Last week, I sat in on a webinar featuring Kevin Schultz and Ed Blum of the excellent Teaching United States History blog. The title was “Teaching History: Using Blogs in the classroom to engage students” and, as their wrap-up post suggests, it was really interesting. Yet, I was still disappointed. I don’t blame Kevin and Ed at all though because I’m afraid that my hopes for the webinar were unreasonable. Let me explain why.
I started this blog a long time ago so that I could gain the skills needed to use blogging as a teaching tool. My first class blogs were tied to trips stemming from the soon-to-be-departed Teaching American History Grant program. I set the teachers up with their own blogs and made them do a post every night because we figured that’s the most we could possibly expect them to write when their days were packed with historical sightseeing and seminars. Those blogs got better each year as we learned how best to arrange that assignment for those unique circumstances.
In recent semesters, I’ve had trouble bringing blogs into the undergraduate classroom because getting undergrads to write anything is like pulling teeth. Getting them to respond to other people’s posts (or even comments) is even harder. I’m convinced some of this is because of something Britney Titus wrote here a few months ago about discussion boards in an online classroom setting that would apply equally to blogs:
[D]iscussion boards will always be work in an online setting. The students have to log on and physically write a response. Unlike a traditional classroom where the students just have to speak to stimulate discussion, the online setting makes the students type out their responses, making the discussion work rather than a natural activity. Discussion boards thus, in an online classroom, will never be as effective as one in a physical classroom because the students have to worry about all the grammatical and structural components of writing instead of just saying what’s on their minds. This not only decreases motivation to participate in the discussion boards, it causes the students to relinquish all creativity and impulsivity that they may have had otherwise in a physical classroom.
Still, the more I think about it, the more I think even this excellent point is insufficient to capture the difficulty in getting students to blog.
Blogging, like taking an online course, is a demand on a student’s time outside of normal working hours. Of course, homework of all kind is a demand on a student’s time outside of normal student working hours, but blogging or discussion boards require a level of commitment that I’m afraid many students just aren’t willing to make. If I assign a student a paper, the assignment is over when they write that paper. If I want them to have a discussion outside of class, they have to keep checking back into that discussion to see comments and follow up if necessary. Chatting on Facebook is one thing, but moving an academic discussion outside the classroom into an online environment might just cross the line for some people.
It doesn’t for faculty. We’re committed to working nights and weekends to do the best by our students. But what if students don’t want to make the same kind of commitment that we do to do the best by their classes? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying all college students are unmotivated. However, what if a student who is perfectly motivated within the confides of the class simply prefers to take as little work home with them as possible? Getting those students to make the most out of blogs is going to be really hard. Getting the ones who don’t want to do any kind of homework is going to be next to impossible.
I explained this concern in the chat window early in the webinar. Ed acknowledged that it was a good question, but then I never got an answer. Again, I don’t blame Kevin and Ed at all for this. Too many people in that webinar hadn’t been exposed to blogs at all for them to directly address such an advanced concern. I also don’t expect anyone to have a solution to this problem (although if you do please drop it in the comments).
Despite my problems getting students to write in blogs, I plan to continue to experiment with them in future undergraduate classes. Still, I can’t help but wonder if I might be banging my head against a brick wall.