July 14, 2014

More thoughts about Blogger as a content management system

Thanks to a very welcome back-and-forth with Cody Taylor over at the Open Educational Resources blog at the OU Libraries (I am so grateful for a blog at my school that actually seems capable of supporting a conversation!), I wanted to take a few minutes today to brainstorm today about the advantages that keep turning up as a result of my using Blogger as the content platform for the Myth-Folklore UN-Textbook in my class.

I listed some of the advantages at an earlier post here - Blogger as content management system - and now I want to expand on that, adding some more observations about why Blogger has turned out to be such a great choice for this huge, long-term project. The benefits I listed before were really focused on my content publications this summer, but in this post I will focus on the pedagogical value of this approach and how I hope it will make the class a better experience for my students.

1. Feedback from students: ratings. I am really excited about asking students to rate the individual stories using the little module that is built into Blogger blog posts, and which is easily customizable. Here is how I have it set up:

I'll be asking students to take a few minutes when they do the readings to rate the stories. It's not fancy analytics, but it will still be useful. I am very curious which stories will turn out to be people's favorites (I'll be learning about that also from their blog posts), and I am just as interested in finding out which stories people think are boring. In many cases, these reading units are drawn from longer books which contain many stories, so it will often be possible for me to substitute a story that is not working with something better. I wouldn't delete a story from the blog itself, but I can easily remove a story from a given unit and retiring it to an "unassigned" pool. That way any incoming links to the retired story will not be broken, but I can substitute another story in its place in the actual reading unit.

2. Feedback from students: comments. I'm also going to be asking students to leave comment on the stories, in addition to their own blog posts. I really hope they will ask questions about anything that is not clear because that will help me to write better notes for the stories... and writing notes to the stories is an on-going process that will take me at least a year; the student comments will help me know which stories to target as being especially difficult and in need of notes from me. I also hope they will leave comments on which stories are their favorites, along with links to their retelling of a story for the story they choose each week to retell. That's not something I'll require, but I will encourage them to leave a link, esp. if they are really proud of their retelling, as they often are.

MORE ABOUT FEEDBACK: Just as feedback is crucial to students, it is crucial for teachers... even more so since we, as teachers, are 100% committed to our classes; with students, understandably, that level of commitment varies from class to class. I would cite these two feedback mechanisms — blog post ratings and comments — as the two most positive features of Blogger for my purposes. Especially as I embark on this long-term development process, I desperately need feedback from my students! I'll also be soliciting some feedback via their Declarations in Desire2Learn, but I far prefer an open feedback process via my blogged content and also via their own blogs.

Here are some other important advantages I anticipate in using Blogger as my content platform:

3. Modular, reusable content. By creating my content in the form of blog posts, I have modular, reusable content. For the kind of content I work with, this is extremely valuable. In this first development phase, all the units are defined by their source: stories from Laos, stories from Nigeria, stories from the Iliad, etc., but after I get all these stories posted (and there are going to be close to 2000 stories by the time I am done with this phase), I want to create THEMATIC units: stories about lions, stories about witchcraft, stories about dreams, stories with riddles, etc. To do that, I will just have to add a new navigation layer defining the new units; the stories are already published. I am so so so excited about this, and it's actually been really hard this summer to stop myself from building those thematic units. It is going to be incredibly cool and will really let the students explore the stories in the ways that best match their own curiosity. Many students will, I suspect, prefer thematic units to the source-based units I have now.

4. Labels for quick indexing. Likewise, I will be able to use Blogger labels to create flexible, dynamic indexes for linking. (This is in addition to the use of labels for navigation and editorial process that I mentioned in my previous post.) As with the thematic units, I have not begun this process yet, but I am so excited about it. A key feature of the field of folklore and mythology is that there are story "types" that cross many cultures, and I want that crucial theme to come through loud and clear to the students. For example, one story type that I am really obsessed with is commonly known as the "Beth Gelert" type, based on the Welsh version, although the story itself going back to ancient India. You can get a sense of story typing from Dan Ashliman's amazing website which organizes all the content on (static) type pages: Llewellyn and His Dog Gellert and other folktales of Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 178A. Well, I will be able to use blog labels for dynamic indexing. As a quick first run, for example, here are the Gelert-type stories at my site already:
Type: Gelert
Having labels like these to link to in the notes for the stories will be really powerful. I would not want to make a reading unit of Gelert stories (it would be kind of boring to read the same story type over and over and over again), but I really do want students to be aware of — and curious about! — the way that the "same" story appears in many different guises in many different cultures around the world.

