Peter Mac Cann is an Assistant lecturer in Design at the Dublin School of Creative Arts @ DIT Grangegorman.

Facilitating students to use Blogs/Wordpress as a Research and Presentation Tool 

 

What change/innovation have you introduced to your teaching?

Over the last 3 years I have introduced the use of Wordpress blogs as a research and presentation tool for students studying Interior and furniture design and this has now become firmly embedded as a key tool in my teaching practice. I initially began using the private, invitation only blogs, as a way to   encourage students to develop a professional identity online and present project research, key tools for any aspiring 21st century creative.  I have found however, in practice, that there are many other benefits to the use of blogs beyond simply the aggregation and presentation of project materials.

This has paid dividends across a whole range of areas, the most rewarding in my experience being that the blogs have allowed for an informal learning space to develop in parallel to the formal, hierarchical space of the classroom. Using online blogs which are naturally conversational in tone and operate without the normal academic constraints, students begin to both express themselves more naturally and to develop their individual voices and personalities within the group.

Bijnens, Vanbuel, Verstegen and Young (2006) suggest that the success of blogs is associated with ‘informal personal reflection’ as they capture ‘tone, humour, and spontaneity’. In my own experience the blog space allows written research and discussion to develop as a natural extension of classroom / studio practice, encouraging genuine engagement and honest expression which is naturally reflective. In certain cases this has also offered genuine insights for us as tutors to overcome barriers  which normal classroom interaction prohibits or to help students lacking in social confidence or language skills to express themselves more fully and articulately.

By using the comment function to give feedback, the blogs also allow an element of direct dialogue to develop between tutor and individual students. This I have found particularly useful with first year students where brief, tailored feedback, direction and advice can be given on specifics where needed. By allowing for this type of ongoing low stakes assessment and the checking of mistakes or omissions early in key project work, cumulative problems can be avoided particularly where new keystone concepts are concerned.  

How have you implemented this in practice?

I introduce the use of blogs as a research tool in week one of the first semester and set up a simple reflective research task to both familiarise students with the format and to give me an early opportunity to connect names to faces and gain insight into personalities within the year group. Having carried out research on available options I found the Wordpress platform the most user friendly and intuitive interface, allowing for private accounts to be set up and shared only with specific viewers. From a management and assessment viewpoint automatic email notification of new posts also helps with tracking student submissions and handups.

Research  by Bulley and Morrs, (2011) has suggested that where students perceive a connectedness between components within a curriculum they are much more likely to fully engage with the programme and achieve deep learning. Used as a cross faculty resource, this technology can, I believe, begin to facilitate such connections to be made. The sharing of blog content with other tutors (by prior agreement with students) for example has allowed the sharing of classroom experiences, within and across departments where these may previously have remained discreet. Such that feedback from multiple tutors can then be provided on problematic, or exemplary, components of an individual student’s learning and changes made where needed.

What do you think are the main benefits of this approach?

There are many benefits I believe to use of blogs as a research tool,  not least because they encourage an engagement and familiarisation with digital presentation tools and a greater degree of professionalism at an early stage. Further I believe the blogs facilitate students in  becoming both more confident and more articulate in constructing self motivated research and discussion around project work,  freed from the pressure of ‘closed loop’ summative assessment tasks or assignments. I encourage my own students to view the blogs not purely as medium for task focused research but as a professional diary space, to document their own development through the 4 year degree. The use of blogs for design teaching I would argue also specifically encourages and enables critical  connections to be made - between research, writing and physical project practice in design studio, which has long been a key challenge within the creative disciplines.

What advice do you have for colleagues considering this approach?

Being crystal clear for students from the start in setting up the objectives, function, purpose and benefits of using the blogs I  would suggest is absolutely key.

While admittedly there are occasions when the additional workload involved in reading multiple blog posts can be daunting, the rewards are undoubtedly there too. A student’s engagement with or enthusiasm for a given task can very often be genuinely tangible in both the tone and the quality of content presented, which ultimately for me more than justifies the effort. By the same measure there is no real way to hide or flannel poorly researched or inauthentic content somewhat nullifying the impulse to cram and skim content.

The blog format works best as an open active forum to broaden discussion and research outside of classroom teaching, providing a space for critical dialogue to develop as distinct from summative academic assessment tasks. The blogs should not become a sterile repository for assignments completed and quickly forgotten.  Rather they should ideally develop into an active and personally cultivated space, populated with student driven, considered and curated content providing a rich and authentic representation of the student’s own third level learning journey.

I see no reason why ultimately a well structured and curated selection of blog content could not become a valuable tool for future employers, providing a richer and more genuine picture of graduates as real individuals, as potential team members, as fully rounded personalities, a far remove from the impersonal CV and and sterile bravado of the traditional candidate profile. 

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