blogs for students and course management

I finally decided to move into the realm of web hosting. My professional site has been simply an iweb, mobileme hosted site since I put it up last year, and I’ve used to run my courses the past few semesters (ex, here, here, here). Part of what pushed me to paying (sort of) for hosting, were both positive experiences and frustrations with free services over the course of the last few years.

This past fall semester, I used netvibes as a web portal for a class on the early Andes, and fed student blog posts onto its home page using consolidated rss with a yahoo pipe. This worked OK, though the pipe was not perfect. Several feeds were entered, and re-entered, and for some random reason just would not show up. I also didn’t like the visual experience of the netvibes page. I put a bunch of resources up there that students never used as well- including a wetpaint wiki for lecture notes and a discussion board for questions. Students had no interest in using these tools.

I will say, though, that the experience of having students register their own blogs on either wordpress or blogger worked wonderfully. I was surprised, at times, at the effort that some of the students put into their weekly posts– and had a few students divulge to me that they felt more ownership over the space, and thus were more vested in what they wrote, than they ever did using Blackboard’s discussion board or blog features. Several of them customized their spaces, even wrote extra posts when something hit them related to the class. On the whole I was very pleased with this. In past semesters, I required students to post weekly responses on a Blackboard discussion forum, including for a film class, and I was completely underwhelmed. The latest experience just confirmed that response. For many students, knowing that their blogs were public made a difference, even if they weren’t completely conscious of it.

During Fall 2008, I taught a graduate seminar called Foundations of Graduate Study in History, our basic seminar required of all entering grad students, and used a blog for the syllabus and readings. I also enrolled all members of the seminar as contributors and required one student to post per week, on weeks that student had to lead discussion. Everyone else was required to comment on the post. This was a change from my original practice, which was for everyone to email the group with their reactions or questions each week. I refined the practice for Fall 2009 by requiring everyone to register their own blogs, and putting their rss feeds in the sidebar. They also all had to post each week, instead of just on their week to lead discussion. This worked much better as well.

On the management side of things, I find blog pages to be a very convenient way to post readings and assignments– replicating the one functionality of LMS’s that most professors, in History Departments at least, seem to like and use. Beyond that, though, my students were able to “turn in” writing assignments to me simply by virtue of the wonders of RSS. Now granted, the feedback loop on this kind of assignment is a little different that traditionally marking up papers.  I tried to comment on at least one post for each student in class. For the early Andes class, participation grades were based largely on weekly posting. In addition, students had to turn in a selection of three of their favorite posts as a portfolio that was graded separately. I simply emailed them my feedback. I imagine for the portfolio, you could turn their posts into a pdf and mark-up/annotate them. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I used DEVONthink to collect their feeds, all emailed assignments, grades, etc.

So, if all that worked well enough, why move to a hosted installation of wordpress? Basically, I want more control. I like the ability to use templates to construct static landing pages or static resource pages. I like the ability to use plugins to direct aggregated feeds directly into the post stream of the course website. This is a much more elegant and attractive solution than netvibes and yahoo pipes. If I decide to take the wiki route or need a discussion board, I’ll set up a subdomain for each of those features and use them across my courses. For Spring 2010, I’m teaching three classes– a grad seminar on the Spanish Conquest, an undergrad honors seminar on Historical Research Methods, and an upper division class on Gender and Sexuality in Early Latin America. Each of these classes will have their own installation of WP on a subdomain of, mostly because with one-click installation its so easy and I don’t have time to really learn WPMU before the semester starts. I imagine in the future I’ll migrate to a WPMU installation and host my students’ blogs as well. For now, I feel content.

Future projects:

  • Migrate parezcoydigo to its own url/installation.
  • Set up a site/blog for my next book project, “Sex, Crime, and Empire in the Age of Charles III.” My plan is to use an omeka installation to display a collection of documents, transcriptions, maps, and methodology/database stuff as I develop the project.

In the meantime, we’ll see how the semester goes if I can ever finish the syllabi and get them up!


Associate Professor of Early Latin America Department of History University of Tennessee-Knoxville

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Posted in Digital History, Teaching
4 comments on “blogs for students and course management
  1. Interesting approach to the classroom/blogging integration problem, thanks for sharing! Giving the students personal ownership over their blogs is a great idea–I find that students don’t contribute much when it is a group blog, unless they are directly (and harshly) graded on their entries. I wonder if there would be a way to translate that to the field. We’ll be running a project blog again this summer and I had to practically set fire to the undergraduates to get them to contribute to it. Any thoughts?

  2. ctb says:

    Hi Colleen– sorry to take so long to respond. I’m just back from the AHA and catching up. Again, I think the key is the combination of coercion and ownership. Some students simply won’t respond to anything but coercion, while others seem to get into at least temporarily having their own space. Certainly, there were a number of my students who weren’t interested, who didn’t put in effort, and some who did nothing despite the fact that blog writing amounted to about 35-40% of their grade.

    Are you using a wordpress installation? Using one of the RSS aggregator plugins would allow you to do both- the group blog, and the personal ones, as each student’s post would automatically show up on the post page of the group blog.

    What kind of direction/assignment do the students get for what they write? Is it freeform response? Specific topics? Combination?

  3. Hi,

    No worries–it take me ages to respond to things sometimes. Thank you though! It is a good idea to use an aggregator; we used one for a New Media class I was in, but I haven’t bothered since.

    During excavations I usually talk to the students and they either write independently or I ask them to write about something that comes up in the trench. It also helps to show them that it doesn’t have to be in standard “diary” format. This is an entry from one of our students last year:

    The big difference is that they did not get graded on it, I mean, who really grades a field school anyway?

  4. ctb says:

    Sure, without the coercion of grades… I wonder, to what extent do you and the other leaders of the dig/field school model the type of posts you want from your students? Are there problems related to wifi access and the like? Do you all chat about the posts during the day when on site?

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