Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Laura Blankenship

Link to screencast

Laura Blankenship: I'm going to talk a little bit today about my -- I don't know if you want to call it an experiment an experiment that turned into a PhD thesis, about using a class blog in our freshman seminar classes that we teach in Bryn Mawr. A side story, if you want to hear it, is that I actually co-taught this class with my husband, and we're still married. So, it worked out all right.

Actually, to test my own multi-literacy, this is a lot of numbers. So, it's numeric literacy for me. I'm an English person by training, so I was challenged to come up with a numeric way of quantifying what happened in the classroom. So, that's what you're going to see most of today, if I can get the slides to cooperate. Here we go.

The goal in the class when we started out -- the topic of the class was blogging -- so that was sort of obvious, that we wanted them to understand blogging. I put that last, though. Mostly, we wanted to create a collaborative learning environment. We also follow what we call an emergent pedagogy, where we talk about student-centered learning. We let them guide the class a whole lot.

We didn't have a syllabus to start off with. We had the first day planned, and that was it. And then after that, we just kind of went with whatever happened in class and then we determined what was going to happen in the next class. So, we kind of just followed whatever they needed to know. Whatever they wanted to do, we did, within certain guidelines.

We also wanted them to become more aware of audience. That's a big issue in writing pedagogy. Most students have been trained to write for tests and to write for their teachers. And then, once they graduate from college, they're supposed to be able to write for real audiences in some way, even if it's in a business environment. And they have no idea how to do that most of the time.

And then we wanted to focus on writing as a conversation. That's blogging. We wanted them to gain an appreciation of all the different perspectives that are out there. Learn how to incorporate those and then deal with them, because they're going to be bombarded by them at some point.

So, the basic set-up of the class was it's a freshman seminar, so it's all freshmen. It's Bryn Mawr College, so it's also all women, which was really nice. There were two sections. I taught one section and my husband taught the other section. We had 30 students total, and they all blogged in the same place. We didn't create separate blogs for each section, because we were all reading the same material. We thought 30 students would be a nice collection, so that if we didn't get an audience from the outside, that at least would be enough to create some sort of collaboration.

We had no set assignments or topics in terms of what they could write about. We had no set requirements for how they contributed to the blog. We let that evolve out of the class.The only real requirement we had was that they had to derive their papers from their blog posts. We said, "You can write about whatever you want, but when it comes to developing your papers, it has to come from something you've written on the blog." And then they created a final portfolio out of all of those formal papers.

That created a sense of revision in the class. They wrote a blog post, they had to revise it into something a little bit more formal, and then they had to revise it again in a portfolio, although many of them revised much more than that because they just wanted to. Bryn Mawr students tend to be over-achievers, so revision became a big issue for some of them. They wrote five or six different versions.

Here's just some numbers from the blog. We wrote about 500 blog posts all together. And they wrote about 1,250 comments. That does not include comments they received from people not in the class. It's about 265,000 total words, about 700 pages. So, we wrote a giant novel, basically. About 9,000 words per student; that's about 23 pages. And that was just on the blog; that doesn't include their formal papers, their portfolios, their revisions, anything we might have done in class.

By October -- we did a really detailed analysis of what kind of traffic we were getting in October -- we got about 250-300 visits a day, and half of them were coming from outside of Bryn Mawr College.

We advertised our blog very heavily on campus. We put little table tents in the campus center, and the students all came up with the slogans that they put on all the table tents and on posters around campus. We let them to do all the advertising. A lot of them put the URL in their IM; you know, the little away messages and things like that. So, they really got into that. Here are the real numbers.

After all the blogging was over, I started looking at trying to figure out, OK, what do I want to find out what happened, and how do I figure out what happened. So, I looked at all this information and all the posts that they made, all the comments that they made, all the comments that they received and all the links that they made. I tried to figure out what was going on. And I'm just going to talk about two of these. They're all pretty highly correlated with each other.

