At times, we are all faced with the dreaded sound of tumbleweed and the piercing hiss of dry wind when asking our students open-ended questions. But there are solutions! Here is one.

My experience of the tumbleweed phenomenon has always perplexed me. How can those who have so much to say outside the class have little to say in the class? It is baffling. Over time, however, I have seen classes go from dead silence to avid and productive discussion with the use of online techniques aimed at facilitating comfort and a feeling of safety in face-to-face sessions.

To begin, as everyone knows, no matter how much you know, someone knows more. This statement rings true in the classroom, as students assume their tutors know more about a topic than they do. Often – although not always – that’s a fair assumption. Students also live in fear of the better-informed minds of their equally silent peers. Therein lies the paradox. The fear of looking foolish in front of those who are fearful of being foolish in front of others! The humanity!

How can we undo this chicken and egg situation? Recently I read Georgina Barratt-See’s article; ‘why my students don’t talk’, highlighting techniques tutors can adopt in facilitating in class discussion. I completely with Georgina that the learning design is crucial in facilitating rich and meaningful in-class discussion. Most of the techniques in Georgina’s article, focused on the face to face; here I add some online and blended techniques. The following structure focuses on a learning design that utilises blogging as a way of engaging online before coming to face to face sessions.

Community Blogging before class

blogging for learningBlogging is a rich, multi-layered way for individuals to express themselves and participate in a community. The process of ‘community blogging’ works in such a way that students are able to read each other’s blog posts and gauge the level of understanding they themselves have on a topic before coming to class. With this understanding comes a thirst for clarification. Ideas shared online by peers are brought into the classroom (general statement, yes) and discussed further. The benefit of this is that students come into the classroom with questions they want you to answer, not the other way around!

Questions are key

Adding the blogging tool into your UTSOnline subject and asking students to blog is not going to work. Guidance is needed. My suggestion is to design, structure and nest resources and readings into topics, weeks or whichever way you see fit. At the end of each nest of resources, asked students open-ended guiding questions which they answer using the blogging tool. From past experiences, offering students the choice of two or three specific questions, or the opportunity to write and answer their own, gives them enough to analyse the materials and synthesise their ideas in a concise thread (NB: NO MORE THAN 500 WORDS).

Comments for insight

Once students have published their blog post, instruct students to comment on and critique their peers’ work. The community of learners therefore shares ideas and finds a unified understanding of key topics and concepts. This is where the magic happens. This is where you start having students come into the classroom to say things like:

I read Charlie’s post, and what they said was there was… so I did some searching and found this… so are we both right, or is there something I am completely missing?

Ahhh! Questions from them, not from you! #bliss

Hot tip! Ask students to ask questions of their peers at the bottom of their posts. You’d be amazed at the level of quality some students can provide!

Be in the space

The final piece of advice for blogging as a community is to regularly read and contribute comments on posts and replies to student comments. This is so important. It lets your students know you are equally invested in their learning. It lets them know you care. It keeps them active. You are the community leader. Lead. Besides, there is a wealth of enquiry in the pool of thought driven by students you can use in your face-to-face sessions. Colleagues who have used this approach have told me they didn’t need to prepare as much for the class discussion, as students already provided enough online materials that could be used to spark lively interaction in the classroom.

There are several blogging platforms available on the Internet, including an inbuilt blogging tool in UTSOnline. Book a consultation with your faculty Learning Technologist for advice on how to set up UTSOnline with a blogging tool if you wish to go down that avenue. Have you tried blogging in your classroom? What happened? Was it effective? I would love to hear from other’s experiences in this space, leave a comment.

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  • This is excellent. A friend at UNSW asked me about this yesterday on Facebook. My reply:
    “Ccef (my online study through Westminster seminary) has a policy of having to write a post and respond to two others. I always find it quite mechanical. What I think was more successful is when me and two classmates (in San Diego and London) did a google chat and had to talk and write about it afterwards. Without thinking about it a lot necessarily I would say try to build relationships in the online environment. Being comfortable will promote a stronger learning culture buts hard to do. Also, PASS programs (traditionally a very good medium for engagement) still struggle with online. Although I’ve seen that Facebook seems to work better than group video chats.

    • Getting students to complete some kind of collaborative, online pre-work is definitely a viable option to help spur class participation. One caveat (as I think both you and Ollie have implied) is that this kind of participation needs to be mandatory (and perhaps even assessable) to ensure participation.

      This can be tricky for tutors because they need to know if a student has completed the pre-work or not. If manual checking is required this can lead to quite a lot of additional work for tutors over time. The best solution may therefore be to use a UTSOnline blog where it can be set to needs marking after the minimum number of required attempts.

      If students are commenting on reading then another option is to use the a.nnotate tool in UTSOnline, though again this requires some degree of manual checking (though an improvement to solve this has been suggested and appears to be in the works).

      • Hey Phil, I agree with what you’ve said. However, I don’t think it is just mandatory, nor does it need to be assessment driven. I have seen this approach work organically by setting expectations, and negotiating what is fair and unfair with students at the beginning of session.

        This approach has a kind of snowballing effect where students appreciate they are part of a learning community and as a result, maintain a high level of engagement. Much research into classroom social capital also supports this notion.

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