Teaching With Blogs 1/5 Students Reading Blogs

29Jan11

I read blogs. There, I said it. Am I stepping out of some intellectual closet here? (click here if you can’t name that adapted quote.) But seriously, I love the fact that people with interesting, challenging and often funny things to say are happy to share that with the world. These people are often experts in their field. In between day jobs – because only a lucky few can make a living by doing it – they give time and attention to writing for free. As a teacher I try to find ways to turn anything I find – fossils from the beach, events in the news, random YouTube videos – into a ‘teachable moment’. So why not make blogs one of theose things?

Why?

Blog writing has some huge advantages over textbooks for enthusing our students.

  • broad – textbooks often (these days almost always) stick to a narrow syllabus.
  • up-to-date – Ed Yong for example tends to be several days, if not weeks, ahead of even the online versions of print media.
  • enthusiastic – blog writers wouldn’t do it for fun if they didn’t have passion for their subjects.
  • expert – during swine flu scares the infectious disease blog Effect Measure was invaluable as the mainstream media veered between mass hysteria and total denial.

In some ways I would see the breadth of science covered in blogs as a double advantage for teaching purposes. Some students will be inspired by the breath of the subject, as revealed by a good science blogger. More prosaically, when reading a blog post students will practise extracting information from a longer article. This is a higher-level skill, one of those L2l things none of us ever thought of teaching before the government told us we should do it. Blogs are often written informally, translating dusty scientific articles into vivid prose. The advantages of being able to include images, videos and links can’t be ignored in their ability to catch a student’s imagination. The comments provide a view of the discussion that should so often accompany science but is so often missed in textbooks and scholarly accounts. The impassioned language and often creative insults isn’t necessarily a bad thing either, as anyone who’s followed the recent dispute between James Delingpole and Simon Singh can attest.)

How?

I’ve found the best way to use blogs is as one of several source materials on a relevant topic, ideally one in the news. You could give students a news topic, perhaps linked to mainstream media versions, then ask them to find blog posts about it. Alternatively, point them a particular blog and ask them to choose one post to review, ideally by commenting.

I have a list on the right which desperately needs updating; perhaps more could be added in the comments? Which you choose will of course depend on which speciality you teach and what you’re hoping the students will get out of it. For biology and great reviews of recent research, Ed Yong’s Not Exactly Rocket Science is fantastic – I keep meaning to have a proper look at the rest of the blogs hosted by Discover magazine. Bad Science from Ben Goldacre includes his Guardian columns and more. The Quackometer is another blog on pseudoscience, especially alternative medicine claims. ScienceBlogs – which today is focusing on the science of kissing, almost guaranteed to get a student reading avidly – is a portal to all kinds of interesting blogs, despite the recent Pepsigate ‘scandal’. Melanie Windridge blogged about nuclear fusion while on her IoP Schools and Colleges tour. Studnets who immediately claim that ‘this is all too hard for us’ should be directed to Rhys Morgan’s blog.

By considering both the science and the presentation, it is easy to learn lessons about effective science communication. Perhaps they could then write a set of rules or guidelines to apply to their next powerpoint presentation or wiki. If the blog doesn’t have links, it’s easy to find your own explanations of complex ideas online, perhaps using the ‘Simple English’ Wikipedia or equivalent sites. Can they translate or summarise what they’ve learned? Write a series of comprehension questions to be used with the blog post? Give their own responses to ethical issues raised or local implications?

And Then?

Maybe they could produce their own classroom blog – imagine one student a week is assigned to write a blog post about that week’s science lessons, with appropriate images and links. Other students could comment on the work, building on the ideas and suggesting their own interpretations or how they might apply it. I’ve seen more online about using blogs with primary classes but hope to use this, perhaps with my older students to start with, this year. In the shorter term, students could produce a hotlinked document in the style of a blog post. Imagine producing a pdf to be accessed through the school VLE, text and images with key terms expanded by external links. It’s as if we’re enabling students to be independant learners… but now I’m sounding far too consultant-y.

