Blogging assignments – comments and experiences part 1: MSc formative and summative assignments

Blogging has become one of the major means of communicating just about anything.  It allows more development of thought than a tweet or Facebook post and is a logical development of the traditional form of published essays.  I’ve been experimenting with blogs in teaching and learning for nearly five years now but the approach has really become a focus in the last two years.  My first  experiment on student blogging – using Whiteknights Biodiversity – was reported in November 2011.

I really like the blog form.  It can be chatty or formal, public or private, with or without pictures, a simple timeline or complex of interlinked pages.  All have their place.

This post is about the use of blog posts as formative and summative student assignments and reports specifically on student activity in the 2012/2013 academic year for a group of undergraduate finalists and MSc students.

A tropical waterlily in flower in the Tropical biodiversity glasshouse

A tropical waterlily in flower in the Tropical biodiversity glasshouse

Case study 1 – MSc Plant Diversity blogs on Tropical Plants

Last academic year I chose to amend a module description to replace essay assignments with blog assignments. This seemed a good idea at the time but in October when the new batch of students started I was less sure.

Why had I made the change?  I hoped the students would take their work more seriously if they knew the world would see it.  The central automatic backing up of blogs meant not more mysterious computer failures at the 11th hour (i’m convinced all computer systems have a stress detector circuit designed to generate problems in direct proportion to the amount of stress the user is already feeling and designed to magnify the stress at least 10-fold). I could see the pattern and frequency of blog writing and revision.  There was the opportunity to use multimedia not available in a printed essay.  I could provide formative feedback on a draft that could then be used to develop it before summative feedback. The output would have a use well beyond the generation of a mark for the student – it would build the information resource of the blog and help publicise both the student and the course they are taking.

This all seems too good to be true however there were costs to planning such an assignment.  The main hurdles were the need to train students in how to operate the blogging system, the need to trust the students would not post inappropriate material and the necessity to ensure copyright was strictly observed.  Training in the software was given as part of a practical class.  Copyright and general IPR was taught in a new class thanks to the good will of Emily Goodhand – our university copyright expert.  So the time investment was about three hours of new teaching.

The assessment was in two phases:

1) to write a blog on a species growing in the Tropical Biodiversity Glasshouse

“Choose one plant species growing in the tropical greenhouse. Write about:The classification of the species – species limits, generic boundaries, family boundaries etc.; Uses; Geography;Common names. Take a photo(s)he whole plant. Add references. Take photos and/or draw identification features. Formative – Weeks 1-4, Summative week 10 Autumn term – Publish week 10.”  Simple instructions that were adequate to generate a series of engaging blogs such as the ‘Lady of the Night‘ and ‘Tea Stained History‘.

2) to write a blog on a plant family of which a member is grown at Reading University.

“The second blog will have a different structure as its aims are different and it will build on a different knowledge set.  It offers a chance to provide more detail than the class practical notes.  Submission by 9am on Monday of Week 6.
Blog 2
1) Choose a plant family from the list provided in the Spring term
2) Discover and illustrate (using living and herbarium material) the diagnostic features of the family
3) Review current literature on the placement of the family in an order
4) Review current literature on the infrafamilial classification including number of genera and number of species (these may well be best estimates for some families)
5) Provide a list of key references
Use summative feedback from your first blog to help improve your second blog.”

This assignment was aimed at building on the learning experience of the first blog and required a broader view of plant diversity.  It was interesting to see the development of written style between blog 1 and 2 for each student as well as the increased confidence in using the technology.  Example blogs from assignment 2 are those on the Black Pepper family and  Bananas.

There were some other notable stylistic developments among the students.  One student wrote blogs of great length and detail that are probably the most comprehensive online resources for the species covered anywhere in the world.  Another student was skilled at getting their personal experience of particular plant species into their blogs to offer a very personal angle.  Both proved popular with readers.

This experiment with blogging worked well for me.  One weak blog, on examination of the log, appeared to have been developed only at the last minute, while the strongest blogs all had long term records of development.  Students engaged with the technology, some incorporating digital micrographs or home made videos that would not have worked well in a printed essay.  I was able to mark blogs and then edit them and set them for timed release so that the blogging site gained a new blog roughly every four days for several weeks.

Has anyone read the blogs? The site stats tell me that  among this year’s student blogs the most read one has 640 views so far:

Pandanus amaryllifolius – The only Pandanus with fragrant leaves More stats 640

and the least read is:

Lentibulariaceae (The Bladderwort Family) More stats 57

If these had been submitted as conventional essays the most read would have been seen by two people and the least read by two people.  So even the least read has 55 more readers than the essay would have done.

Are there drawbacks?  Of course.  The assignments need commitment to extra training in technology and copyright.  They need to be marked online and some can need heavy editing to be publishable.  The editing needs an internet connection and a computer up to the job.  None of these are major issues in a UK University.

The benefits are many.  Students are allowed greater flexibility of expression, the opportunity to use novel technologies and the reassurance that they can save a draft of their work that will be edited before it reaches the wider world.  Version control in WordPress allows earlier versions of text to be recovered and the central backup reduces the chance of assignment loss.

The follow up – some of the students have updated their blog entries after assessment to keep them current.  This would never have happened with an essay or even been relevant to an essay.  Will I try this again next year – certainly.

Undergraduate project experiences to follow.

About Alastair Culham

A professional botanist and biologist with an interest in promoting biological knowledge and awareness to all.
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