Tona Hangen

Dear Diary, Let’s Try Again

Last semester’s methods class students had to keep a weekly journal and I decided to have them do it electronically, using Google Sites which comes standard with their Gmail accounts – you can blog on a Google Site using the “Announcements” page feature (although that’s not at all obvious from the name “Announcements”).

Here’s how my reasoning went:

  • I learned a lot about public presentation of my ideas, and about web stuff, from blogging.
  • Writing and reading blogs are an increasingly important part of my work as a professional historian, therefore my students need to know it also.
  • The best way to learn something is to do it; making a blog will be good experience for them.
  • Google Sites is a low-threshold, free, IT-supported platform for making a site/blog.
  • The most important reader for their journal entries is me, their instructor.
  • Therefore, the default will be that I am their blog’s only reader.
  • Having students talk to each other on a Blackboard discussion board or their own blogs (or, say, on a single class blog) would be too complicated to manage and grade. I didn’t want to get all fiddly with counting comments and posts.
  • This will make their own journal space a safe place for intellectual exploration at their own pace/level, rather than one dominated by the most wordy or enthusiastic students.
  • Students will automatically become enthralled with the platform and begin to “build it out” into an ePortfolio

Here’s what turned out to be faulty with my reasoning:

I learned about web stuff mostly from tweaking old-school Blogger (circa 2007-2009, let’s say) which required some elementary knowledge of html, and that was entirely on my own time, for fun, and without the pressure of being graded for it. I started blogging because I had something to say; it grew out of personal passions & interests and was part of a broader web conversation in which I was already engaged. None of that was true for my students.

Google Sites was ridiculously buggy. Some students had no issues at all, but others had Google accounts already and used those in the initial site creation, which made integration with their campus Gmails very complicated. Some chose themes that didn’t allow comments, or couldn’t quite figure out how to enable commenting. Some never got it up and running at all. I tried to troubleshoot on an individual basis; in retrospect I probably should have had someone from IT just come visit our class and have everyone bring a laptop that day.

On top of that, perhaps some of you know this already, but Google Sites are hideously ugly (why is that, anyway?). It’s hard to be proud of making a good site when you can’t make one that doesn’t look professional in 2011.

Since students couldn’t see each others’ work, the quality of writing was very uneven. Some people were writing what I would consider model journal entries, with thoughtful engagement with the course topics, but others were responding off the cuff, with pure opinion or with very scanty entries. I have to think that had they had been able to see each other’s posts, the content and quality would have been better overall. It is better to have them each connected to me, like the spokes on a wheel, or to foster their connections with each other? For my class’s purposes, I’m not sure.

Undergraduate students are not part of professional circles conversing about history. They are not immersed in my daily bath of links to books, meaty articles, new ideas, forthcoming publications… etc. Should they be? Maybe I should force them to (“subscribe to these 5 RSS feeds! Join Twitter! Read the NYT Review of Books weekly!”), but maybe that’s ultimately worthless or will feel like busywork if it doesn’t organically grow out of their personal needs and interests.

Making an “eportfolio” out of their site wasn’t required (so), no one did it. There was no intrinsic reason (or even external incentive) to upload papers, files, documents, or to display them in an organized way.

So what will I do differently this term?

Discussion. More conversation about why we are doing this and what some of the potential goals/benefits are. I am hoping that the early discussions will have consensus on whether students would prefer individual “wheel spokes” sites or asynchronous group discussion site.  If they really seem to prefer the latter I’d have no problem tweaking the assignment towards a multi-author blog or discussion board.

Options.  Enlist better support for Google Sites early, and offer the option of WordPress instead – which has a steeper learning curve but more professional-looking results and if someone wanted to use this as a way to begin blogging in earnest it’s a better platform.

Value. Setting up the site, adding files to it, and the weekly journals will now be three separate grades – hopefully this will clarify the tasks involved and attach genuine consequences/rewards to each.

This will be the second time around the methods course for me and looks like I will teach it a third time in the spring, so it’s worth my while to get it right and to figure out just what is the best reason to have students work paperlessly (is that a word?). This term I’ll be watching to see which of these emerges as the most important reason for this assignment…. since it really can’t do ALL of these things, and frankly I’m not entirely sure which one I value the most:

  • help students regularly engage with course topics and think out loud about them with no one else watching
  • foster student discussion and community with group discussion
  • introduce students to writing for web audiences and with web tools
  • provide a sandbox for student eportfolio-crafting as a stepping stone to a similar expectation in the major (not everyone in my dept is on board with the idea of eportfolios, so a working pilot might be nice)
  • get students involved in broader scholarly conversations about history & the humanities, either as readers or as participants
  • reinforce student use of our campus’s chosen platforms for asynchronous learning
  • serve as a trial run for real-world skills students may need after graduation
  • others??


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2 thoughts on “Dear Diary, Let’s Try Again

  1. Aimee Dars Ellis

    You make some wonderful points, most of which I can’t digest because I am still reeling from the inadequacy I feel after seeing your syllabus and course website! How do your students respond to the website? Mine typically don’t want another place to go – they can hardly deal with the course management system we have, so I’m not sure I could get them to buy into visiting another site. At the same time, I would love to be able to justify it to myself because what you’ve done is SO COOL!

  2. Tona Post author

    Hi Aimee. For my US survey (the one with the fancy syllabus), I use the campus CMS (we have Blackboard) basically as a portal to my WordPress site (which as you can see, is a subdomain of my personal site) – I put a link to the website in the Blackboard shell’s sidebar, and I keep my use of Bbd tools to a bare minimum (paper submission, class roster, um, that’s about it). From their point of view, especially if they’re new to Bbd, it just looks like one of the sidebar options within Blackboard that happens to open a new window with the class website.

    For the methods class – same thing, but then there’s this journal/site layer which is separate, and as you can see, I haven’t figured out how to get the Bbd shell, the course site, and the student’s own sites to play together very nicely yet. Still a work in progress.