Hub-and-spoke blogging with lots of students

Inspired by some of the blog posts that have recently come through my reader on the topic of classroom blogging, I thought I’d throw my hat in the ring. In particular, I wanted to respond to some of the concerns raised in the comments to Mark Sample’s post regarding the “hub and spoke” method, where students maintain individual blogs that are linked through the teacher’s hub blog. Can this model work with a large number of students?

Not quite drowning | cc licensed flickr photo shared by Jaako

Over the course of several semesters using such a model in Intro to Philosophy and Intro to Ethics classes, I’ve hit on a couple of techniques that have made it easier to deal with somewhere between 60 and 70 students (from two sections of the same course) blogging roughly twice per week. Here are some thoughts, in no particular order.

  • Groups – On the right hand side of, you’ll find a link to the blog of each student in the class. The links are organized into groups of five or six students each. The students’ first assignment at the beginning of the semester is to register for a blog and to email me its URL. As these URLs land in my inbox, I number them 1-7 (in sections of 35 or so students, seven seemed like the right number of groups). The blogroll is then split into groups, using Wordpress’s link categories.

    In practice, the groups serve several purposes. First, membership in a group give individual students a more focused and manageable reading load. That’s because the syllabus requires students to read only the blog entries of their group members. As the semester progresses and students get to know each other, their blog reading (as evidenced by, among other things, the scope of their commenting) increases dramatically, but this is self-motivated rather than required. Second, focused groups mean that each student has a guaranteed audience. If all students were assigned to read all blogs, then only the most popular blogs (or those appearing first in an alphabetical list!) would get regular readers and commenters. Groups make sure things are more spread out. Third, dividing the class into blog groups provides ready-made groups for in-class work as well. I’ve found that the camaraderie that forms in a blog group (see these comments for an example of what I mean) translates very nicely into in-class work, and vice versa.

  • “In the blogs” and classroom integration – When my students first started blogging a few years ago, I would make a habit of finding a few posts that caught my eye before most class sessions to discuss with the class. Bringing the blogs to the center of the classroom experience does a couple of things: it highlights good student work (I try to talk about everyone’s blog at least once per term), it creates the impression that the blogs really are a crucial part of the class, it’s a good way to revisit issues that went either unexplained or underexplained in the previous session, and it makes future blog posts better when blog authors believe that their work might be discussed in class.

    Since I was going through the process of picking out and making notes about interesting posts anyway, I figured I might as well make my notes available to students before class. So I started writing “In the blogs” posts, digests of what caught my eye that day, and a brief description of why. I’d generally try to post this at least twelve hours before the class session where the posts would be discussed. After a few weeks of doing this, I noticed that many students had actually read the posts that I blogged about (though I didn’t require it). Comment counts on those posts also tended to be a bit higher.

    Near the beginning of the term, I deliberately overdid it with In the blogs, in order to give students the sense that the blogs were really significant intellectual spaces and important to the class. See, for example, digests from the beginning, the middle, and the end of the semester.

  • RSS and grading – The purpose of the blogs in these classes is to give the students a space for reflection that they take seriously (publicness does this) but that is low-stakes enough to allow for risk-taking and experimentation. Thus my pass-fail grading: if the blog post is on time, and demonstrates even a modicum of thought, you get full credit. The happy byproduct of this arrangement is that a close reading of every blog entry and comment is not necessary. Early in the semester I try to read every post relatively carefully and comment on most of them – largely so that I can model the kind of thoughtful but not-too-formal commenting that I’d like the students to adopt – but as the term progresses the community generally takes care of itself pretty well. By the end of the semester, I hunt and peck my way through the blogs at my leisure, much like the students do.

    I used Google Reader to keep track of the students’ blogs, so that at the end of each blog grading period (every two or three weeks, I think), I could scan back through the feeds to see that they were on time. Comments work in a similar way: I subscribed to the comment feed of each blog, and at the end of every grading period would scroll through the comment feeds, keeping a tally of comment authors (this makes comment counting a bit more time-consuming than post counting).

Requiring such prolific blogging with so many students is not for the faint of heart (or, perhaps, for those with a 5-4 load), but I’ve found that some of these techniques – and especially the general rule that doing a lot of work early in the semester means that a self-sustaining community will develop – make the job much more manageable.

16 thoughts on “Hub-and-spoke blogging with lots of students

  1. Andre malan

    I like the grouping idea a lot. It makes complete sense. One thing that I think would be neat is to combine groups at a later date. So for the first half of class have groups of 7 and the second half have groups of 14 (to simulate a growing network).

