So, we are now nearing the end of the second week at my school, and the 90 students who were just names on a roster list two weeks ago have all suddenly become real actual people, and we are all interacting and learning and sharing together through the blog network. For today's post, I wanted to write about getting to know the students through their blogs and how, at least for me, I am able to get to know them all so much better this way than I would have been able to do in a regular classroom. For background on how I set up the blog network and got it going, here are the earlier posts in this series:
Fall 2017: Story of a Blog Network (1): Running a Network with Inoreader
Today I want to focus on how the blogs help me to get to know my students right from the start of the semester so that I can have their backgrounds and interests and goals in mind as I interact with them, especially in helping them as they get started with the class readings (so they can make good choices from the reading options) and also as they get started with their semester-long project (again, helping them find good options to consider during the first weeks of brainstorming before they make their project choice). It's about personalized learning, but not using some automated AI-robo-machine; I mean personalized in the form of real conversations, sharing and connecting online. It's not F2F, but P2P, person to person, one on one in a way that can't really happen in a classroom.
FAVORITE PLACE(S). So, for their first post, the students write about their favorite place(s). For the students, this is practice in working with images in blog posts (most of them are new to blogging), and for me, this is a really good way to start to get to know them. I comment on all of these posts to let everybody know their blog is working, and where there is any kind of connection I can make to the class (there often is!), then I start sharing ideas, online books, resources right there in my comment back to them. You can see those Favorite Places post in this stream. Every semester, it is so much fun to see what they do with this assignment!
INTRODUCTIONS. The students are then writing more posts during the week which I might or might not comment on (and that's part of the idea with the blogs: it is a learning journal for the student, while also being a space for connecting and sharing), but I do make sure to comment on all the Introduction posts. These are longer posts, and I usually write longer comments on them; I just finished that yesterday, Wednesday of the second week of class. You can see the Introduction stream here.
These posts give me more opportunities to help the students find a connection with the class, and I also start to get a more and more vivid impression of them as people. Some of the Introductions are more long and detailed than others; some have lots of images and might even contain video; other students have already started working on designing their blog space in creative ways; other Introductions are more hesitant, and that's okay too: it's just the start after all, and all the Introductions are works in progress as students can and do tinker with them all semester long. There's an incentive to keep working on the Introductions because they are reading each other's Introductions throughout the semester; it's not just a first-week thing (see next item). And it is the evolution of the blog as an individual space for each student that makes this so completely different from a Discussion Board. The blog stream lets me look at the content of the students' posts in a way that is similar to scanning a Discussion Board, but when I click on the blog title to go write the actual comment, I enter into the blog world created by the student, and over the semester they will make those spaces more and more distinctively their own.
STUDENTS CONNECTING. Students wrote their Introductions back in Week 1, and then in Week 2 they start commenting on those Week 1 posts. You can see how that works here: I built a randomizer so that the comments would be spread out over everybody's posts!
This randomizer is something new. I used to create random blog groups each week which had a nice round-robin effect: you were getting comments from the same people who commented on your blog. That worked when I had around 40 students in each class; I didn't mind doing the groups each week. But now for bureaucratic reasons my school switched things around so now I have more students and the two classes are really different sizes: there are about 60 people in Myth-Folklore and just 30 people in Indian Epics (I'm kind of bummed about that to tell the truth since I preferred having the two classes be about equal in size, but whatever; that's not under my control). Doing groups for 60 is just too awkward both for the students and for me, so I switched to this all-random approach. So far, the students really seem to be liking that; it has a kind of "surprise" factor since you never know who you will get. This week they randomly connect with 4 Introductions... next week, they will randomly connect with just 2 people, reading the Introduction AND a story by that person. I'll write up a separate blog post about how all that is working since I am really happy about how it is letting me use the power of random in a new way to help the students connect with each other. Meanwhile, you can see the comment stream online too!
And MORE CONNECTING. Some students are really into the social aspect of class, so there is an extra credit commenting assignment they can do. They might just keep on reading more Introductions, or they can plunge into the blog stream! That is a new option which I think is really going to be fun. That blog stream is in Canvas, and I am really happy about that as a new addition to the class; since the students are checking in at Canvas after every assignment to record their points, I like the idea that they might be tempted to glance at the blog stream. Just speaking for myself, I love seeing posts popping up all day! You can see the blog streams here for yourself; the idea is that the students just scroll through the latest posts anytime and leave comments on what grabs their attention:
Myth-Folklore Blog Stream
Indian Epics Blog Stream
I've been doing "jump in the stream" myself where I will block out a chunk of time and go see the latest posts that show up and comment on them. Again, it's a very random thing... and very fun! I hope the students will have as much fun with that option as I do.
And I hope that with this post I have given you a glimpse into how a student blog network can be a place for CONNECTING online in a way that is just different from a classroom, and also very different from the usual "dropbox" approach to turning in assignments using an LMS. Every assignment in my class leaves a trace online, either in the blogs or (later) at the students' project websites. So, maybe the next time you read an article bemoaning how impersonal online classes are, you will take a minute to come visit the blog networks in my classes, any day any time, for a reminder that online learning can be totally about personal connections, which (in my opinion) is where the real learning happens.