The advent of this blog coincides with my embrace of a new set of digital tools for teaching. I’ll explain what I mean by that statement and report on progress and problems in the coming weeks.

I recently described the process of giving my first blog assignment in the course we call Tutorial. Now I’ve completed my first week of teaching with blogs in two courses: the Tutorial and a seminar on James Joyce’s Ulysses. I’m encouraged by the early results.

I’ll explain the Ulysses bit later because it’s complicated, but the Tutorial offers a direct comparison between an old Blackboard discussion board assignment and a new WordPress blog assignment. (For those who don’t know: the Blackboard discussion board function is part of a useful but clunky and unattractive software package for classes. Every Grinnell student is used to using our Blackboard interface for classes and administrative tasks.)

Moving from my last Tutorial to this, I kept

1. the same topic (comedy),
2. the same content on the syllabus (mostly–I do tinker)
3. the same response assignment, and
4. the same privacy settings limiting access to the posts to the people in the class. (The seminar is posting publicly.)

The only change I made to the first-week assignment was shifting the environment from the usual Blackboard interface to a sparkling new WordPress group blog, created just for this set of students. The students picked up the WordPress routine with very little trouble (not much more than Blackboard usually causes).

When the first group of students posted its first response assignment, I was surprised to see a dramatic new effect: they wrote the longest set of responses I have ever gotten from an introductory class. (A good set, too!) I have always found new students, even very good ones (such as my wonderful former Tutorial students–hi!), reluctant to write at length on class discussion boards; this week, for the first time, I found myself reminding a class of the assignment’s word limit after they posted their first responses.

Based on this experience and the first posts from my Ulysses group, I strongly suspect that the attractiveness of the blog environment, which resembles high-quality websites everywhere (thank you, WordPress), prompted the students to a new expansiveness, a new sense of authorship. We’ll see what happens as this and subsequent semesters unfold.

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