Reflections on Blogging

A blog (originally web log) is a website comprising discreet entries that are usually sorted by date.  Blogs were among the first content management systems that allowed authors to publish online without any knowledge of HTML coding.  A key feature of blogs is that the entries are sorted by date.  This makes them a good match for the mental model that students have of modules because content tends to be sorted by students by the date it was first covered in class.  Subsequently blogs became a key element of Web 2.0 or the read/write web.  Users of the read/write web are not just consumers of content but are also producers, editors, or more usually commentators.

The blog I currently maintain is my third.  From 2001 I maintained a website where students could see a summary of what we did in class, download copies of the slides and audio recordings of the classes.  This proto-blog was coded manually in HTML and uploaded to a web server.  Restricting access to just my students would have been technically very complex. Hosting this material on a public web server meant that I became used to the idea that the slides and recordings were available to anyone.  Once I became used to that, I have never felt the need subsequently to restrict access, even though systems like Blackboard now make that easy.  Apple's iWeb was released in 2006 and this had a blog feature.  I began using iWeb to automate the coding,  but this first blog lacked many of the features associated with blogs today.  Although it generated the HTML automatically, I still had to upload this manually to the web server.

My second blog (2007) was hosted on and this was a full featured modern blogging solution.  I continued to include a blog entry containing a summary of each class, but the site itself was hosted by blogger so I did not need my own web server.  This system was much easier to use and this in time led to longer, more detailed entries that were easier to edit and update.  The ease with entries could be made, also led me to post commentary about how things were going and some notes from my personal life such as interesting movies I'd seen.  More significantly this was my first read/write blog.  For the first time readers of the blog could leave comments.  However this blog was not entirely successful.  Reflection on how things were going, for example, was not always welcome.  Many students felt that even broad commentary, on say, exam results or cheating, was not appropriate in a public forum and my head of department received a number of complaints.

I deleted the blog and started another in 2008.  For this blog I decided that I would not post anything personal and that I would confine the blog strictly to CIT business.  I also decided that I would refrain from any kind of reflection or commentary and confine myself to simply recoding what happened in class. On occasion I have found it difficult to restrain myself.

CIT students are now issued with Google Apps credentials on registration and since Blogger is a Google service it would be trivial to restrict access to the blog to my students.  However, I continue to blog in public but sometimes question the wisdom of this choice.  On the one hand I think some added value can be extracted from the work I do, by making it public.  There may be people outside CIT who are interested in some of the classes I teach and there seems to be little harm in giving them access.  More importantly, I think it's reasonable for people outside of CIT to want to know what it is that I and the students do.  But this is not without some risk.  And while the befits accrue primarily to others, the risks are mostly mine.  The world is awash with critics.  I have considered this, but have continued. [What if I'm crap]

The read/write nature of my blog allowed students to leave comments and this posed some interesting challenges.  I set up the blog comments so that anyone could post a comment, but none appeared until I approved it.  This seemed a sensible precaution, but I undertook to approve all comments except in the most extreme cases.  Over a week in November 2011 there was a flurry of comments and I learned a lot about student expectations and attitudes.  I think the ability to post anonymously online gives people great freedom to express themselves, but that freedom can often lead to rudeness.  This feature of online discussion has been frequently observed and documented, most famously with the coining of Godwin's Law.

Some examples of the comments posted:

  • You are too strict and have been known to come across as a scone with no butter, a dry fucking shone
  • he's judging people, not the work presented. He's power tripping [...] on the whole module its ridiculous and Colin you [...] know it too bud. You'd wanna cope [...] on and act your age you spastic.
  • you love to record yourself, but you are in fact a total wanker when it comes to anything besides inflating your ego ya feel me bro?

A number of comments were unpublishable, but of greater concern was the extent to which students expressed anger with each other.

  • Those posters are idiots and need someone to blame for being so stupid.
  • If a lot of students stop jumping around and show up to class he will not have to use blackboard and he give details of projects but ye are to busy talking bullyshit to listen to what he has to offer.

At the end of that week I disabled the comments because students were started to get increasingly agitated with each other.

I subsequently deleted the thread altogether.

Allowing anonymous comments made for an interesting, but bruising, experience.  It's tempting to think that positive comments will make up for the negative ones.  But even where there are positive comments, I feel, the experience can be too upsetting.  I'm not sure if I would recommend it.

Some useful positive comments:

  • You explain everything in depth yet in ways that are easy to understand. You answer questions thoroughly. You're not a human slide reader: you always keep things funny and engaging. You give interesting assignments with very clear requirements, yet maintain the flexibility for people to do different things if they're motivated. You go the extra mile to keep up with people's progress and keep people up to date. You even record your lectures. I really appreciate this stuff, as does everyone else who makes an effort.
  • I must say your by far the most entertaining and interactive lecturer i have had in my first year in CIT. I find your classes interesting and i dont find myself in a trance of boredom. I like the way you make an effort in class and keep everyone tuned in through your blog emails google+ everything.

I noticed a clustering of comments, where a negative comment was followed by several negative comments, and where a positive comment was followed by a number of positive comments.  It would be interesting to study this "me too" effect further to determine how pronounced it is.

Determining the extent to which lecturers should expose themselves and their work to the wider world is complex.  Different people have different comfort zones and different scenarios may call for different strategies.  There is also a real sense in which students should feel safe and secure in class, and lecturers should never make privacy choices for them.

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