Excerpt

Chronicle Conversations: Social Blogging is a successful assessment tool that is student- as well as learning-centred. It was developed by Dr. Saran Stewart to encourage critical thinking and enhance confidence in academic writing. The aim of this initiative is to allow students to write and publish blogs or vlogs (a vlog is a video blog). It empowers students to practice writing in an accessible way. Part of the ‘hidden curriculum’ is that this assessment tool helps students to find their voice, build their arguments, substantiate and formulate their opinions and reflect on their own positions.

Narrative, origins and objectives of the initiative

What kind of project is this? Please give a short description (summary) of it.

Chronicle Conversations: Social Blogging is a teaching and assessment tool developed by Dr. Saran Stewart of the University of the West Indies. The aim of this tool is to empower students, teach blog writing skills and enhance their academic writing. Every week, during the course of a semester, students in the course of Trends and Issues in Higher Education hand in a written document (a blog) or a video log (a vlog). These students are asked to critically reflect on a broad topic outside of their context and relate that to their own context, the discussed curriculum of that week and the assigned blog websites. In this particular course, examples of the blog websites that are used are the Times Higher Education and Chronicle Higher Education. At the end of the semester, these blogs and vlogs are published at a specifically designed website of www.trendsandissuesinhe.wordpress.com.

Please tell us why, in general, this project is considered a successful one?

Writing, reading and sharing blogs is a very important, accessible and interesting way to learn from peers, stay in contact and communicate with writers from all over the world. At the end of the course, every student has at least one individually written blog (or sometimes vlog) that will be published. This enables students to be part of broader debate about the topics of their research. They are provided with a platform to communicate with other scholars in the field, other columnists, journalists, researchers and writers that are exposed to the different perspectives of the students. This teaching tool allows students to getting to know others as well as themselves, find their voice, creating a space to be both critical as well as vulnerable.

Besides that, this tool has proven its success because:

  1. It is specifically effective for second language learners.
  2. The tool is very cost-effective since it can easily be implemented in many other (academic as well as other educational) courses.
  3. The high quality of the blogs (and sometimes vlogs) shows that the academic writing skills of the students have really improved. The publications are accessible and published on a specifically designed WordPress website.

And why would you consider it a grass-roots initiative?

Dr. Stewart developed this tool since she came across blogging on social media. It was a challenge to enhance academic writing skills of students that had difficulties with writing standard English, especially since many second-language learners often write how they speak. Because of this, some students had tremendous difficulties expressing themselves and picking research topics that they liked. The course outline and requirements left room for interpretation, so Dr. Stewart developed this assessment method to let students blog about (global) issues that are related to their own individual contexts. This way students are more empowered to find research topics that they like. Also, they learn to reflect on and express themselves, find their voice and at the same time practice academic and critical thinking as well as writing in a way that it is still accessible.

What challenges needed to be solved in this project?

In the courses presented by Dr. Saran Stewart, she asks her students to challenge their ways of teaching and their pedagogy. This is a challenge since she teaches students that are education professionals themselves and have been working as teachers for many years, some even for several decades. Up until 2013-2014, teachers were not obligated to have a Bachelor diploma. This changed, so many non-traditional students (among which a lot of older teachers) had to go back to university and get their Bachelor diplomas. Therefore, one of the challenges that needed to be solved was dealing with resistance and having the students overcome their fears, reflecting and trying out new pedagogical models – even if they have been working in a certain pedagogical model for a long period of time.

Another important issue that had to be solved was asking students to use technology. In 2013, when Dr. Stewart started this initiative, it was a challenge to ask students to use technology in a developing country like Jamaica, where WiFi was not always readily reliable for all of her students. Therefore, she would support students that didn’t have access to WiFi at home and would assist them to find solutions. Currently, this is not an issue anymore since today the WiFi signal is stronger and more accessible. Also, almost everyone has a smartphone these days that can be used to write blogs.

Is this initiative based on any particular theoretical framework? Which one?

This initiative is based on frameworks like Inclusive Pedagogy as well as Modelling. Inclusive education is embedded in all courses run by Dr. Stewart, without telling students that they are in a class about inclusive education. That is critical, because many courses are about pedagogy. Therefore, it is important for teachers to model for students what they want them to learn. It is important to do it with them, so they can experience and work with these tools and methods themselves.

(Appendix) Is your intervention standing on its own or is it a part of a bigger and more holistic approach?

Please describe the group(s) intended as beneficiaries of this initiative

Why has this group (have these groups) been chosen?

