Teaching College Science: Blogs and Beyond

Brian Switek, of Laelaps

Brian Switek, of Laelaps

One the sessions I attended at this weekend’s Science Online ’09 conference was Teaching College Science: Blogs and Beyond. Being an aspiring high school Biology teacher, I figured this would be both interesting and relevant. It was hard to choose sometimes between the simultaneous sessions, but this one was a ‘can’t miss’. I was not disappointed.

The session was hosted by Brian Switek of Laelaps and Andrea Novicki of the Center for Instructional Technology at Duke University.  “Official” group notes for the session can be found here. (Thanks to Andrea and Brian for the shout out.)

The session was productive, with the room split into several groups for discussion before we shared our thoughts with each other to produce the notes found there at the wiki. The actual discussion prompt was “How can you use blogs in teaching and learning science?”

I had the distinct pleasure of being in a group of four consisting of Cathy the Chemistry Teacher, Daniel the Biology Instructor, and the larger than life Blake Stacey. It was a bit difficult keeping JanieBelle seated (not on Blake’s lap) and properly focused (not on Blake) of course, but we all managed. (Ok, a gag and handcuffs may have been involved.)

One of the ideas that came up was motivating students to keep blogs, and I want to focus a bit on that. Though we all agreed that this would be helpful to students (it was for me, certainly), there are several hurdles that need to be lept. I encountered some of these myself as a student last semester, trying to Blog my Biology Class. The re-writing of notes when not under the gun of trying to keep up was extremely helpful to me to grasp concepts I didn’t quite get a handle on during the lecture. It was also helpful even when I fell behind on the blog a bit, to rehash mistakes I made on exams and quizzes and see why I missed particular questions.

(Continue reading, below the fold)

Already a blogger, motivation to start and keep a blog wasn’t really an issue for me, though it certainly would be to a non-blogging student. The question is, ‘how do I motivate them to start?’. I don’t know that specific answers to this question were advanced, but some ideas floating around in the back of my cranium involve extra credit for the class or for particular exams.

I’ll also be encouraging the PASS students to keep blogs, though I obviously can’t offer them any sort of reward in that sense.

Besides just motivation to begin a blog, there are a few other issues here. The most immediate would be privacy. There are a million different situations, and hence a million different needs for privacy, but if there were a place for all the students of a class to blog without access by the general public, that should address all of them adequately. There actually is a web based application called Blackboard that provides such privacy (though I don’t know if a class blogging site can be set up). My issue with Blackboard (we use it for a few classes at Coastal) is that it is basically unnavigable. Taking ten clicks to get to anything you want to do, and then another ten to do something else is just bad design. It breaks the very first rule of Web Design 101: “Be easy.” I can’t express to you how much I dislike Blackboard and how frustrated it makes me.

A related issue with something like Blackboard is what to do with the blogs once the course is over. If students put a great deal of work into them, it seems almost tragic to just delete them. And yet leaving them sitting around doesn’t seem viable on the teacher/server end, either. Perhaps they could/should be exported to an XML file and just given to the respective student-author.

Another pressing concern with blogging by students is time. Blogging well and effectively in such an academic setting takes a great deal of time. I know that I put several hours into each of my Blogging my Biology posts and an equal amount of time into the various images I used to illustrate them. This is the biggest reason why I have yet to finish the series. I’m thinking that an easily accessible and freely available library of pre-made images would alleviate at least that much of the problem. Such a library could be left standing for students to use in each new semester, as well.

I’d like to see this idea of encouraging students to blog their class explored more fully. If the concerns can be addressed adequately and the issues here resolved, it seems that this would be a powerful tool to use in conjunction with the classroom lecture.

From whence came the art:

That image of Brian Switek was taken during the Science Online 09 conference, during the session that is the subject of this post. I do not know the identity of the photographer.

6 Responses to “Teaching College Science: Blogs and Beyond”

  1. Stephanie Z Says:

    I’ve seen Blogger used for class blogs. A blog can be open to only the contributors, and the individual profiles of the students don’t need to be made public either. Now if only it could handle a recent comments function….

  2. Lou FCD Says:

    Hmmm… I didn’t know that about Blogger.

    And it won’t do recent comments anymore? It did when I and the girls were on there. I’ve often wondered why your blog didn’t have recent comments, and I think you and I were discussing that very issue at the conference about a former setup of Mike’s blog.

    Recent comments is a must-have for a blog, I think.

  3. Andrea Says:

    Thanks for contributing to the the session, and for your thoughts here. I have linked here from my post about this session.

    • Lou FCD Says:

      Thank you Andrea. I was tickled to be there, and enjoyed your session immensely. I think it was the most directly and immediately relevant of the ones I attended.

  4. Usman Says:

    Blogger does not seem to have a “recent comments” option now, but you may use websites (Bloglines, GoogleReader, etc) or Outlook express to subscribe to student blogs and then view, filter, sort blog posts through those sites/programs.

  5. Ideas for using blogs and wikis in your course Says:

    […] One of the participants who uses a blog to post his course notes, wrote about his own ideas from the session, in his blog, Crowded head, cozy bed. […]

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