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Blogs as an assessment method

Dr Cian O'Callaghan is an Assistant Professor in the department of Geography.

Here he talks about using blogs as an assessment method for his third year students in their Urban Economic Structure and Regeneration module.

What might an ‘assignment brief’ look like for this assessment type in your context?  

As part of my 3rd year module Urban Economic Structure and Regeneration, one of the assignments students are asked to complete is a blog post. They are given the following instructions:

“Drawing on course material, pick a topic we have covered in class and write a blog post that applies a concept to study a particular case study or example in Dublin or another city you are familiar with. The blog post should be academically rigorous, with geographical concepts referenced in an appropriate manner, but it should also be written in an accessible style for a non-expert public audience. You should also make use of web 2.0 tools to add embedded images, hyperlinks, videos etc.”

We use a invite only class blog to allow students to upload and edit their pieces. After the assignments have all been graded, I also republish all the blogs (with the students’ permission) on the Geography Department blog  (https://planetgeogblog.wordpress.com/) and share them over twitter (@TCD_Geography)!

What are the main advantages of this assessment type?  

This assessment type has a number of advantages. One of the key things it aims to do is to prepare students for writing for, and communicating with, different audiences, which is a key skill they will need for many careers. Blogs needs to capture the readers interest from the start; they need to be snappy, engaging and informative. They require very different forms of writing to those of a traditional essay for these reasons. Because students are allowed to pick their own topic to research and write about, I also get to read about lots of fascinating case studies and examples that I may not be familiar with. Students often get very creative and funny too, which is always a pleasure.

What are the main challenges for using this assessment type?  

The ‘academic blog’ – if such a thing exists – is a bit of a tricky beast. Students are expected here to write for a popular audience, one that is not necessarily familiar with the range of concepts or ideas that we have been studying in class. However, as this is still an assessment they also need to make links to course material, demonstrate their own knowledge, and make these ideas accessible to a wider audience. This last part is the crucial one, but it is also a very important skillset to develop. If you can allude to and explain some conceptual ideas and link them to examples in under a thousand words, you are learning important skills that could be used, for example, to translate scientific knowledge into policy. The current Covid-19 pandemic shows us very clearly the importance of translating science for multiple audiences.

While this is a challenge for the student, it is also a challenge for the lecturer. One thing that has helped to clarify the approach taken has been to develop a specific marking rubric for this assignment, which takes into account these and other more specific criteria.

Why do you use this particular assessment type in a digital context? 

The assignment is used in a digital context for a few reasons. Blogs are one format that offers a good bridge between more academic essay writing and online digital and social media. Whereas you can definitely envision an assignment based on tweeting or other social media posts, the brevity of these platforms makes detailed feedback and grading difficult. With a blog, however, you still get to experiment with positioning the text for an online audience while retaining some of the level of detail known to academic work. Moreover, the use of images, hyperlinks, embedded videos and other web 2.0 tools are all something that students continuously excel at and offer me wonderful surprises!

By sharing these on the Geography Department blog and the @TCD_Geography twitter account, students get to see their work go out into the world and get read by that wider audience. Our Geography ‘intern’ is a twitter maestro who packages up the blog posts in the choicest of memes.
I remember in recent years one of our student’s blog being taken to task by a prominent journalist on twitter. I’m not sure what the student made of all of this, but for me it’s a sign that they are part of the debate!

What advice would you give a colleague thinking about using this type of assessment?  

You’re going to need to be clear with students what is expected of them. Detail outline of the question being asked and the marking scheme applied will help clear up some questions in advance. You will also need some detailed instructions on how to do the technical aspects of uploading the blog posts. If you are planning to share them publically, I’d also recommend working out the details of how you are going to do that. It is not always straightforward.

Do you recommend any resources or technologies to support this type of digital assessment?  

I think there are a range of platforms and tools you could use. So far, I’ve been keeping it simple. I use a wordpress blog site for both the class blog as it is straightforward for the students to use.



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