Connected Learning: Evaluating and Refining an Academic Community Blogging Platform
This post will briefly explore a recent study that investigates the benefits of a community blogging platform for students in an online LIS program. Using a web survey and descriptive content analysis methods, the study empirically addresses how student blogging communities can effectively foster connections amongst instructors and students, and enhance perceptions of learning performance.
Overall, students found the site easy to use, user-friendly, attractive in appearance, interactive, and effective. They described what worked well, what impeded their experience with the blogging platform, and their perceived connections across the community. Three common themes and some associated caveats appeared in the qualitative data related to the survey questions. These include the following: community blogging sites should be customizable; instructors should utilize social features of community blogging sites to promote connection; and instructors should be engaged and present often within the sites.
Customizable & Experiential
Students respond positively to an environment that is customizable and allows an expression of individuality. This might include freedom to choose a WordPress theme, to add personal photos or other media, and to create their own information architecture via blog post categories or tagging. One student noted a positive aspect of blogging was “the ability to make it my own - I could create anything I wanted.” Incorporating media easily was another factor that contributed to student positive perception of the blogging experience: “The ability to easily add videos, gifs, and pictures to my blogs” was a positive part of one student’s experience.
Students also reported feeling satisfied and encouraged by learning WordPress itself. The experience of reflective blogging also offered a chance to learn hands on. One student noted: “I learned a lot about integrating different media into my posts. Previous academic work was very traditional, while this had implications for communication in more real world terms.” Another said: “I loved blogging. I thought it was a great way to get comfortable with blogging and allowed you to be a little more creative with your work.” The highly customizable and experiential environment created through a WordPress-based student blogging community can also cause frustration and other impediments. LIS instructors should provide links to tutorials and other mechanisms to provide assistance for those students who may require it. Students requested helpers such as “Better instructions on features and uses for a first time user” and “Maybe a few quick video tutorials on common stumbling points for beginners.”
Instructors should also communicate often about various avenues for help and support. A student should never feel “alone,” as one respondent said. Another approach may also be to communicate to students that reflective blogging should be about “thinking out loud” and applying the ideas encountered in readings and less about perfect formatting. Several students expressed frustration with not being able to format their posts the way they felt they should be formatted, including one who stated: “It was sometimes difficult to get the formatting right. Like when listing references at the bottom of our posts, it was impossible to get a decent hanging indent!”
Connected Sharing & Discourse
The next thematic area from the data concerns student perception of connections created or enhanced by the site, both with other students and instructors. The breakdown of 61% reporting feeling a sense of connection and 39% not feeling a sense of connection demonstrates that while a majority felt they were connected to others within the community, others felt more alone or disconnected.
Students reported that introductory posts, photos and other personalizations enhanced the feeling of connection, especially early on. As the work of the course ramped up, some students reported engaging with others who were researching similar communities as a means of making connections, mainly through commenting on posts. One noted: “The blogs made it easier to get to know other students, and it felt easier and less obtrusive to comment on posts on others' blogs, as opposed to the discussion functionality in Canvas, which felt more limiting and clunky.”
For those who did not feel connected, some perceived they weren’t findable (“Since I didn't get many hits from students, I didn't feel very connected to my peers.”) or felt overwhelmed (“Because it was so difficult to keep track of everyone's blogs and I had a limited amount of time to comment, I had to ‘blindly’ choose a blog to read and comment on it.”) Some simply expressed more interest in face-to-face learning instead: “I read other blog posts and commented, but this created no real connection. I feel a classroom setting and not a virtual setting is a better method of connecting.”
Instructors should seek to use all of the social features within student blogging communities to alleviate any feeling of disconnection. This might include creating groups for further discussion, posts highlighting various students’ research topics, or offering synchronous “Social Hour” web conferencing opportunities to help students engage with each other. Bringing in outside interests, focusing on events or holidays, and sharing photos can be a positive experience as well. One respondent summed it up with:
“I appreciated having connections to other students. We were able to learn from each other's questions, share fun life events (like fun Halloween costumes), learn more about the field through reading each other's assignments and blog posts. In an entirely online program, I can sometimes feel as if I'm going through the ups and downs of study all alone. Having a connection to other students through sites like this helped alleviate that isolated feeling.”
Instructor Presence & Engagement
The last thematic area highlighted in the qualitative data concerns that of instructor presence and engagement within student blogging communities. It could be argued that instructor presence and use of the student blogging community can make or break the student experience. One student mentioned their instructor “was very personable and posted lots of things on the Community Site to help us feel like a part of that community,” while another said “My instructor graded our blog posts but made no comments on the blog posts via the blog.” Another stated: “He graded our assignments and answered our emails promptly, but other than that engaged with us very little. I was disappointed to feel isolated in this class which I was initially excited for.”
Students responded well to instructors who were visible and present within the student blogging community and who shared insights about themselves and their interests. One student acknowledged that the instructor’s presence also served as a connection point to the School itself: “…comments and responses were VERY instrumental in feeling connected to the school and other students.”
If LIS educators are seeking to engage with students in online learning environments, such as blogging communities or learning management systems, these sentiments may be useful for understanding ways to do so. It could be argued that today’s LIS students, and students in online programs of all kinds, expect to interact with and “see” their instructor beyond the gradebook to learn about them as people. “Luckily, my instructor was very active and open,” one student wrote. “I felt like he guided and led our class really well. He cultivated an atmosphere of trust and sharing, and that helped to keep class discussions going.” Another stated: “Our instructor was readily available whenever we had questions or needed to discuss ideas. He participated in the social aspects of the site. I appreciated getting to know him as an individual.”
For more on this study, please see:
Stephens, M. (2016). “Connected learning: Evaluating and refining an academic community blogging platform.” Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, 57,(4). (Download the article here.)
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