Here are a few reflective thoughts about assessing student blog posts. Students were asked to contribute to a class blog as part of the online journalism unit that I teach. Eleven theoretical questions were posted on the blog and students were asked to choose five questions and post opinion articles (no more than 800 words each). This was completed over the course of a semester.
Planning the assessment:
The blog assignment had to achieve a number of objectives:
- Devleop practical skills in using a CMS – WordPress.
- Develop practical blog writing skills and a consistent style.
- Demonstrate understanding of online journalism and convergence theoretical issues (previously this had been addressed by setting a good old-fashioned essay)
I begun by looking at marking criteria – such as The Rubric For Assessing Reflective Writing from San Diego State University.
A few ideas that were considered and rejected:
- Using the blog service in Moodle (the VLE). The university uses a VLE called MyCourse (based on Moodle). It works brilliantly, but I felt its blogging tools were a little basic for our level three students. We wanted something more ‘industry’.
- Using Blogger and Typepad: Blogger is free, allows multiple authors (which I required) and could be made private – but design templates too restrictive.Typepad is viewed as being quite ‘industry’ – Sky News, Daily Mail and The Times use it – but there were costs involved.
…………………..it was decided to use WordPress.It proved to be reliable, robust and flexible. Students accessed it from home and through the university firewall.
Blogging about theoretical issues
Students were asked to contribute to a class blog. In other classes, I had done tests where I asked students to set up and design their own individual blogs.They then blogged on topics of their own choosing. This hadn’t worked.
Setting up a class blog allowed me to view all contributions in one place. Students were asked to blog on quite narrow, theoretical, topics. This "forced" them to research, reflect upon, and to form carefully considered analytical pieces. The blog had to address theory to comply with the unit’s learning outcomes.
We also wanted to see students comment on other blog postings and make links to reliable sources of information. This could include websites, audio and video.
They were encouraged
to take time to compose their entries as they would do when writing an
opinion article for a magazine or newspaper. Speed was not a priority for this particular assignment.
Blogs can be used to address plenty of learning outcomes.
- Critical reflection: I heard Jonathan Hewett talk last summer at an AJE conference about using blogs to encourage critical reflection on a postgrad journalism course at City University, London.
Jonathan’s ideas were inspirational and I’m keen to develop some of his
- Paul Bradshaw of Birmingham City University has used blogs to encourage journalistic transparency.
This could be employed to ‘track’ how journalism students approach investigations – What sources do they
choose to contact? What sources to they overlook or choose to ignore? Can they defend
their selections? How methodical is the investigative process?
- The Bivings Report gives 16 ways the media can use blogs. Lots of food for thought here. Blogs are a conversation and we need students to interact more with the local community.
- How the BBC News uses Blogs: Report by Alfred Hermida
What worked / what didn’t.
From looking at the general standard of the assignments.
1) Learning the CMS technology: Good.Most students developed a good understanding of the technology, categories, tags, uploading images and video etc. That said, we had a couple of students who repeatedly forgot their passwords (ahhhhhhh!).
2) Addressing theoretical issues: OK/Good.All students had to think through a number of theoretical issues, although quality of research could be improved.
3) Developing good blog writing style: Poor.Complete confusion over audience and appropriate style. This was mostly the tutors fault!
Some reflective thoughts:
- Students not used to blogging. Always a surprise. In a group of 20 only three admitted to running their own blogs and only around five read blogs regularly. Terms like "RSS", "Wiki" and "SEO" need explanation!
- Writing a blog post is different to writing on a Facebook page: This is something I need to reinforce next year. ‘Text speak’ is not acceptable.
- Seven questions down to five: It became clear that it was taking the students too long to research and write well composed analytical posts. Fewer questions improved the quality of response very quickly.
- Blog was private (password protected): This was the hardest decision:
- Pro: Allows students to make mistakes and experiment with different styles.The blog was a learning tool after all.
- Pro: It allowed the tutor to speak more freely to the students and open conversation to occur between students. (there was very little conversation in reality though – see later).
- Con: Students confused about audience – some appeared to write in a way that they thought would please the tutor. We couldn’t examine page impressions or hit counts for postings.
- Con: No conversation with the ‘outside world’.
- Students confused about appropriate blog style: We looked at many blog post styles, but there are very few editorial standards. Students were looking at theoretical issues, so some adopted an academic style of writing which probably wasn’t appropriate for a blog. This needs far more clarity.
- Providing informal feedback was a nightmare: It took ages to post comments on posts as they appeared (and nearly killed the tutor).
- Students reluctant to comment: They wanted to read my comments relating to their posts, but appeared unwilling to provide peer feedback. This was worrying for level 3 students. There was little in the way of ‘conversation’.
- Students concerned that assessed work could be read by their peers prior to submission: It’s rare for students to be able to read each other’s assignments before hand-in. And it was clear this unnerved a few of them. It was clear to see that some students worked consistently throughout the semester and created fantastic posts, whilst weaker ones left it to last minute. The site was very busy the 12 hours before deadline!
Do it again?
Yes, but with changes. Blogs have many uses in teaching and it is essential that journalism students are encouraged to create their own blogs.
The exercise worked well in terms of learning the technology and getting students to reflect upon research. It’s a mostly a student-centered approach, despite the fact they were unwilling to provide peer feedback.
You have to be extremely precise in what you are asking for and this is something to work on!