Last week we had a guest lecturer in town, Christopher Long, from Penn State University. Long was coming to Baylor to discuss how to curate your digital vitae. Walking into the lecture, I somehow expected him to discuss how I ought to make my vitae more digitally relevant, with a webpage and perhaps a blog. But that is not what he did. Rather, he discussed pedagogy and how media and technologies can be used to aid academics in fulfilling the three roles they are often called to: teaching, research, and administration or service.
Go figure. It’s often simultaneously more simple and more complex than I first imagined. Often, I try to make utilizing digital technologies in academia this large task that must be completed so that I can be “relevant” in the modern world. But rather, it’s about how digital technologies can make my job easier and more effective if I utilize them effectively. But like any good teacher, Long kept pedagogy the cornerstone of his lecture.
The primary focus for Long was the utilization of course blogs in the classroom to help build community and engagement among students. My interest was naturally peaked as an instructor who has previously integrated course blogs into my classrooms. Course blogs are much like regular blogs, except that all students’ blogs and comments are integrated into a single, communal space, which is the course blog. Many of the benefits he mentioned from using course blogs, I saw in my own classroom. Things such as more active involvement in class and a stronger sense of community were among the top of my list.
However, I did not see the same level of writing quality that he saw throughout his semester. Part of the trick, I believe, was that he used a course blog rubric. For those of you considering using course blogs in your classroom, I highly recommend utilizing Long’s rubric. By using a rubric that is vague while still communicating the level of writing that is expected, Long helped his students remain creative but substantively creative.
By utilizing course blogs, Long noted, students gain ownership of their own class. They write the reflections. They comment on each other’s blogs. And ultimately, they determine where the class goes. For instance, Long taught a philosophy class and discussed how students drove the conversation to heavily cover ethics. Without the blog, the course may never have been driven to where the students wanted to focus.
The downside to this ownership is that it means professors must be open to owing their classes less. But I don’t see this as a downside. As Plutarch noted, “The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.” Thus, we as teachers must reach for tools that kindle the fire of interest, creativity, and learning in our students. In doing this, however, we must let go of the concept that teaching is pouring our vessels of knowledge into our students. If we can let go, our students might begin to kindle and then go on to do really interesting things themselves because they had the experience of being their own learning agents. Things like starting a non-profit organization for Sri Lankans (something a student at Penn State did). If we expect our students to do when they graduate, we must help them learn how to do now. And the best way to get students doing is to let them be actively involved in their own education. I encourage other professors out there to consider courseblogging as a way to engage your students and invite them into the process of discussing and ultimately creating their own class and the materials therein.