Week Zero... and classes have begun! Even before I sent around the "it's ready" email this morning, several students had found the class open at Canvas and gotten started. One of the best things about online classes IMO is the flexible scheduling, and I am really glad when students start early, finish early, etc. so that they can have the time available for other classes which are more rigid in their time demands. Plus, just selfishly speaking, it really helps me to have some students testing out the instructions, links, etc. so that they can tell me what I need to fix before the semester really gets started next week!
Since I use a blog network for all the actual class activity (I just use Canvas for the Gradebook), I'm going to try to document how that works here at the start of the school year.
1. Each student creates a blog. There is a one-week Orientation for my classes; for the first assignment, they log on to Canvas to see how the self-grading works, and then for the second assignment, they set up their blog. Here are those instructions:
The instructions are super-detailed because most of the students have never created a blog before (don't even get me started on the whole digital native thing). The people who do have blogging experience can glance through the instructions (no harm done), while for people just getting started, the idea is to have a big feeling of success right from the start, and it works. Nobody ever has trouble getting a Blogger blog up and running. They then send me the blog address in the email; after that, they don't have to turn in assignments because I will see all their posts automatically by subscribing to their blog.
2. I put address in roster. When I get the email with the blog address, I recorded it in my class roster (a Google Sheet; the Notes field in the Canvas Gradebook is not up to the task of recording all the info I need for class). The spreadsheet automatically generates the URL I need to subscribe to the comments as well as to the posts by adding feeds/comments/default to the address (most of the students use Blogger; for WordPress, I just add comments/feed/). There are 8 blogs already! A week from now, there will be 90.
3. I subscribe in Inoreader. I copy those two URLs out of the spreadsheet, and I paste them into Inoreader, which is my blog aggregator. That's how I subscribe to both the blog and to the comments. I put the blog in two folders: a combined folder for both classes, and a class-specific folder — that's because some of the automatic Inoreader labeling rules apply to all posts, and some rules apply to posts from a specific class. Here are my folders; as you can see, I don't just use this for my classes; it is also my all-purpose RSS aggregator (and three cheers for the Canvas Status RSS update feed; that's what is in that Canvas folder).
4. I rename the feeds in Inoreader. The students give their blogs all kinds of creative names, and many of them choose not to display their name in the blog or they might use just their initials. That's totally fine! To help me find a student's blog quickly, I rename my Inoreader subscriptions based on the class and first name (so, for example, MF Bridget for Bridget in Myth-Folklore; I only use first names, and first initial of last name if there are multiples). That naming convention lets me quickly find any students in either class:
5. I use Inoreader rules. I have a set of rules in Inoreader that automatically assigns labels to incoming posts based on content in the title. I ask the students to use keywords in their post titles, so Inoreader automatically assigns the labels. I can manually add/remove labels as needed. I sometimes add labels when I notice something I want to come back to (like a formatting problem). Here's what the rule is for assigning the label for the Favorite Places post, which is the first real blog post each student completes. If you use automatic filters and labels in your email, this is exactly the same thing! I am using the exact same rules from last semester; I didn't need to make any changes.
6. I can view the blogs in Inoreader. I can now view the stream of incoming posts in Inoreader in multiple ways: I can see all the student posts, all the posts for one class, all the posts for a single student. I can see comments for a specific student or all the comments. I can also see the stream of posts for a specific assignment (label). There is index view, full-post view, and a magazine view; I use all those different views depending on what I am doing. Also like email, incoming posts are "unread" (unless I use a rule to mark them read); pretty much all the tricks you might use in managing incoming emails apply to incoming blog posts in Inoreader! Here is an example of browsing by labels (left column), with magazine view display; I'm looking at those favorite places posts:
7. I can also view outside Inoreader. I can also configure those post streams to display outside Inoreader; I could have them appear in Canvas if i wanted to, although the way I most use them is at the class wiki where they provide examples for other students to see (another reason why I am grateful for students who get an early start). Here are those Favorite Places post in a page at my wiki, embedded with live updating; click and see for yourself: Favorite Places.
8. I use Inoreader to track my comments. Mostly it is the students commenting on each other's posts, but during the first couple of weeks I leave a lot of replies, both to make sure the blog set-up is working, and also to get to know the students. My replies also provide some good modeling for students to see before they start commenting on each other's blogs in Week 2. I read the posts in Inoreader because I can make the font big — I am so nearsighted! — but then I click and leave the comment at the actual student blog. Then, I "star" the Inoreader record, and that way I can easily see what posts I have replied to (or not), checking on that student by student, or by assignmen. For example, here's a student who already has done several posts, and the stars show me at a glance that I'm caught up replying to her (at least at the moment!).
Today was easy, with just 8 blogs up and running... but things are going to be really hopping as more and more students get started. This is now my third year using Inoreader, and it makes me so confident about interacting with the student blog network, while also just keeping my eye on it as the students take over and it really becomes their space, with me just jumping in occasionally.
To me, this is what an LMS looks like: a blog aggregator. Of course, I would never expect Canvas to have features like this, and that's fine. Inoreader is my LMS! I actually really respect the fact that instead of creating a faux-blog tool inside Canvas, the folks at Instructure recognize that blogging is a serious business, and students need serious tools to get the job done... and I also need a serious aggregator to keep up with all that student blogging.
So, if you are interested in blogging and blog networks and have questions of any kind, just let me know. Plus, I'm going to try to post some follow-up info and examples as the blog network ramps up. I never know just how many students will want to get started on the first day of Week Zero (today), and I am so grateful that there are always some who are ready to go go go. It was so much fun seeing those Inoreader folders come to life after a very quiet summer. :-)