So, typically, someone who was posting a lot was also commenting a lot and was also making a lot of links. The two highest ones were comments received and posts. So, someone who posts a lot also received a lot of comments; and then, comments made, and links, which doesn't make sense to me.

If you made a lot of comments you were also apparently making a lot of links in your posts, so you just want to look at those two a little bit more closely. So, I started looking at those two correlations and trying to figure out--what does this mean? Obviously if you make a lot of posts you're probably going to receive a lot more comments because there's just more content for someone to comment on. But when you look at and compare the top, very top, cream-of-the-crop, the top five people in the class, compared to people further down the scale, people who only made, say, nine posts over the course of the whole semester, these people received four comments per post as opposed to a lot of the people at the bottom of the scale who weren't receiving any.

So there is something about what they were writing that drew people in to comment. The biggest thing that I saw was that a lot of these people, when they received a comment, they would comment back. So they really followed that process of turning their writing into a conversation.

If someone made a comment that they disagreed with they would write back and say, "You know what? I think you're wrong." If you look at some of the longer comment threads--there was one person in this group who received something like 32 comments on a single post--and it really was a back-and-forth between her, students in the class, and people outside our class trying to comment on this, and trying to figure out what's going on. So they created that conversation, and they really tried to figure out how to deal with all those different viewpoints.

Now the comments made and linked--those with more links were more widely read and interested in adding to the conversation; that's my theory about why they made more links. So when they were making comments on other people's posts they had more information, they were armed with a lot more information to make those comments. They were able to present another viewpoint, whereas some of the people who weren't linking, they didn't really have those other viewpoints. They couldn't go into a conversation, a blog post, and say, "You know what? I think this is wrong because of 'x'." They didn't really have that information.

Some of the students told me that they actually realized that as they made more comments, they got more comments in return and that they really liked that kind of self-promotion. They wanted this whole blog project thing to work and they knew in order for it to work they had to be commenting on other people's work. So those are some of the reasons.

But the biggest thing that I found was that the linking was the key factor and that, in fact, if you linked more, you got a better grade in the class, or actually on the portfolio; so that seemed to be just the hugest thing, which we kept trying to tell people, "You have to link! You have to link!" mostly because we wanted to drive traffic to the blog, but we also wanted them to incorporate outside sources.

So here are just a few of the reasons why I think most of the people who linked got better grades. I mean, they were obviously exploring a wider range of topics; they had more models to work with, so they were reading more widely. They were gaining an audience awareness, they just had generally more practice in writing and integrating those sources and they got more feedback on that writing. I think they learned a lot more about their writing, so when it came time to put their portfolio together they had some feedback to base that on besides just me, which I think is important, because I don't know everything. I wish I did!

Here are just some quotes; I'll let you read them. I asked them, when they started writing on the blog, "Who do you think you are writing for?" Most of them said something along the lines of, "Well, I'm writing for the professor." or, "I'm writing to myself." They didn't really think--they had no concept--of anything else outside the classroom. And then, this happened totally outside of a formal interview, somebody said, "Well nothing really happened until we got an audience, and then once we got an audience it was great." This other student really took that whole idea of audience and once she got her first outside comment she really wanted to write more posts that would get more outside comments, so she was actively trying to find things to write about that she thought would appeal to not just Bryn Mawr students, but people outside of Bryn Mawr.

Then when they finally realized that other people were going to read this, they had lots of interesting things to say. They figured out that there are other people out there; that they have other ideas that might be different from my ideas, and I have to figure out what to do with that.

This is my favorite quote from all of my interviews--they all wrote self-evaluations which were really interesting, and this was really the whole point of the whole class, so I'm just going to read it out-loud even though I know you can read it yourself--"Bloggers not only passively read the news, but also write posts, make comments, and create links; they get actively involved. This vigorous participation makes the web look like a real web, a chain of connected sites. The absence of involvement makes the web look like a set of unrelated dots; you can only see the dots, you cannot see the whole picture unless the dots are connected." And that was really the point of the whole class, we wanted them to connect the dots, connect to each other, and connect to that outside world.

That's it!

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