Classroom Blogging: The Tools

David Parry bio photo By David Parry

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Here is the first post in the semester long series about using blogs in the classroom, if you haven’t already please read the introduction as it will give you a better sense of what this is all about.

I thought I would start by sketching out the technical tools, programs, web services etc. that Jenn has decided to use, as well as provide some background on those decisions. If this is not all clear here, please have no fear, I intend to develop this all in much more detail later. For now, though this should give a general layout to how this is going to get done. Keep in mind the general philosophical/pedagogical principles here throughout: 1. This is going to be done with open source tools. That is no Blackboard, WebCT, or other paid software applications. This makes the students blogging “open” rather than closed (to reflect Jenn’s—and mine—educational view). Also it makes it hopefully free for the students. 2. We need to make all of this cross platform, students could be expected to have both Macs and PC’s—Jenn and I both use Macs, but the common computers at Saint Rose are PCs. 3. Jenn wants students to really blog, that is not post written assignments to a blog, but rather engage throughout the semester in a sustained writing project that reflects writing in this new medium, not just carries over old writing practices onto the web. Again this is just an overview of the tools, I will go into much greater detail on each later.

The Tools

  • First Up—a Blogging Platform: The first thing that the class will need is a place to host the blogs. Again, Course Management Software like WebCT or Blackboard is moving towards incorporating this in their packages, but these really aren’t blogs, they are just online student writing that looks like a blog. There are many free places that host blogs, which students could utilize and maintain if they want after class is over. And again if the idea is to get students to experience how writing changes across context, the writing needs to take place in that context. Jenn could use Live Journal, WordPress, or Blogger just to name a few. All of these offer free hosting. In the end Jenn decided to go with WordPress. There were three key reasons for this choice: 1. The web interface for setting up and customizing the blog is particularly easy. 2. It plays well with other programs (particularly Flock—more below on why this is crucial.) 3. And this is the key, the one that tipped the balance so to speak: RSS. WordPress makes RSS syndication easy, it is actually already set-up when you create a blog. If you are not familiar with RSS this is what is going to allow Jenn to easily read all of the blogs, and solve the problem of students feeling as if what they write is not being read.
  • Second: Flock. This is really the key piece to the blogging puzzle. Part of the way that Jenn is going to be able to monitor 60 something student blogs is by using RSS (if you are not familiar with RSS don’t worry it will get outlined here in a later post). But it was also important to figure out a way to encourage students to read each other’s blogs and have students feel that they are being read (these are two of the pedagogical concerns often cited by those who have already used blogs in the classroom). RSS helps to solve both of the problems, since everyone in the class will be getting a look at everyone’s posting’s for the week, without having to rely on them clicking thru 20 links. (Again more on this later, but the way information is written and read has drastically changed in the last few years, and while most students know how to use a web browser few know about RSS-so this also serves the important pedagogical function of information literacy.) One of the other barriers to blogging in the classroom is the concern that navigating the technology will take away from time spent writing, that is students will dedicate an hour for the homework, and spend 30 minutes figuring out how to do the writing instead of actually doing the posting. Flock helps solve this problem, in addition to having an RSS reader built in, it has blogging software. Students only need to select “New Blog Post” from the menu and a window opens that operates like a word processing window. Type in the window, hit return and send the posting to your blog. Again really simple for students who are not as tech savy. Finally Flock makes it really easy to incorporate info from other websites into your posting, basically highlight and click. As one of the things that Jenn is going to be doing is having students read and respond to news articles, this feature makes it easy for the students. Jenn’s class could use a separate RSS reader, and let students blog thru web interface, but Flock makes this all way easy. And here is the kicker, it runs on Linux, Mac, and Windows. It is probably worth the time if you are interested in blogging in the classroom to go over to Flock and take a look around, especially look at their blog, their annoucements and most importantly look at the Tour as it has an interactive video that demonstrates all of this much better than I can in words.
  • Third: Flash Drive or Laptop: Students enrolled in Jenn’s class are going to be required to bring one of the following to the third class (this is the one where she will set them up in the computer lab): either a 256mb flash drive, or a laptop. Requiring a laptop for class would re a ridiculuos expectation, in fact one is apt to encounter students who rely on the public computers. So by doing things the following way Jenn can make sure every one has access to the tools. Those with laptops will bring them to class, and install Flock and go thru the set-up in class on their own computers. If they have a desktop at home they will install all the software onto a flashdrive, take it home and all they need to do is plug the flashdrive into their desktop and they are set. Those without their own computer can carry their flash drive around plug it into any PC and do the writing for class. Flash drives have gotten relatively inexpensive ($25 for one this size, so it is roughly the cost of a textbook) and will be useful throughout their college careers for transporting papers etc. so the cost is not too much of a concern. Also any campus bookstore will carry these.
  • Fourth: NetNewsWire (Jenn only). While students will read the blog posts thru the RSS in Flock, NetNewsWire is a bit more robust and can handle the workload of monitoring 60 students a bit easier, also there are ways to sort the feeds (assignments) easier in NetNewsWire that will make her job drastically easier (like always looking at them in the same order, not just whoever posts first). There is a free version of this program NetNewsWire Lite, as well as several other RSS readers, this is really a matter of preference and choice. The set-up for this (which I will again get into in later posts) will work pretty much the same across a range of readers, so if you have a different preference, or work off a PC it should be pretty easy to do in your RSS reader of choice.