  2. Nate Kogan

    Thanks for this very practical and focused post on in-class hub-and spoke blogging, Boone. If you came across my comment in Mark Sample’s blog, perhaps you also read my post considering the pros and cons of hub-and-spoke vs. central class blog:

    I’m starting school next week and am figuring out precisely how to roll out my class blog structure and what resources we’ll use. I teach on the high school level and will be using this structure with ~35 students, so it’ll be busy, but I’ll also see the students every day, which will allow for more feedback, tech troubleshooting, or perhaps even dedicating class time to feedback and blog synthesis. I had already planned to follow through with much of what you suggest — everyone using WordPress and everyone using Google Reader as the RSS reader. I do, however, like the groups for blogging response and synthesis as this should, as you say, help students focus on both audience and material to read, process, and comment on.

    Thanks again for your insights and suggestions. If I find myself with any free time I’ll hopefully post a follow-up about how the progress is going and how high school students take to the blogging format.

  3. Boone Post author

    @Andre – Nice idea. As I mention above, students’ networks frequently grow organically, but your method would be a great way of giving them a nudge.

    @Nate – Thanks for stopping by. Yes, it was your comment (among others) on Mark’s blog that made me think of the post, but I hadn’t seen your response until now. The way you’ve analyzed the pros and cons of the two methods is extremely helpful. I’ll be watching to see how your experiments work out – I’m especially interested in how the considerations that are germane for high school students vs. college students change your strategies. Good luck!

  4. Mark Sample

    This ongoing conversation about teaching and blogging, spread out over four or five sites, has been excellent! I’m looking forward to trying out some of the new ideas I’ve come across.

    Dividing the class into reading groups is an innovative approach and solves the manageability problem. Even better, groups would make blogging more intimate, fostering one value I mentioned in a comment to Nate, a student’s sense of audience. Is there ever any cross-pollination between the groups, i.e. do any students ever end up reading or commenting upon other group’s posts, totally on their own? Also, I wonder if you have a sense of whether students carry on with their own blogs after the semester is over? I like to think of blogging as a way to turn students into lifelong writers, but I’m not sure, in practical terms, whether this is true.

  5. Nate Kogan

    Some good points and questions you raise here, Mark. I also was struck by the practical benefits that dividing the class up into groups creates.

    From my own perspective, I have the same students for an entire year, which is broken into four marking periods. My plan is to rotate the groups at the start of each new marking period, thereby creating an opportunity for students to read others’ writing and get a sense of different styles, approaches, etc. I suppose something similar could happen at the mid-point of a semester on the university calendar.

    Of course students are always free to read the blogs of those outside their groups, but I think you raise the good point that this type of organic blog-browsing might not take place on the students’ own volition. Some type of stick or carrot needs to be involved. At least by rotating groups I know students will see a variety of writing.

    As for the life-long writing hopes, as I mention in my post about the pros and cons of different blogging structures, I see real value in the blog as a launching pad for a student’s interest in writing, though I too have similar doubts about whether or not this will actually happen. From the secondary school side of things, I think the blog can serve as a form of digital portfolio for the students who can then use it as an integral part of their college admissions file. While many high school students might blog, hopefully having them write about academic subject matter might shift the content away from angst-ridden navel-gazing (I’m being somewhat hyperbolic here; not all teenagers, or their writing styles, fall into this category) and toward more outwardly analytical writing. Perhaps the carrot of “distinctiveness” on one’s college application will prompt some of these students to keep blogging.

  6. Boone Post author

    Maybe I’ve just been lucky, but in my experience students are very quick to leave their groups and start reading and commenting on other blogs. There are a couple reasons. One is that they are (or become) friends with some of their classmates who are outside of the group, which makes them more likely to read the blogs of those students. Another is the digests, which tends to draw at least a little bit of the reading and commenting attention to blogs outside of a given group. Finally, on a more practical level, I think that sometimes the students who post their entries earlier than their groupmates also want to get their comments out of the way, so they have to graze around the other blogs in order to find classmates who have new entries available for comments.

    What has always struck me as interesting is that students almost never comment on the blogs from different sections, even though the blog assignments and curriculum are nearly exactly alike. This suggests that there is a real social comfort forged in the classroom that translates to their online behavior.

    I just did a spot check that might be of interest. On one randomly chosen blog, the most recent ten comments broke down like this: two were from me, one was from the author, three were from groupmates, and the other four were from classmates outside of the author’s group. By the end of the semester, this is pretty representative of the class.

    As for keeping their blogs? Most of the students in my Intro to Ethics classes are taking it as a general education requirement (typically for a business degree), and I get the sense that they don’t particularly want to associate themselves with their philosophy assignments. (I can’t imagine why not.) Once or twice in the past few years a student has continued using the space to blog after the term, something I accidentally discovered because I was still subscribed to the feed. In those instances, I have unsubscribed because the new use of the blog wasn’t particularly interesting to me, and it felt a little bit like creepy eavesdropping to read about former students’ personal exploits. Were the class in a discipline more closely related to their personal or academic interests, I wonder if more students would continue to use the sites.

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