This post was featured in an educational technology blog carnival, hosted by Danny Nicholson at The Whiteboard Blog.

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14 Responses to “Teaching With Blogs 1/5 Students Reading Blogs”

  1. 1 myorangecrush

    We’ve recently started our Y9s doing ‘blogs’ on what they’ve learnt each lesson on the VLE. The head says there’s not enough dialouge in our marking, so the idea is they write their learning ‘blog’ and we look through it, making comments on what they’ve done and what they could add.

    They then improve the previous one before doing the next one. This, along with a few quizzes, is the homework, the marking and the formative assessment!

    • sounds like a fantastic was to turn feedback into a conversation – and easy for them to use that as a checklist before handing in work! Nice to see you here as well as on Twitter!

  2. Hi there. Which list on the right needs updating?

    I’d point you in the direction of a few off-the-top-of-my-head collective sites. Because they’re easy. But of course there are umpteen wonderful individual blogs. Have a look at this list, perhaps first:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/the-lay-scientist/2010/sep/16/women-science-blogging

    For the collective sites:

    Nature blogs: http://blogs.nature.com/
    Occam’s Typewriter: http://occamstypewriter.org/
    The Guardian blogs: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science-blogs
    Research blogging: an aggregator of blog posts about peer-reviewed research papers, thereby meeting your “up-to-date” interest: http://researchblogging.com/

    What I would be interested in, is a site that highlights classic posts, such as one that I remember about Hox genes in development from Pharyngula, way back in 2006. There are myriad examples of such good posts, since, but I’d love to see this kind of category get attention, with a delicious.com-style ranking system, specifically for flagging “classics”: http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2006/04/a_brief_overview_of_hox_genes.php

  3. Thanks for sharing this idea. I had never considered using blogs as a teaching aid before.
    Agree that the comments sections are often the most useful sources of information. Often ‘commenters’ will spot important points that the writer of the post has missed or present a different viewpoint – particularly with posts on controversial topics.
    Would be a great aid to teaching about evolution, for example. (see http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2010/sep/10/creationism-education-teaching-children). Also love the idea of getting students to leave a comment to show their understanding and appreciation of the writing.

  4. thanks for the Blog Carnival submission! Great post :)

    • Thanks for hosting the carnival!

      Glad you – and the others who have found it one way or another – liked it. The plan is to continue the series about using blogs in teaching (looking at things like kids writing their own blogs about their courses and highlighting some of the other teacher-led blogs I use) as well as finally posting the last piece of the MMR series and another top-secret one. Oh, and find time for teaching in the classroom too!

  5. 7 Stephen

    Hi Ian,

    Good post – blogs are one of the media that students I know see as being ‘serious’ yet are happy to engage with. A different mindset from the generation before me. This is one reason why I put all our class work on a blog and try to mix in articles relevant to our learning. For our level of Biology, Ed Yong’s articles are perfect.

    For a great example of class blogging, check out ExtremeBiology: http://missbakersbiologyclass.com/blog/. Definitely and inspiration.

    • Thanks for the comment – and links are even better! I do like Ed’s material but as I only teach Biology up to GCSE the opportunities to use it ‘as is’ – rather than as a source of examples and great photos – is more limited than I’d like. I’m playing around with the idea of class blogs at the moment but use our school VLE for an abbreviated version of the same concept.

  6. Thanks Gemma for your comment earlier and this link. Having students comment is a great idea in principle – and I plan to keep using it – but it’s one of those things which is hard to check as well as having a very variable impact. Some kids will get a lot out of becoming involved in the conversation, others would add a single-line response and tick off the HW. I recently had a class work on a wiki in two successive lessons, swapping between pages, and then updating a third as HW. This gave a similar opportunity to build on each other’s work by adding pictures and links; a teaching version of ‘Consequences’ that they can now use as revisiion material.


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