Using blogs in teaching

Making use of a teaching blog is something that I have done since I began teaching in 2008, but with the move to online teaching and learning over the last couple of months, I thought it would be a useful opportunity to write down some of my experiences around this as I prepare for reviving the blog for next semester. In this post I’m going to go through how I do and don’t use it, and some guidelines around practicalities.

The context: I currently use a module blog for my research-led module “Geographies of nation and empire: the Victorian novel 1850-90” which runs as a level 6 and 7 module in the School of Literature and Languages at the University of Surrey. The blog was last used in 2018-19 as my module rested while I was on sabbatical last semester. I’ve previously used a blog for level 4 students at the University of Warwick, and am planning to do so again for one of my l4 modules next year.

Firstly, it’s probably helpful to outline what I don’t use the blog for. Anything key to the module – handbooks, assessment guidelines, weekly slides and handouts – are all placed on Surreylearn (our VLE). Nothing essential to the running or assessment of the module features on the blog, preventing confusion about where to look for essential information, and meaning that the blog is not a required component to get through the module.

What I do use it for: supplementary resources, responses, and reading that complements and extends upon the module content. I post about such things as contemporary culture or news items relating to the texts we are studying; reflections  that extend upon discussions we have had in class, particularly those that I can connect up with material on my own research blog; and resources such as digital archives of Victorian studies material. With the latter especially, a blog post can provide illustrative modelling of how to navigate and incorporate digital archives and resources in a way that is more useful than just providing a set of links on the VLE. Throughout the posts, I intend to give students different ways into the material, or modes of linking across several texts through a key theme or topic. I also hope that it will spark interest and inspiration, and support students in developing independent and original approaches to topics.

While the blog is supplementary to the classes, there is a constant dialogue between the two: the blog posts refer back to discussions that we have had in class, and likewise I frequently reference posts or indicate that there will be an upcoming post on a topic during class time. This dialogue is important I think in creating a sense of continuity across the face-to-face and virtual space, something that has become even more essential as we move to hybrid models. I have also, at the request of students, increasingly used it as a space for pre-seminar questions/discussion points that they can prepare in advance.

Some practicalities and parameters: set up clear expectations and guidance on using the blog early on. Communicate clearly with students what the blog will be used for/not (as above), and when content will be posted: I keep to a weekly schedule that follows the structure of the module, and always try to post on the same day/time e.g. directly after class: most of the material is pre-drafted and a few edits can be made if anything has arisen in class. Indeed once you have run a module blog for one year, a lot of the content can be revised for reuse – over the summer I will restrict the settings of current posts so that the module will start again with a blank slate, and then edit and publish posts as we go along. I also make it as easy as possible for students to access content: provide links across the materials e.g. handbooks, VLE; have a “subscribe by email” option to make it easy to be alerted for new material.

As for student input into the blog: comments are open and welcome, although I typically find that students prefer to respond in a face-to-face setting rather than writing on the blog (this may change as we move towards more integrated use of virtual environments and is something I am reflecting upon). Students are also invited to contribute with a 500 word blog post as a formative assessment that can be posted on the blog if they wish (and settings can be altered so that these aren’t publicly viewable beyond the class).

Generally good blogging practice applies here as elsewhere – keeping posts to a manageable length, short paragraphs and sentences, lots of visual images and links, and ensuring that the blog layout (including font, size, colours, and use of media) is in an accessible format. If you are completely new to blogging there are lots of resources online, and I’d recommend Mark Carrigan’s Social Media for Academics (Sage 2020) as an all-round great resource including a chapter on communicating effectively.

I’m sure there’s much more to think about, and I’ll be continuing to do so over coming weeks, but hope that this might be helpful if you are thinking of getting started.