ELI 2012 - Living and Learning in Cyberspace Blogging at VA Tech

Panelists: W. Gardner Campbell, Dir., Professional Development and Innovative Initiatives, Shelli Fowler, Exec. Dir. of Graduate Development Programs and New Pedagogies, Jennifer Sparrow, Dir. of Emerging Technologies and New Ventures and Robert Stephens, Assoc. Prof. of History, Principal, Honors Residential College. http://blogs.is.vt.edu/hrcblogs/ Other examples of student blogging at VA Tech, http://www.univhonors.vt.edu/html/blogs.html - this is not the same as the residential blogging initiative, these blogs are running off Google's blogspot.com. The take away here is that blogging is an easily accessible tool for students to create connections between real world experience and their academics.

A  blogging initiative was started to provide students with a platform for making learning connections across disciplines. VA Tech is running WordPress blogs for about 300 students in the Honors residential college. Students are given a blog as incoming freshmen. It's introduced into the residential college because it provides longevity. Students will live and study together (across disciplines) for 4 years. There is a faculty adviser who provides guidance but for the most part there are no specific requirements. No specific requirements proved to be the biggest hurdle for the students who wanted to know what the topic of the posts should be, how much they should blog, how often and what's the grading requirements? The faculty member finally gave into the desperate pleas for structure and said they had to post at least 12 times, and he was reluctant to give that requirement. The 300 students posted between 3000 and 5000 posts. Students had a conceptual problem at first. Blogging was not a word processing, term paper grading arena, but a multimedia platform for ideas, civic discourse and connection with a larger community. This was an arena to aggregate the individual's learning experience.

They provided blogs for each student. The "front door" is currently a work in progress where they hope to add a social media tools and provide a magazine style design. The hope was to introduce blogging into the culture. In 4 years time, blogging will become a normal activity for incoming freshmen and graduating seniors will have a record of their college experience. The student on the panel talked about how blogging made her think about communication in a way that her engineering curriculum didn't address. How could she communicate about things that others might not understand? This blogging initiative was about personal experience and less about the academic writing. The best part about blogging for the student was the ability to use all types of media in posts - drawings, images, video and audio. The student discovered new ways of expression. This type of blogging was different than connecting with other honor students via Facebook. This was reflective writing to a smaller audience, not social connections with a larger community. Campbell pointed out that it was important to reward the attempt to write rather than critiquing the writing. They admitted to having graduate students comment on the first few posts in order to spur interest in both the community and the writer. Even the graduate students needed guidance on how to comment. It wasn't about looking for the argument or supportive data but rather connecting with what they found personally interesting and the comments were based in casual encouragement rather than academic feedback. It was important to get the students to just start to write anything. Once they began to create a body of work they would get the value of the project.

I was thinking about how we are using blogs here at Yale. The course blogs are  areas for academic writing. A sort of practice arena for more formal course writing. In our i3 program I tested a BuddyPress instance of WordPress where all the interns had blogs associated with their projects (http://i3.commons.yale.edu/). BuddyPress has social media features above and beyond the MU instance. Students seem to really like the idea of voicing their learning process in this type of setting. It also provided a place for me as a manager to follow along and understand how a project was progressing. I think it would be an interesting pilot program to introduce this type of blogging to a residential college here at Yale. Perhaps we could give some incentives - free iPads for a certain amount of posts per semester? It would require tagging by students to create some metadata and connection around topics, tools for students to create and find media and a faculty adviser to help guide them. How about ELI ELOGS? Let's help students here at Yale chronicle their academic experience.

On a design note, I was taken with evri.com's aggregate page around a particular topic. News feeds, tweets, wikipedia information (gasp), visual charts, images, video - plus apps for my mobile devices. Way cool (that's techie talk).