“The blog format is particularly useful for shorter, less formal, assignments” says Macie Hall in Using Blogging as a Learning Tool. Yes. And particularly ‘yes’ to the ‘less formal’ component of Hall’s statement. As a student who has been required to maintain a web blog for a class before, I can tell you that writing and maintaining a blog was a somewhat uncomfortable but rewarding shift from my interpretation of a ‘formal assignment’. Just creating the blog–choosing a theme and voice and content–and assigning my identity behind it forced me to take it a lot more seriously than other assignments I had done in the past. But why would I take a less formal assignment more seriously? Because really what the blog assignment is all about is an invitation to the world to engage in an online discussion.
Traditional assignments are formal. They are formal, structured, and relatively devoid of identity and personality. The blog, however, is much closer to having a discussion and it is so because anyone can read and comment on it. This is unlike traditional writing assignments that are turned in to an instructor or grader. In that schema, only one person is going to see what you have to say and in most cases you won’t get the chance to respond or even be motivated enough to respond. When instructors use blogging as an assignment medium, they force students to double check themselves and really evaluate what they are going to say because anyone from the outside world might read it. This is much akin to composing a Facebook status or tweet. Do you really want to say what you just typed and why? And more still, what are other people going to say about it?
This component–the self-reflection on what you’re about to say–is, in my opinion and experience, the greatest benefit of using blogging in the classroom. I can’t tell you how many times I have been given a prompt and have spent hours thinking about how to even start responding to it. Then when I finally manage to get something coherent on the page, I review it and end up deleting or revising a great majority of it. But why is this then different from writing something for just your instructor? Why do I take this extra time to critique myself? It’s because, as Mark Sample gives as a blogging guideline to his students in A Better Blogging Assignment, I’m trying to answer myself. I’m writing something to respond to the prompt and as I go along I’m thinking “does this make sense?” or “is this actually what I want to say?” And, oddly enough, most of the times I can answer myself which results in me rewriting an entire paragraph or section. This happens many times throughout my composition process and not only usually solidifies my writing but also reveals to me what I do and do not know about the topic. But why then am I really trying to answer myself? Why all the extra work? Well because I want to seem competent and knowledgeable not only to my instructor but also to my peers and the public that could at any time challenge or comment on my ideas.
But this is only half the battle towards making blogs useful in the educational setting. Blogs really shine through when this ‘discussion’ thing I’ve been talking about actually happens. And as anyone who has had to use a blog for a class knows, commenting on your peers’ ideas is often more difficult than writing or defending your own. So difficult I’ve found that if there isn’t some incentive for doing so, the ‘discussion’ just won’t happen. That’s why when my professor for social media ethics required us to not only write a post on a topic but also comment on one of our classmates’ blogs, I despised her. But at the same time, this also forced me to actually check my peers’ blogs on a regular basis. I suddenly found myself taking the critical analysis skills I had applied to my own postings and applying them towards all of my peers’ blogs. What was his opinion on this thing I just wrote about? Why would she think that? Uh oh, this person definitely doesn’t care about this assignment… I found myself consuming what my colleagues were saying and in some cases changing or learning new things from their ideas. But this only happened because I was engaging in the discussion. And that’s what blogs are all about, right? Discussion. In this case, the discussion–the part not present in traditional assignments–is what led to the learning. And the discussion wouldn’t have happened without the tool–the blog–and the motivation to utilize the blog’s full potential. So really, with proper implementation and motivation, the blog can really serve to transform the learning experience. I know it has in many cases for me.