This initiative focuses on the target group of students in higher education that are educational professionals themselves. Many of these students are active on social media and already read many different types of blogs from others. However, most of them have never written a blog before because they are convinced that their message is irrelevant, or that their writing is not good enough. To try and get them out of that traditional academic mode, this tool aims to develop confidence in the students. It shows that their message, their blogs, are worthy and valued. This is especially important because, in society, teachers are mostly underpaid and undervalued. Everyone has access to these powerful blogs after they are published, which really empowers the students. Blogging shows them how they can use their voice. Also, they are assessed for it and they get to read and learn from blogs and vlogs that are produced by other students as well. Some students designed blogging assignments for their own pupils or students and wanted to redesign their own knowledge in a non-conformal way. By doing so, this teaching tool also has the potential to reach other target groups (like pupils and students).

Could you please tell us something about the relative size of the (of each) target group, within the school/university population, region and/or country?

Every semester, each class size consists of about 35 students. Depending on the weeks in the semester, there are 13 teaching weeks in total. For each class, students prepare a blog or vlog, or provide the other bloggers with critical feedback, stimulate the learning space and think about the topic of the content that is discussed during that time. This way, during the entire course of the semester, students engage in discussions with different bloggers to not just read literature but really use it as a medium of engagement. Every week, about three to four students post a blog or vlog. That means that, at the end of the semester, all students have at least one published blog or vlog.

Which social characteristics are taken into account and what is the geographical area covered?

As teachers, it is important to find out what students are in the classes. Especially first-generation students need to develop an understanding about who they are and find their voices and reflect on their personal perspectives. These students are the first in their families to go to university. To support those students, it is particularly important to discuss how they position themselves within the context of the university as well as within their communities. What is their drive, their motivation and what do they aspire? Most students that participate in the classes come from the geographical area around Kingston, Jamaica. Many might have already finished an undergraduate program, but still often lack confidence and are not all as secure as they can be. Blogging helps them to deal with those issues as it gives them the confidence they need to write. In this particular project, it is even more important because they are the role models for new generations of children and other students as well.

On which level is the project implemented?

The project is implemented on the level of the curriculum and the class room.

Please describe the political and socio-economic factors that you believe have been important enablers for your initiative

Did the initiative have political support?

Social Blogging is a teaching and assessment tool, not a policy intervention. However, Jamaica is currently developing a Higher Education declaration. Dr. Stewart is asked to chair the subcommittee for students and staff success in Higher Education that is in charge of 5 areas of the Higher Education declaration. Those areas are focusing specifically on students’ access and completion, learners’ success and completion as well as on internationalization. This Social Blogging teaching tool can fit into the development of these larger national policies, but still has to be approved by Jamaican parliament.

How did it fit with local, regional or national policies?

Who are the stakeholders supporting the initiative?

The University Center for Excellence in Teaching & Learning is an important stakeholder within the University of the West Indies that supports this initiative.

Are there particular demographic changes present that are influencing the project?

More women are teachers, but also more and more non-traditional students are studying at the University of the West Indies. Many are older students, some of them are commuting students that have to travel up to two hours to join classes. Some are parents or even grandparents. This teaching tool benefits those students the most, because they have been in the educational system for a long time. This initiative can have a great impact, since many of these students are already teachers themselves. Therefore, in return, they can impact students and children that they educate.

What is the institutional strategy and culture of the (educational) organization?

The University Center for Excellence in Teaching & Learning promotes blogging in other programs and are pushing for the usage of different forms of social media in higher education courses. The idea behind it is that this tool truly engages students and supports teachers in developing new and innovative educational strategies.

To what extent does the initiative have an influence on institutional policy (or potential influence) of the (educational) organization?

The initiative of Social Blogging is not necessarily part of the institutional policy, but as mentioned, blogging is currently being promoted in other programs of the University of the West Indies as well. Also, as Jamaica is currently developing a Higher Education declaration, this Social Blogging teaching tool can fit into the development of these larger national policies. Dr. Stewart was asked to chair the subcommittee for students and staff success in Higher Education that is in charge of 5 areas of the Higher Education declaration.

(Appendix) Is there public support for your initiative and the issue it addresses?

(Appendix) What other factors do you think have been important for the success of this initiative?

Please describe the overall initiative design and the methods and tools used to reach the goals

Please describe the specific activities carried out.

Students are asked to read and write blogs on a weekly basis throughout the semester. The topic of these blogs should align with the ‘blog of the week’ and, in addition, they are assigned some relevant blog websites (like Times Higher Education or Chronicle Higher Education – it depends on the courses) to read from as well. Besides that, students are asked to find a topic outside of their context and to relate it to their own context. The goal is to reflect on how that topic relates to the bigger issue that is discussed in class. Building on that, in the process of blogging, the students form their opinions and reflect on where they are coming from.

In the development of the blogs the students must insert some creative parts (like video, music, podcasts, images, anime, cartoons etc). The written blogs become part of the readers for the following week. The students that are not blogging in that week have to write critical comments in a peer-review kind of way. All students have to read the same blog of the week and critically reflect on that. The week after that, these blogs are discussed in class. This way, a community of learners and writers is created that centralizes co-construction of knowledge. The element of peer-review is powerful because other students that are going through similar issues help them to reflect on how these issues affect them.

