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Blogs vs. Essays

When Michael Feldstein asked his network to write up a case story of exemplary use of digital technologies in general education (Feldstein, April 2014) I was initially stumped. Could I dig into my experience teaching graduate students online for a case example? Or pull an anecdote from my years working at an Ivy League? What about my work with young adults in a post-secondary vocational training program? No; but I do think the blog vs. essay project I worked on with medical students could be considered.

For the 2009-2010 study, we assigned a reflective writing exercise to two different groups of medical students at two different medical schools. Some groups wrote and submitted standard essays while the other groups posted to class blogs. Our aim was to determine if the quality and depth of writing differed between the two formats. We used a set of thematic codes identified during a pilot study and a rubric to evaluate the writing. The rubric measured the depth of writing based on Mezirow’s theory of critical reflection on learning (Fischer, Haley, Saarinen & Chretien, 2010). The rubric in Michael’s earlier blog post (Feldstein, March 2014) was not unlike ours – a four point scale measuring student’s ability to reflect, assess and apply new information in the process of generating new knowledge and awareness. So, while not exactly a GEM case study, it does provide evidence that digital tools can be as effective as analog, or traditional, learning activities.

Q. In what ways is the practice effective or transformative for student learning? What’s the evidence? How do we know?

A. Through analysis of student writing from two different medical schools, we found that there was no statistically significant difference in the themes found in the writing and no statistically different levels of reflection in either group. It should be noted that the essay groups and blog groups were randomly selected at both institutions and the findings were consistent with all groups.

While our study cannot be generalized, we thought it was important to have evidence to show that blog writing can be of equal quality as traditional essay writing. With consideration for 21st century skills being a focus of most primary and secondary schools, colleges and universities must be prepared to provide learning and engagement opportunities for students who have prior experience using digital tools in the classroom.

Q. How does the practice reflect the digital world as lived student culture? What are the skills and content associated with the digital practice or environment? How does the practice deepen or shape behavior of students with digital tools and environments with which they may be variously familiar?

A. In our study, participants were surveyed in an effort to understand their perceptions of use of technology in the third year internal medicine clerkship course. Interestingly, those students who completed the assignment via essay preferred essays (73%) while students who completed the assignment via posting to a class blog preferred blogging (77%) (pg 171).

Considering that this study took place five years ago, before smartphones and Facebook became prevalent in American higher educational culture, it is reasonable to suspect that students today are even more capable of using blogs and other forms of digital media in learning activities. Additionally, considering how social media has permeated the mainstream media (hashtag: anything) faculty may be more ready to leverage blogs for assignments in traditional, hybrid and online courses.

Q. What does it take to make the practice work? What is the impact on faculty time? Does it take a team to design, implement, assess? What are the implications for organizational change?

A. Our project team included two full time faculty clinicians, a researcher and myself. Together we developed the project and selected the technologies with consideration for the student participants. As a professional technologist as well as an educator, I believe a partnership between a technologist or instructional designer and the instructor is important.  While many faculty are perfectly capable of setting up a blog themselves, having a partner to prepare training and support materials and help acclimate students to the technology is important. Also, there is value in reflection on practice – the faculty/technologist partnership generates discourse around the teaching and learning experience which can lead to further refinement of the core project as well as future endeavors.

Results of a survey completed by nine participating faculty revealed that those who participated in the blog writing assignment spent more time on the assignment than those who worked with the essay writing groups (pg 171). The blog writing was ongoing throughout the project period, with students posting multiple times while the essays were submitted toward the end of the course. It is reasonable to expect that frequent writing requires frequent moderation so this finding was not surprising.

Q. How is it applicable to gen ed (if example doesn’t come from gen ed)?

A. The evidence we uncovered suggests that blogs could be more welcomed in school as a viable option for students in writing courses or courses that require students to reflect and write about their learning.  Because we found no statistical difference in the quality of writing submitted via essay compared to the writing submitted via blog posts for this medical school assignment, further research may reveal that writing in general education is as consistent.

Using digital tools in education is important in this digital age. However, the tools and the use should be as carefully selected as traditional resources. The selection of digital resources is overwhelming – partnering with a professional technologist or instructional designer will help faculty identify and select the right tool for the student group, the subject matter, and the activity.