Ruth Reynard's Avoiding the 5 Most Common Mistakes in Using Blogs with Students (via Stephen Downes) has some good guidelines for using blogs in the classroom. Reynard teaches graduate students, but her five mistakes to avoid are sound for all levels:

  • Ineffective contextualization
  • Unclear learning outcomes
  • Misuse of the environment
  • Elusive grading practices
  • Inadequate time allocation

These principles actually work for any course assignment or technology. For instance, it helps students if they understand the purpose of a particular assignment. If they consider something to be busy work, motivation will be lower and their work can reflect their perception of the assignment. And so on.

Reynard's article is similar to two older, brief posts by James Farmer. Misuse of the environment refers to what Farmer wrote about not using blogs for purposes they're not intended, in which he includes discussion boards, listservs, learning management systems, and group blogs. Ineffective contextualization is similar to his assertion that blogs "should be key, task driven, elements of your course".

Reynard goes into more depth than Farmer's brief posts (but see his article Blogs @ Anywhere: High-Fidelity Online Communication. Even so they take similar perspectives.

Reynard writes,

In the case of blogging, the most effective use of this tool is in the area of self reflection or thought processing. As such, there must be concepts for students to think through, various resources and content segments to process, or ideas to construct. To simply ask students to blog without this level of planning will lead to frustration for the students. In other words, there must be a certain amount of content preparation already covered or made accessible for students before blogging will really support the learning process.

Self-reflection is certainly one reason why I have a blog. But is it "the most effective use of this tool"? It's not clear to me, but she seems to be equating self-reflection with thinking through ideas. Self-reflection for me is learning about myself, who I am, and where I'm going. It might also be about examining how I learn. But thinking through ideas is more about problem-solving and learning about the ideas, which may or may not include reflecting about myself and my learning.

I definitely disagree with the following excerpt:

While a blog can also provide social placement of students or academic placement of students within a group, blogs are fundamentally individual in their purpose and essence. That is, while comments can be added or ideas posted following a blog entry, these sit outside the initial posting--blogs are not wikis or online discussion forums, therefore, if individual self-reflection is the central benefit to the learning process, instructors must plan carefully as to when in the course self-reflection will enhance the learning process for each student.

Yes, my blog, for instance, has my purpose and my essence. But its purpose and essence are not independent of the purposes and essences of other blogs. Rather, it's influenced, even shaped, by its interactions with those other blogs. That is, I read what others are posting and respond to them, and they may do likewise, in an iterative fashion. Thus, others' posts do not "sit outside the initial posting" nor does the "initial posting" sit outside of them, but they are interconnected in an ongoing conversational web consisting of parallel posts in my blog's case and, in the case of others, via posts and comments. Thus, blogs are fundamentally social.

Paradoxically, what can facilitate social learning is the individualization of blogs, as Farmer notes in his article:

Indeed, for MacColl et al. the individualisation of the blogging experience was significant in that it allowed for the students to express themselves through “heavily customising their blogs and requesting more advanced functionality”. This control over information is, they surmise, critical to “fostering appropriation of the technology for unintended uses” and plays heavily in their future plans to “explore extensions that approximate the fluency of a shared paper-based journal, as a basis for the serendipitous backtalk that reveals unanticipated problems or surprise opportunities”. Invariably, it would seem, aggregation and individualisation would play a key role in this.

Although Farmer doesn't use the term "autonomy," it can be understood through the terms "customising," student "control over information," "unintended uses," "serendipitous backtalk," and, of course, "individualisation." Note that it is self-determination within a context of social interaction via aggregation that fosters autonomy and also learning.

Related post:
How to Use Blogs in the Classroom