Scepticus:  Granted, this appears to be quite a popular activity these days. But out of the millions of blogs you mention, how many blogs do say anything meaningful?

Benivolus: The significance of the blog content, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder/ reader. If you are interested in, say, photographic techniques, then the photo blogs out there are highly significant. On the other hand, if you are an amateur guitar player, you many not find those blogs of interest. There are so many blogs in the world though that there’s something for everyone.

Scepticus: OK, so I might find some blogs that deal with one of my favorite subjects, European politics. Maybe I’ll give it a try and search for this type of blogs later on. However, aren’t we facing an information overload? The problem of meaningfulness still remains. How can blogs be relevant in my teaching?

Benivolus: There are two ways you can deal with blogs in that aspect. You can first treat them as additional sources of information. Like many other Open Education Resources, certain blogs can bring new perspectives to the issues discussed in class. Because they can be published instantly, they give more information about an event currently unfolding or about the most recent trends in a scientific area. You could recommend a blog as supplementary course reading.

Scepticus: The biggest problem is that the information contained on blogs is not checked by anyone. It is just opinions, anything goes. There is no peer review, no scientific validation. How can I trust this content? What will it tell my students – that their papers can be written without any academic reference systems, without academic rigour?

Benivolus: Indeed, Scepticus, you approached a very important aspect here. It is an epistemological issue, of course. How do we know, and how are we sure that what we know is true? We could talk about this for hours, but let me briefly just say two things. One, you could have an idea about the trustworthiness of a blog by looking at who is writing it (some very prestigious scholars have a blog, and if you trust them in peer reviewed journals you can trust them online as well). Some reputed news sources, like Financial Times or the Economist, also host blogs. The second thing goes deeper and asks that we should train our students to filter the information themselves. If our education systems familiarize students with ways of knowing, with approaching any source critically, then we can absolutely trust them to apply the same method to the blog contents.

Scepticus: How about other ways of including blogs in teaching at the university level?

Benivolus: Another strategy would be to have students create their own blog in connection to a course or a program.

Scepticus: Their own blog, you say? But do they know how do it? I don’t want them to start writing uncivil things, to copy and paste things without any references to the original source, to break all the rules we taught them during academic writing courses.

Benivolus: Of course, at first they would need to have an introduction in the techniques behind writing on a blog. But that should not be too difficult. Most of them are part of the digital generation after all. A short course on how to blog, highlighting also issues of plagiarism and writing ethics, is a must. Familiarity with the proposed bloggers’ code of conduct could be important here as well. If you want to stay on the cautious side, you could also make the blog private – so that only the students and the selected teachers have access to it. If it meets your standards this blog eventually could be open for everyone.

Scepticus: How about the content? What can they write about?

Benivolus: The content of the blog is integrated with the content of the course or program the students are following. Assignments pertaining to finding and commenting on information on the subject matters of the course can be part of their grade. Students, either individually or in group, can comment on events and ideas discussed in the lectures or course literature. They can also describe their future research projects, allowing both teachers and peers to engage with their topic and give constructive feedback. Most importantly, I would add, the students would comment on each others’ posts, react to the ideas presented therein, and use the blog as a debate forum on the course topics. In times when contact hours are increasingly fewer, the blog can keep students engaged in virtual discussions outside class hours.

Scepticus: How about the role of the teacher?

Benivolus:  The teacher works as a moderator of the discussion and, at least at first, as a monitor of content quality. By giving feedback (privately, not in the Comment field), students can learn what the expectations are. Highlighting good examples of blog writing also helps improve the performance of students.

Scepticus: After all these answers, the only thing left to ask is how come there aren’t a million academic blogs in world?

Benivolus: I would say there are two reasons. First, blogs are not yet seen as respectable academically. Students themselves associate blogging with dedicated fashionistas or advices on parenting. This is something that can be changed, but only by providing high quality content on academic blogs as an alternative. Second, using blogs in higher education demands teachers that are knowledgeable about blogging. Teachers themselves must learn how to use blogs before they can implement them into regular courses. For some, this is outside their comfort zone. However, as academics we are driven by our curiosity, and I am sure that discovering and using this new tool in our quest for knowledge will be welcomed by many.

* Anamaria Dutceac Segesten is a political scientist at the University of Copenhagen. She blogs at University of Venus and  you can follow her on twitter)