Laura Gibbs

Fall 2017: Story of a Blog Network (6): Randomness and Comments

Blog Post created by Laura Gibbs on Sep 10, 2017

So, here is the Week 3 installation in Story of a Blog Network for Fall 2017, and i made a tag so that you can easily access the prior posts in this series: network2017 (not sure if that will work). Here's the URL just in case:


Today I want to write about what is the most difficult aspect of the blog network for me, which is using it as a space not just for students to publish their work online but also as a space where students can connect and share ideas by commenting on each other's blogs. Blogs are not an ideal conversation space; in fact, they leave a lot to be desired that way... but discussion boards are pretty terrible too, so I'm willing to live with the fact that back-and-forth at a blog is not all that it could be. The main problem that occupies my attention is, instead, distribution of comments. I really want there to be a dense class-wide network, but that is not always easy to achieve. I have come to rely on RANDOMNESS as the best way to achieve that density, and it works pretty well. Over time, the power of randomness means that the comments are well distributed throughout the class, and it also means that students get to meet lots of other students. Doing the commenting at random is not perfect, and in a later post I'll talk about some of the problems with this system, how it evolved, etc. But for today, I will just describe how the blog commenting works in my classes.


So, here's how it goes:


Each week, students are posting in their blogs (reading notes, a story, other assignments), and there is also a blog commenting assignment. Here's how a week looks overall: Week 3 assignmentsFor the blog commenting assignment, which they can do any time during the week, they go to a page which has a randomizer; each time the page loads, they see a link to the Introduction post and that week's story by a student in their class; here it is for Week 3: Blog Comments.

screenshot of blog comments assignment


The idea is that each student comments on two students' blogs each week: one comment on the story post, and one comment on the introduction post, for two people which makes a total of four comments. Commenting on the introduction is really important; that's how they get to know each other as people. Over time, people will have commented on more and more introduction posts by people in their class (especially in my smaller class, Indian Epics, which just has 30 students, opposed to 60 students in Myth-Folklore); when they've met the person they are randomly assigned to already and have commented on their introduction, they can just choose some other post at the person's blog to comment on. And that's fun: there are always lots of cool posts to comment.


So, as you can see, with each person commenting on two other people at random, my hope is that everybody will get at least ONE set of comments. Randomization is powerful that way! Most people get two sets of comments, and almost almost everybody gets at least one set of comments. The odds of someone getting no comments are quite low. But it can and does happen, especially because not everybody does the comment assignment, and I make sure to let the students know to just be patient because the blog commenting will even itself out over time. It actually helps that not everybody does the story assignment in a given week, while that person might do comments (in fact, they really need to since they are already missing points from having skipped the story assignment). That works in my favor, and so does the extra credit blog commenting option (some students really enjoy the social aspect of class, so they can do an extra set of comments every week if they want). 


In a post next week, I'll explain in more detail the advantages and disadvantages of this approach. It has evolved over time, and I'm still not 100% happy with it, but I would definitely rate it as good enough. Students really do enjoy the unpredictability of the randomizer: whose name will magically appear? No one knows until, presto, you see the name on the screen and click!


How I make the randomizer. I use to create the randomizer, as I do all my random content. I do not know what I would do without this tool which a genius student built for me over 10 years ago (his name is Randy, and he built a randomizer: clearly, cosmic forces were at work there!). For the blog comments, I create a new javascript for each class each week, but that goes very quickly, because I use a spreadsheet to do that.


spreadsheet screenshot


As you can see, the spreadsheet has html columns plus variable data columns; each week, the only new data that I add is a link to the current story in the person's blog (or I leave that blank if they do not have a story); all the content of all the other columns stays the same. The process of pasting in those story URLs is manual, and it takes me about 20=30 minutes; I click on the story label link that I have already for each blog, and then grab the URL of the current week's story to paste into the spreadsheet. That is actually time well spent, though, because it means I quickly visit each blog to see the latest story and just generally keep an eye on things. I read the blog stream in Inoreader usually, which means I don't see the actual blogs, so it's fun to see what people are also doing with blog design! This also gives me a record of which students are missing the story assignment from week to week, along with other data tracking I can do here. I built the spreadsheet to support the randomizer, but it's turned out to be useful in those other ways too.


So, after I've got the story URLs in their column, I can then copy-and-paste all the columns that constitute the table into an HTML file (HTML doesn't mind all the stupid tabs that come along with copying-and-pasting from a spreadsheet), and then converts the file to a javascript which I upload to my webspace and embed in the assignment instructions. That all sounds way worse than it is; this part of the process takes less than 5 minutes.


The results. If you are curious you can see the actual comment stream. Blogs like Blogger and WordPress offer separate streams for the blog comments, so I am able to subscribe with Inoreader and see all the comments go by in nearly-real-time, and it's fun to take a look just to see how it's all going. During this part of the semester, students are commenting on blog posts in a mostly social way; in a few weeks, the project websites will be going up, and in addition to these social comments, there will be another commenting activity, more in-depth, for commenting on projects. I'll write up a blog post about that when it gets started — and, yes, that assignment also will have a randomizer.


So, for me the power of random works pretty well, but not perfectly (more about those problems in a later post). I'm curious how other people manage this. For me, one of the very frustrating things about LMS discussion boards is that they don't usually have a randomizer OR a "see threads with no replies" option, something to help make sure that comments are well distributed. What kinds of options are there in Canvas to make sure student comments and connections are spread throughout a class to create a solid network...? This is an aspect of my class that I'm always working on, but I'm happy with this current solution because it requires less than an hour of my time each week, and it creates a good commenting experience for all the students, especially as they connect and reconnect from week to week.


Just call me... Doctor Random!

cartoon shows Doctor Random is in or out

(Cartoon by Sumanta Baruah)