One of the biggest reasons educators make the switch to using blogs in history courses is that the format facilities discussion. Sure, students could share their work through Blackboard, the popular online course management system. However, Blackboard’s discussion board section makes it easy for students to upload their work without reading anything their student peers have written. From personal experience, I can attest that clicking on each thread is tedious and that it is difficult to develop broader insights from the posts when they are on different pages. Blackboard, in this case, serves a repository for student writing no more useful than a document folder on a computer.
Luckily, the higher-ups in the tower have decided, for a host of reasons, to switch UT to a new management system, Canvas, starting next fall. This latest newcomer in learning management systems, which Instructure Inc. developed in 2011, is, according to the UT website, “designed for the 21st century learning environment.” The Canvas website claims that the system “isn’t just a product. It’s a breath of fresh air. It’s an educational revolution.”
To keep pace with the digital age it offers the following features in terms of discussion and discussion forums:
- Easily drag & drop to reorder topics.
- Add links to course content, images, files, etc. [like Blackboard)
- Receive notifications via social web services, text messaging.
- Receive notification via email. [like Blackboard]
- Option to permit threaded discussions. [like Blackboard]
Sadly, Canvas does not offer much more than Blackboard. The ability to reorder topics is not enough to meet the demands of the digital age, where blogs and forums make communication painless. Canvas, like Blackboard, might be destined to become the final resting place for student writing. Some breath of fresh air!
It would be easy to build a blogging feature into learning management systems. That way all the students enrolled in a course could read the work of their peers and follow the development of their individual projects. However, this would not be enough.
One of the greatest assets of blogging is its public, interactive nature. On blogs, writing lives on forever. Its content is easily available to anyone with an internet connection and the ability to run a quick Google search. The class blog can reach a larger audience if the professor publicizes it within the history department or promotes it on online communities where educators congregate such as HASTAC.
This generation of college age students (and increasingly newly enrolled graduate students) grew up using online media that allowed them to comment and debate any topic that held their interest, whether it was a movie they liked or a fan fiction story they found particularly egregious. These new media literacies have changed the stakes for these students and, as many scholars have argued, for higher education.
Andrea Lunsford’s longitudinal Stanford Study of Writing found that students wanted their writing to make a mark on the world. (You can read more on this study here.) Blogging on historical topics that appeal to them, that fit within the parameters of the class, is more engaging to students than writing for an audience of one. Students find that what they produce is personally gratifying not only because they are exploring their interests, but because they are sharing it with the public, however small. They get to feel, early on in their college careers, what amateur and professional historians experience as they develop projects, conduct research, and disseminate their findings. In this sense, having students contribute to a class blog does not, as Matt Richtel states in his controversial article “Blogs vs. Term Papers,” play to student “passions.”
Tom Harbinson, Project Manager of Digital Learning and Professor of History at Baruch College, reached similar conclusions when he reflected on used blogs in his history classroom. In “Towards Teaching the Introductory History Course, Digitally,” he argues that blogging lays bare the process of producing historical knowledge. He states, “Using an open system of student production makes the learning process more transparent, promotes dialogue between students and source materials across the web, and drives home to students the reality that they are engaged in making actual knowledge.” The beauty of blogging is that students can instantly publish their work. Harbison notes that professional historians have commented on student posts on a few occasions.
The preliminary research is in. In a fight to the finish between Blackboard, Canvas, and blogs, I’m putting my TA stipend on blogs. At least when it comes to fostering discussion and teaching the historical production of knowledge.