Friday, March 9, 2012

Can Blogging Assignments Improve Science Education?

Image pilfered from Pitt County Schools.

I'm fortunate that my institution has large support centers dedicated to improving students' and faculty members' skills in writing (the Sweetland Center) and teaching (Center for Research on Teaching and Learning).  Today, they jointly hosted a workshop entitled "Blogging in the Classroom," which I attended. Coming from a field in the natural and physical sciences, I expected to be a fish out of water.  Surely a workshop on blogging as a teaching tool would be intrinsically catered to instructors in the writing-heavy humanities and social sciences?  I actually considered skipping it, since I have plenty of data to analyze from a recent round of experiments.

Am I ever glad I went!  The panelists were three well-spoken instructors from the disparate fields of history, writing and environmental science.  It was the presence of this latter speaker, Bill Currie, that convinced me that  blogging might be a valuable tool in a science classroom.  There are a lot of ways to implement a blogging module in a course, but Dr. Currie uses it as a platform for public posting of formal essays by students as part of their coursework, i.e., an alternative to a traditional term paper.  Students are invited to post (civil!) comments on each other's entries, and are graded for both their own entries and their reactions to others.

Coming away from this workshop, I can see the following as possible advantages of blogging assignments.

1) It puts the direction of learning into the hands of students, rather than solely professors and grad assistants.  Rather than listening to the lone voice of a professor, they have a role in shaping their own learning.  In this way, blogging plays a role similar to traditional oral presentations, but uses less class time and exercises a different skill set.  It might also allow more in-depth discussion than classroom presentations.  Of course, student-run learning comes with its share of caveats, but perhaps some form of instructor (or peer!) review could be implemented to rein in factual errors to some extent.

2) It provides a safe(r) forum to exchange ideas without fear of sounding ignorant.  If students are given the option to post entries and comments anonymously (that is, anonymously to everyone except the professor), the panelists noticed that students less inhibited in discussing controversial topics.  I bet it would also encourage them to ask for clarification of fundamental points of scientific arguments without embarrassment.

3) It provides an incentive for students to showcase their best critical thinking and writing.  After all, many of these course-run blogs are public.  If your essay is being read not only by your instructors, but also by your peers (and potentially your grandmother, as one panelist put it), you have a stronger motivation to put forth your best, most polished work.

4) It enfranchises students and prepares them for deeper participation in the democratic forum of the internet.  This seems to me a very valuable skill for anyone wanting to shape our increasingly interconnected society through their ideas.

5) It provides real-world, public writing experience.  This should make for a nice resume item, and possibly "open the valve" of open-ended communication for many students, as panelist Naomi Silver put it.

Since there is such a heavy emphasis on learning the core material in my field (chemistry), any writing and blogging assignments would have to take a backseat to more structured conceptual learning and problem solving.  However, science professors have already been incorporating writing assignments into their curricula for some time.  In my intro biochemistry course, for instance, my prof had us summarize one or two peer reviewed articles in our own words, discussing the main findings and any strengths or weaknesses of each study.  This could easily be translated to a blog format, with the added advantage of promoting discussion (and, one hopes, a sense of relevance!) of the topics.  I also expect the anonymity of blogging via usernames would make students less ashamed to admit their misunderstandings about a topic.  This might be a convenient way for future scientists and medical professionals to "break into" the primary literature without worrying about what they think they're already supposed to know.

Lots of exciting possibilities here... I'm so glad to be living in the information age!

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