So, many different topics are critically discussed, edited and moderated. Therefore, setting the norms of the class is important in the first week so the teacher can hold everyone accountable. The teacher creates a space that is open-minded and is rooted in respecting each other’s arguments. The educational space is, at the very least, inclusive. This means that struggling students are supported in order to succeed.

The classroom empowers students to:

  1. Find their own voice;
  2. Getting to know themselves;
  3. Getting to know their other classmates;
  4. Develop knowledge regarding political, social, historical issues;
  5. Learn how to be both critical as well as vulnerable.

The challenge for the teacher is to support them every semester to actually publish a written document, or a vlog (video blog). At the end of the course, students are able to put their publication on their resumes to show that they have developed different types of skill sets.

What were the key roles (teacher, student, management team etc.) within the project?

Besides the students themselves, who write blogs and sometimes develop vlogs as well as peer-review each other’s work, the role of the teacher is key in this project. The most important goal for the teacher is guiding the process and moderating the comments in the process of peer-reviewing. It is not the teacher’s intention to change the comments, however, it is important to ensure that feedback is provided in a respectful way. The teacher is also responsible for creating an inclusive environment in which controversial topics and perspectives can be discussed in class to navigate students in critically assessing their own positions as well as those of others.

What ideas, tools, theories, models, methodology (etc.) have been used to reach the goals?

As it is a teachers' training course, the idea behind this initiative is to model other learners how tools like blogging and vlogging can be used to enhance writing skills and find your voice.

What are the final revenues of the project?

Please describe if your project ensured its sustainability

If so, how did you ensure the short-term impact of the project?

The short-term sustainable character of this initiative is primarily related to the motivation of individual teachers to incorporate this assessment tool within their own curricula.

And how did you ensure the long-term impact of the project?

Given the fact that blogging is promoted in other programs of the University of the West Indies, and that Dr. Saran Stewart is also a member of the subcommittee for students and staff success in Higher Education on a national level, this initiative has a lot of potential of being implemented in policies as well as other courses/programs/institutions in the future. The impact of this initiative can therefore become more sustainable.

Has your project been replicated elsewhere?

Colleagues from all over the world are using it more and more, because it is such an effective teaching and assessment tool. Some lecturers use it in different programs, both undergraduate and postgraduate programs. Also, as mentioned, most of the students that participated are teachers themselves and also translate and implement this tool in their own schools.

Please tell us about the resources used in this initiative

What was the budget for the initiative?

This initiative is so cost-effective because it can be implemented without many resources, basically anywhere, and in any context. One of the most important elements are:

  • A working and accessible WiFi connection. For example, in rural areas in Jamaica this can be tricky.
  • A blogging website that can be used to upload and publish the blogs.
  • Laptops or computers for students are ideal, but basically the project can even be successful when students only have smart phone devices. If this is also not possible, students can work on computers at their local library.

How much did the initiative depend on volunteers?

Social Blogging is not dependent on volunteers. The appeal of this initiative is that it has the potential for many different contexts, since basically all you need is a flexible teacher that implements this assessment tool in the curriculum of an educational course. However, it is important that a teacher thinks outside of the box to make it possible to support the students in a way that helps them succeed. For example, in thinking with students how they can submit their blogs in different ways.

How were the costs perceived by the public/the sector/other stakeholders?

To what extent did the initiative achieve its objectives?

Please describe the evidence to support the success of your initiative.

The aim of this initiative is to let students write and publish blogs or vlogs to them to practice writing in an accessible way. This tool helps students to find their voice, build their arguments, substantiate and formulate their opinions and reflect on their own positions. This initiative is successful given the fact that many of the students that participated in the Social Blogging initiative also found an interest in blogging and have realized how it can be used for social justice activism. In that process, this initiative ensured its objectives because the students are empowered to reflect critically on their own positions and standpoints as well as enhance confidence in academic writing.

Did the intervention lead to any unintended (positive) outcomes?

Since the blogs and vlogs are published and portray many different very well worked out arguments and perspectives on societal issues, the gained and produced knowledge is relevant in other contexts as well. Therefore, one of the unintended outcomes of this initiative is that many of the published blogs and vlogs are used as sources in different courses and programs.

What indicators (quantitative and qualitative) have you measured to demonstrate success?

This initiative is an example of curriculum development since it is a teaching and assessment tool. The blogs and vlogs are graded and published as part of the educational course and are the qualitative indicators that demonstrate success. The blogs are published on the website of trendsandissuesinhe.wordpress.com.

(Appendix) How did you evaluate/monitor this intervention?