25, No. 20, May 4, 2006
Using blogs in course work
helps improve students’ writing
Sharita Forrest, Assistant Editor
photo to enlarge
Several years ago
when Christian Sandvig, then a new professor of speech communication,
was developing a course called Communication Technology and Society
in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, he wanted to make the course
writing intensive, but was concerned about managing the workload of
grading the work produced by up to 100 students.
After reading scholarly studies on using diaries to enhance writing
skills, Sandvig decided to try a high-tech twist on that tried-and-true
Blogs – shorthand for Web logs – are chronological, online
journals. Thousands of users – known as bloggers – have
adopted the medium, some as highly personal but public vehicles for
self-expression and others for sharing information and encouraging discussion
about politics, culture, education and almost any topic imaginable.
According to EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit association that promotes information
technology, as many as 50 million people currently use blogs and blogs
are gaining acceptance as instructional tools.
Sandvig now uses blogs in three undergraduate courses and a graduate
seminar course he teaches, although the grading and functions of the
blogs vary. In the senior seminar, students’ blogs are graded
simply on a pass or fail basis, and the blog serves as a forum for students
to write about complex topics in the assigned readings.
In “Communication Technology and Society,” an introductory
course for undergraduates, graduate teaching assistants comment on the
students’ blogs and students create a portfolio of their best
entries to be graded. In addition to writing their own blogs, students
in the course are required to review their peers’ work.
The results have been surprising, Sandvig said. Even students unfamiliar
with blogging before taking the class readily embrace it. And, when
the blogs are combined with Sandvig’s discovery-oriented assignments
such as a technology-oriented treasure hunt, students become excited
about learning, consistently producing work that exceeds the requirements:
compositions that are longer than the specified word minimums or that
incorporate other media.
“Students are always happy when they see something happening in
class that they think of as a practical skill,” Sandvig said.
“And it may be that blogging is for them a practical skill, when
for faculty members it’s a means to a liberal arts education.
Students see this as connecting to a broader sort of technology or social
movement in society.”
The public nature of blogging improves students’ writing because
they know that their peers and other people besides the instructor will
be reading their work. Sandvig also shows students exemplary work from
previous semesters and takes a few minutes at the beginning of each
class to comment on selected blog entries.
The blogs have proven useful as course-management tools as well, allowing
Sandvig to give more writing assignments without being swamped with
paper or peppered with student complaints about getting too much work.
Many students like the fact that the “Communication Technology
and Society” course is paperless, since all the assignments are
done electronically. And the Movable Type software used for the blogs
allows Sandvig to monitor TAs’ comments and grading of students’
“In the teaching evaluations, I’ve been gratified that the
blogs have made a big appearance, and they’re often mentioned
along with the educational goals that I had for the blog assignments,”
Sandvig said. “The comments are all positive.”
Blogging has piqued the interest of many UI faculty and staff members,
and Campus Information Technologies and Educational Services (CITES)
has created a blog and e-mail listserv called “Teaching With Blogs
and Wikis at UIUC” so instructors can learn how to create blogs
and share techniques.
Other bloggers on campus include University Librarian Paula Kaufman,
whose blog is called “Issues in Scholarly Communication.”
Lanny Arvan, assistant chief information officer and a professor of
economics, and Robert Baird, coordinator of instructional development
and a professor of cinema studies – both staff members of the
Educational Technologies Division of CITES – each write blogs
on learning technology.
Arvan, in a recent interview with EDUCAUSE, said he created his “Lanny
on Learning Technology” blog to share his thoughts with faculty
and staff members and render himself more approachable.
Baird, who calls himself a “big believer in blogs,” also
creates an annual photo blog of Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film
Festival for movie buffs.