Digital literacy in the Wilderness

Bee orchid (Ophrys apifera) in flower

A Bee Orchid flower

Over the past two weeks I’ve been working with my colleague, Jonathan Mitchley, to guide an MSc group of 24 students thorugh the writing of their first blog on the Whiteknights biodiversity site.  The rather ambitious setting of an assessed blog on ‘a plant family from Whiteknights campus’ has given me experience and insight into the very varied levels of digital literacy in this group.

Step 1 of training was to demonstrate the public face of the blog to the students, to discuss what made a good blog entry, and to show them how a blog was written in (or pasted in) the university WordPress blogging system.

Step 2 was to sign each student in as an author.  This was done in class during a practical session and students were told there would be an email waiting in their inbox to allow them to activate their account.

A week later we demonstrated more blogs that had been written and suggested some useful background sources, got the students to suggest which plants they would blog about and promised troubleshooting support as needed.  Then followed a reminder that these blogs would be published and that other people’s copyright material could not be used without written permission. The students then had a clear week to write their blog.

On Thursday – one day before submission – some students suddenly noticed that they didn’t have access to the blog to write anything!  Others had already submitted their blog to draft.  Those that couldn’t access the blog fell largely in to the category of not actually reading their email and therefore hadn’t used the link to activate their account.  A small number had other problems.  All problems raised were solved.

On Friday – the deadline for submission – we still picked up a student who couldn’t access their account but hadn’t raised it on the previous day.

So, of 24 possible submissions of draft blogs to Whiteknightsbiodiversity there were 22 completed in Word press and 2 submitted via other routes.

What have we learned from the exercise?

1) The technological barrier for writing blogs is not a great one for students of mixed origins and ages to overcome providing adequate support is in place and the stduents have the enthusiasm to engage.

2) Individual support for a class of 24 added up to about 2 hours (5 minutes per student).

3) The quality of the blogs submitted is sometimes very high indeed and the variety of written styles will make the collection of blogs interesting to read.

4) A high level of trust in the students is needed – to author a blog also gives access to the publish button which can be used, even by mistake.  Once published the world can see what is written.

5) Feedback from the stduents has been very positive already.  They are looking forward to their first real publications and to something that can go on a CV!

Overall this exploration into biodiversity blogging has interested and excited the students and provided a novel challenge to us staff.  We now look forward to seeing the comments on these blogs as they are rolled out over the next few weeks.

About Alastair Culham

A professional botanist and biologist with an interest in promoting biological knowledge and awareness to all.
This entry was posted in Digital community, Dissemination, Employability, Social media, Staff-student partnerships, Technology in fieldwork and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Digital literacy in the Wilderness

  1. patparslow says:

    Excellent – thank you for taking the time to share that experience. It fascinates me how many students don’t read their uni email – I’m not sure the numbers change much over the years, and from my experience I don’t think it varies much across subject areas either.

    The trust issue is always a bit of a thorny problem. I would love to be able to advocate always putting that trust in the students, and managing problems on an exception basis, but I am aware that there can be reasons why an institution can see this as problematic. In theory, if you set the students Role in WordPress to ‘Contributor’ instead of ‘Author’, they should still be able to write posts, but not have access to the Publish button. I say ‘in theory’ because I haven’t tried it out on this particular install, and don’t know whether anything has been changed from the default behaviour!

  2. Sadly the ‘contributor’ setting does not allow people to upload images 🙁 I used this setting at first then had to deal with lots of ‘where is that upload images button?” questions.

  3. pehatcher says:

    The blogs that have appeared so far from your students have been excellent, and this is a really useful initiative – perhaps we will see the production of a blog entry being an assessed piece of coursework in other modules in the future.
    I have a couple of questions:
    1. Were there any conclusions from your discussion with the students about what makes a good blog entry that you could share with us? I know that there are all sorts of ‘rules’ e.g. keep it to 500 words, post 4 times a week etc etc, which cause endless debate as to their correctness.
    2. What is your view on the use of usernames? I’m of the opinion that for blogs such as these at Reading, the poster/commenter should be identifiable, and thus use a recognisable form of their name, yet I see that some of the student posts are authored by numbers? It’s quite hard to respond to a post authored by a code rather than a human!

  4. The students were given the choice of what alias to use on their blogs. Some prefer the relative anonymity of username (identifiable inhouse but less easily so outside). It interests me that a student will happily submit work for marking that they do not necessarily want the world to know is theirs. There is opportunity for some Internet culture research there I suspect.

  5. Nikki says:

    I think that was interesting, and good to see how learning about blogs is. But I am specifically interested that they were blogging about nature, as I am an environmental major with a very strong passion for the natural world…and lately I have been really asking this question about whether technology can really encourage us more to engage with nature (like, documentaries making us interested, blog posts making us think) or whether we might be losing connections with nature because our lives are becoming more and more digital…I am curious, do you think that making students blog about their experiences with these plants made the plants maybe seem more ‘real’ to them because they had to then think about them and communicate with them in this new digital way?

  6. The blogging exercise replaced a conventional essay. It does seem to have promoted engagement, especially as some of the stduents are planning additional blogs – they have not previously offered to write additional essays! The public nature of the blog has also allowed the stduents to engage with each other more than they would with a conventional assignment.

    Does it make the plants more real? I don’t think so, but it does make them ‘experts’ on their plants and allows others to engage them in conversation about their choice of species. Our masters courses involve regular fieldwork and we get the students to engage with the plants by seeing them in the field, collecting samples and keying them out. The hands-on reality approach is key to our skills teaching. The blog research gives an opportunity for added depth of knowledge beyond straightforward plant ID. Comments on medicinal uses, distributions, origins of plant names all give more depth and breadth to the plant knowledge.

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