Thursday, February 24, 2005

Building an online community with my students

We have been asked to consider how we might build an online community from a collection of student blogs. This is perhaps the most important task we have been given in this course. It is the reason we have spent almost 6 weeks learning about podcasts and how to post pictures in our blogs.

The questions given as part of the task are good ones. Let's see if the same can be said of my answers!

- How can I persuade students to post to their blogs regularly?

As with almost anything that I ask my students to do - literature circles, journaling, sustained silent reading - I have to participate with them as an equal. If they see me enthusiastically engaged in the activity, they almost always get on board themselves. So my example will be a big motivator.

Of course, students must have real things to blog about. I think that the assignments must be authentic. I haven't quite figured out what that will look like in all my classes, but I am thinking seriously about it. I like the idea of reading and commenting on the readings in a blog, as Anne Davis has her students doing. Then there is Barbara Ganley's writing class blog. She has students posting their writing and responding to each other's posts. I do something like this already with my advanced writing students, so I think this will be an easy transition for us all to make.There is no guarantee, however, that students complete these assigned tasks.

- How can I encourage lurkers to participate?

Lurkers are some of my favorite people. Until recently I was always a lurker, and I still am in many situations. We need specific tasks and lots of encouragment. Success in this area will depend largely on the sense of community established. Of course, blogging could be a requirement, but that doesn't seem like the best way to tackle the problem. And even if it is a requirement and lurkers blog, it may not mean they do anything substantive. So I think the community will have to be appealing and supportive. It may mean that I, as the teacher, have to find out what the reasons for lurking are and address the issue on a case-by-case basis.

- How can I encourage my students to read and post to blogs other than their classmates?

Here again, my first reaction is probably that it would have to be built into the course requirements.

A logical way for me to encourage students to do this would be to have them set up an aggregator and do a search on the theme of the course. An example of this is that in the spring semester, one of the themes we use is the death penalty. A simple search on Bloglines links to all kinds of references to the death penalty. So if students used Bloglines and were exposed to blogs on the topic they were researching, I think they would be likely to read them. Commenting on them would take more effort because I think they would worry about their English. But by the advanced level, maybe not so much. Of course, all this would have to be taught; skill would have to be developed over time. That is why I would like to start long before students reach the advanced level, giving them time to work into all of this.

- How can I encourage people from outside the classroom to post on student blogs?

I guess I would try what Anne Davis did: post a request on my blog. Now, that means that I would have to have a blog that is interesting enough to have readers. So that is good encouragement for me to keep my blog up.

- How can I encourage students to post and respond to comments to their classmates' blogs?

This comes down to the feeling of community in my classroom. If my students care about each other, they will be more likely to want to read each other's posts. What worries me more than getting them to read and comment is getting them to make substantive comments. The tendency would most likely to amke the kind of innane comments we all do from time to time - "Good point!", "I like your ideas", "I agree", etc. I am, not sure yet how I would do this. In part, I think I would assign specific questions for the comments to address. Maybe the comments could be focused one time on explaining why the reader agrees or disgrees with the post and another time on how reliable the source seems to be, for example. Another time it could pose a question about the post. Something like that anyway. I obviously would have to modify the tasks based on the proficiency of the student and the topic under discussion.

- How can I keep the interest going when the novelty has worn off?

There are two things to keep in mind here, I think. One is to establish the habit. That takes time, but not all that much time. I have my students now journal every day. They expect that. They enjoy it, too. I hope that by the end of the semester, they will decide to continue journaling. I would expect the same to be true once I start my students blogging. Habit must be established. I think that would require a lot of blogging in the beginning. And fun blogging, too. But once the value of blogging has become clear to the students and once he has developed the habit of blogging, it will carry him through some of the plateaus and valleys in his interest. Another part of this would be getting students to regularly read blogs because they would provide encouragement and example aswell as fodder for students' blogs.

I also think that you have to be careful not to have students do the same basic blog every week. GIve them some variety. That's what Anne Davis has done with her Teachers & Technology class blog.

Ont thing that I noticed, though, looking at her students' blogs, is that there are very few comments. I don't know if this is by design or my accident. Or is that just what would naturally happen unless commenting were a course requirement.

- How can I design a course that will both build community and encourage continuing participation beyond the limits of the course?

I am afraid I don't have a clue about this one yet. I can see it helping to build community, but that isn't really a problem I have with my classes now. I have very small classes and we establish community fairly early on. But it all seems to disappear once the students leave the ESL program.

It might be nice to set up a blog for the ESL program that could serve as an orientation for new students. Huh! I like that idea! A wiki might actually work better, but I think I am sticking with blogs right now. This is something that I could do now in the middle of the semester. It could help to acquaint the current students to blogging and set up the beginnings of the program orientation blog. I could also ask former students to join and post their comments and reflections on the program as well as their advice for new students. I am going to work on that this weekend!

Wow! This has been a fruitful post! Writing as Thinking, as my friend Melanie reminds me. She has a blog at Blogger, too, called They Have Their Own Thoughts. It is about her experiences teaching in the New Orleans public schools. Check it out!


Nathan Lowell said...

Nance -- if you need a Mystery Guest to work with your class, let me know :D

Nancy A. McKeand said...

Thanks, Nathan! I'll keep that in mind.

Jim said...


I enjoyed reading your post on building a blogging community with your students. I think the questions you ask are extremely important. I want to re-read those and see if I can make them into a list of questions for teachers starting a blog.

Teachers are often excited when they start blogging and then drop out of blogging for numerous reasons. I think if they reflected on some or your questions it would help them plan ahead and see this is an overnight project.


Anonymous said...

"How can I keep the interest going when the novelty has worn off?" Good question.

My overall philosophy of my student blog is to keep it running as an student learning network or environment. At any given time, Room 613 Student Blogs may contain a run of student posts on the subject of current events (for extra credit), or a specific social studies homework assignment, project notes or assigned research.

Between assignments however, the post flow dwindles, but does not stop, due to the efforts of those who enjoy voluntarily sharing information on topics of thier choice. Humor, new discoveries, and sharing favorite game information are all fair game.

So far, as students spend more time on mandatory assignments, more and more reach the point where they feel comfortable posting in the gaps between assignments, and that sustains the momentum.

PS: Thank you for commenting on my student's "Plane Design" post. Ryan will be glad to hear that he contributed to your learning :)

Maryam Ahmadzadeh said...

Dear Nancy,
you have a vary nice blog. I started blogging in a class and our teacher was really good. She encouraged all of us in many different ways including what you mentioned. I love blogging and I am really thankful to my dear pro.
Keep up the good job.
And ofcourse thanks for visiting my blog and commenting on it.

Maryam Ahmadzadeh said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.