Nearly all online courses use the LMS for student discussion. This has the advantage that it is relatively easy for the instructor to control and channel discussion in predetermined directions. But it also has its weaknesses. First, LMS-based discussion is topic-centered, as discussions are organized around topics rather than people. As a result, students can lose a sense of ownership of their postings and thus put less effort into them. Second, the predetermined format and expectations can lead to formulaic responses that are aimed at gaining the most points. This has a result of stifling genuine creativity.
But more and more instructors are turning to blogging as an alternative to LMS-based discussion. The instructor assigns each student a blog where they are expected to make postings. This shift fundamentally changes the dynamics of discussion.
First, blog-based discussion is student-centered in that the student has ownership of his or her blog. The student's postings are attached to the student, and the blog itself becomes a kind of historical timeline of his or her thinking. It is the same effect that you get with a Facebook page, where the owner develops a digital personality over the course of their postings that can be seen by others. Students are basically working out their thinking. As Seth Godin put it, even if nobody but your cat reads your blog, the mere fact that you are unwinding your thoughts helps you develop your ideas. As a result, students are more likely to inject themselves into their postings.
Second, a blog outside of the LMS allows students to post public content. We take more pride of ownership when our content is public, and so we will put more thought into it. Knowing that nobody outside of the class will see their LMS postings, many students don't consider them much more than another activity needed to get the desired grade. But postings outside the classroom have significance by virtue of the fact that they are a public expression of the student's thinking. Plus, students can get responses to their postings from outside of the class, which greatly broadens the range of considerations brought to the posting.
Two case studies articulate these benefits:
At this point it is important to understand that there is no FERPA restriction against students posting public content on the Internet. It is a common error to believe that FERPA requires that students be walled off from the world around them, as if they were in cages, and never leave campus or post in public boards such as Facebook, Twitter, etc. FERPA only restricts public disclosure of certain specific types of information, and course content is not one of them.
Some LMS systems have incorporated social media features such as blogging as optional shells built around the closed classroom. You can try these as alternatives to traditional discussion if your institution has them. Others, like Drupal, are built on fundamentally social principles, which allow the flexibility to put blogs right into the course room itself.
If these are not options, then there are a host of outside systems that you can use. One benefit of going with outside systems is that they often allow users to format them and add designs to suit their taste, further personalizing the experience. Plus, teachers using a blended or flipped classroom who want to add only blogging to their class might want a service that adds just that function, rather than be saddled with having to either fill in all of the content in an LSM template or leave some of it awkwardly empty.
The choice between systems often comes down to the age-old technology tradeoff between functionality and simplicity. Below are some good systems that run the gamut between the two.
Google's blogging platform is very feature-rich and flexible. Blogger comes with a number of template designs to choose from, and the ability to incorporate nearly any type of content into it, such as videos, polls, etc. If your institution signs up for the free Google Apps for Education, then you will be able to set up all your students with blogs rather than have them do it themselves. Blogger also has the advantage that it integrates into the constellation of Google apps, such as Drive, Gmail, YouTube, etc., which makes it easy to mash up content from different sources.
As the name suggests, Edublogs is designed for education, and so incorporates some education-specific features such as the ability to award badges to particularly good blogs or postings. It also allows teachers and institutions to set up blogs for all students in a class. Plus, it uses the very powerful WordPress open source platform, which allows for quite a bit of flexibility, meaning that teachers can choose from a remarkably large world of plug-ins to add features, though adding these can take some technical know-how.
Pen.io and Wordfaire (www.wordfaire.com)
Pen.io and Wordfaire are at the opposite end of the functionality/ease-of-use spectrum in that they are perfect for easily setting up a blog without many bells and whistles. If you are only interested in text postings without much hassle, these might be for you. Pen.io allows you to set up a blog with a URL of your choosing literally within 10 seconds. It allows for text and images, but not much else. Wordfaire adds the ability to sign in with Twitter, Facebook, or Google accounts, and add content with no more technical knowledge than the ability to find the “update” button.
Take a look at this quick overview of Blogger and Pen.io:
Here is a quick chart from Richard Byrne that compares 5 blogging systems for teachers: http://tinyurl.com/ncyqk4g.
While it is perfectly fine to establish parameters for student blogging—students will want some sense of expectations—be willing to allow for a more open-ended discussion. Ask students to reply to one another's blogs, but understand that the discussion may go in more directions than what you might get in an LSM. You will need to decide how much freedom you will grant students to explore.
You might also want to evaluate the student's postings as a whole, rather than individually, much as you might do for a student journal that gets handed in at the end of class. This will give students a sense of development of their views into a coherent whole, rather than just responding to one assignment after another. But if you do, make sure to lend replies to their postings during the class so that they see that you are engaged with what they are saying. You can just save the grade until the end.
Experiment with blogs as an alternative to the LMS discussion forum, and see for yourself what a difference it makes.
John Orlando writes, consults, and teaches faculty how to use technology to improve learning. He helped build and direct distance learning programs at the University of Vermont and Norwich University, and has written more than 50 articles and delivered more than 60 workshops on teaching with technology. John is the associate director of the Center for Faculty Excellence at Northcentral University, serves on the Online Classroom editorial advisory board, and is a regular contributor to Online Classroom.