Blogging in the undergraduate science classroom

At ScienceOnline2012, Jason Goldman and John Hawks organized a roundtable discussion of “best practices” for incorporating blogs into undergraduate courses.  Participants discussed their experiences and gathered suggestions from each other; the benefits of blogging were briefly discussed, but seemed frankly evident to the attendees.  For example, if you assign students to write publicly, their parents can read what they’ve written, which is an incentive for quality work. This discussion traded ideas to facilitate student blogging.  Here are some of my notes.

  • For some students, blogging is completely foreign – they don’t read blogs or are intimidated and don’t want to speak out.  Consider how to familiarize your students with blogs. Some suggestions to get started:
    • Scaffold blogging. Build student experience by first assigning students to read a blog, then comment, then read and comment on a course-generated blog post, then comment, then post a blog entry themselves.
    • Assign a low risk, high reward blog post and give them feedback.
    • Pair students and have one write and the other edit.
    • Create two levels of course blog – one that is private to the course, then a public blog where course blog entries can be promoted, perhaps as a reward or a game.
  • For some students, the technology is a hurdle and the instructor may have to spend time doing tech support.  Some suggestions:
  • Privacy for students can also be an issue (see FERPA).
    • Offer students the option of using a pseudonym and advise them to avoid personal details.
  • How to protect students from internet trolls in the comments?
    • limit comments only to students enrolled in the course
    • use semi-moderation – a commenter must have one comment approved and then can comment without moderation
    • use WordPress filters to screen comments

This discussion went well beyond blogging to other social media and gave examples of using Twitter in the classroom or to collect field research. One great example is using Twitter to share observations of bird behavior.  Students can use social media to build a text or collect resources, comment on research, carry out conversations about course topics asynchronously and edit Wikipedia.

Several other sessions at this conference discussed the benefits of students communicating online about science. “Students as Messengers of Science” explored high school and undergraduate students using online media connected with science engagement programs.  “The Next Generation of Bloggers” highlighted high school student bloggers, some of whom then went on to blog for the prestigious journal Nature’s Scitable.  In another session, Greta Munger discussed students improving Wikipedia articles in Cognitive Psychology as part of the Association for Psychological Science’s Wikipedia Initiative instead of writing traditional papers (a technique that Duke’s Craig Roberts has used in his Learning and Memory course).

Blogs can be used in many different ways in a course, and can benefit students well beyond the classroom. For ideas, see the collection from a session Brian Switek and I moderated at ScienceOnline2009. Brian is a great example of where student blogging can go – he started blogging on paleontology, evolution and history of science, and now has published a book and his writings are now published at Wired Science and Smithsonian.

If you’d like your students to communicate online either publicly or privately, Duke offers WordPress for all courses now with featured examples and many options for help.


Update February 3, 2012: from the University of Copenhagen has published what she learned and thought from this session.