Using blogging and social media in teaching

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to incorporate blogging and social media into University teaching over the last few weeks. This was prompted in part by this very interesting article on the Guardian’s Higher Education Network – which talked about some social media platforms which even I as a millennial have no experience using! This semester is also the second time that I have run the formative assessment component of my colleague Jason Chilvers’ ‘Science, Society & Sustainability’ Master’s level module as a blogging task. We were pleased with how the task went last year and the students seemed to enjoy it and find it useful, so we are running it again this year with a few small tweaks.


The task we set the students is to create their own blog site (I suggest WordPress as an easy-to-use platform) and write a 500-750 word post where they examine one case study of their choice, of an initiative to improve relations between science and society for sustainability or a case which reveals tensions and problems. In this post they need to introduce and contextualise their case before briefly analysing it using one of the three theoretical perspectives we cover in the module – linear, interactionist and co-productionist perspectives. For the task I have set up a class blog which includes a post giving them more details on what is expected from them, two sample blog posts and a resource sharing post which gives some pointers on where they can find interesting case studies. At the end of February Jason and I will read all the posts and then give general and individual feedback to all the students, as well as hosting a showcase and prize-giving for some of the most successful approaches to writing and blog design.

I think this approach to formative assessment can be useful in a number of ways:

  • It prepares the students for some of the most challenging aspects of their summative assessment for the module, which is an extended essay on a case study of their choice; namely identifying and bounding an appropriate and relevant case study, and showing a good understanding of the three theoretical perspectives which run through the module.
  • It gives them a chance to practice their written communication skills in a contained and fun way. I try to get them thinking about the differences and similarities between academic and blog writing styles, as well as other important aspects of writing such as thinking about your audience and showing your sources. Last year the task also helped us to identify students who were struggling with aspects of written English, and recommend that they seek support from UEA’s Dean of Students office so that this would not hold them back in their final essay.
  • It prompts at least some of the students to reflect on blogging as a form of academic communication and outreach, and therefore a further example of the initiatives to improve relations between science and society that they are studying in the module.
  • It provides opportunities for peer feedback and learning as we share the urls of everyone’s blog with the whole cohort and encourage them to give constructive comments to each other – only some students engaged in this way last year so we are trying to think about ways of encouraging this.
  • It recognises that not all students are going to go on to careers in academia and helps them to develop writing and digital skills which will be very useful to them in other areas.
  • It allows students to be a bit creative and to do something which reflects their own passions and interests – provided that they can demonstrate relevance to the module.
  • I hope that for some students this task might be quite empowering, encouraging them to develop their own voice and give informed commentary on pressing environmental and scientific issues. For example, last year one of our students wrote a post about a citizen science initiative and posted a link to it on twitter. Her piece was then picked up by academics and practitioners working on citizen science projects, promoting a lot of debate and discussion.

For me the transient and quick-flowing nature of blogging and social media make them very well suited to formative assessment in particular, where I think it can be quite useful to encourage students to engage in some calculated and creative risk-taking with no lasting consequences. For example, in the case of our formative assessment task, students can use the blog posts to see if the case study they would like to write about in their final essay lends itself to module’s focus and the kind of analysis we are expecting, or to check that they really do understand that challenging concept from the literature, by attempting to explain it and then checking their understanding using our feedback.

Inspired particularly by my time on the Harvard Science, Technology & Society Program studying with Professor Sheila Jasanoff, I think it’s important to encourage students to think about what the ideas and frameworks we are teaching them might mean for current events and news stories – to see our teaching as giving them a framework to think critically about the world and address specific problems. Therefore, I’m interested in future in exploring how I can use blogging and social media to encourage students to find and share resources from non-academic sources which are relevant to what they are learning, and also to foster an ongoing conversation throughout my modules which continually relates new examples and materials back to a shared set of frameworks and approaches.

I’ve seen some examples of people using class blogs and twitter hashtags to share resources and encourage class conversations. Do you have any other ideas or tips about how to foster these kinds of conversations and ongoing critical reflection?



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