5. Models for student storytelling. One of the most important goals in my class is to encourage students to use a variety of storytelling styles. I've got lists of styles and support materials, but I will be much better able to do that when I am able to link to individual stories that are part of the course readings. Needless to say, with this super-abundance of stories, I will be able to pick out some really excellent sample stories for students to use for inspiration in their own writing. I am especially excited by the great examples of frametales that I will now be able to show the students with Arabian Nights, Canterbury Tales, Decameron, Heptameron, Dante's Inferno, Panchatantra, Tales of a Parrot, and the Vetalapancavimsati all as part of the class content. So exciting! I really hope that will inspire more of them to use frametales in their own Storybook projects. So, by creating STYLE labels (frametales, first-person, ballads, limericks, etc.), I will be able to repurpose content quickly for students looking for style ideas.

LABELS: The three items above are all about the power of labels in Blogger! Yes, I could use a tagging tool like Diigo in conjunction with a website, but I'm definitely enjoying the benefits that come with a publishing system that includes labels as an essential feature in the process.

6. Sidebar widgets. I really have not pondered yet what to do with the sidebar widgets, but that is a powerful space to work with. Right now, I just have navigation widgets (reading modules, reading units, online source materials), but I will be coming up with some other randomizing javascript widgets to take advantage of that space! (As mentioned in the previous post, javascripts in Blogger are the main reason why I am using Blogger instead of WordPress.)

7. Syndication. There is an RSS feed for this blog, and I set up the standard email subscription option in the sidebar, but I have not really focused on syndication this summer. As soon as the first round of content is done, though, I will be using this more like a blog, publishing weekly announcements (or every-other-day? or even daily?) which will highlight the content, provide background, etc. So, both for my students and for anyone who is interested in this stuff, the blog will be a content management system AND a communication platform (with RSS and email). Having announcements here will take some of the load off the announcements in my class announcements post also; that's something I am going to have to experiment with this coming semester, finding the right balance in terms of my own efficiency in writing the announcements and also in the usefulness for my students and also for a potentially larger audience.

8. Technology model for students. As I mentioned in my comments on Cody's blog post, another big advantage for me of using Blogger as opposed to building a website with Dreamweaver (or some such tool) is that it allows me to model content publication for my students. In the Gen. Ed. class that I teach, the focus is on reading and writing, not on web publishing, and the several weeks it would take my students even the basics of Dreamweaver would just not be appropriate for this class. I do, however, think it is CRUCIAL for them to be able to use free, hosted tools for publishing online — and yes, I said, "hosted" because my school's support for content creation by faculty, much less by students, is really poor. Thank goodness for Google! My students learn how to blog and also how to build a very simple website (using Google Sites), and I hope that my use of Blogger will help them to see that Blogger is a tool that can be used not just for blogging but also for content development.

Okay, I'm sure there is more to say about on this fun topic, but those are the main things I've been thinking about in the past few weeks, so that will do for now! I'm still not really sure how I want to use this particular blog over the long term, but I am glad I have it as a place for posts like these that are too long for Google+ which is where I normally do my reflective writing. Admittedly, Google+ is forgiving of long posts... but this is definitely tl;dr even for Google+ ha ha.


  1. With such high recommendations from you, Laura, I'm looking at adding Blogger to our list of solutions that we suggest to faculty who want to publish their open class content. I will be referencing this and other blog posts of yours as I being to explore the platform. Thanks!

  2. That sounds super, Cody! I will be glad to answer any questions that people have. I know other folks have successfully used Blogger for students blogs, and I can definitely attest to it as a means of content development. I also use it for my class announcements, which is an important part of my classes, too! Three cheers for Blogger! :-)

  3. My own blogger retooling plods along but not really keeping pace with yours. My need is different -- a network hub rather than a course. I'm intrigued too by the multi-tab widget like the one on Remaking the University, but I suspect it would only tempt me to further sidebar overloading. Anyway, following the project has been fun and informative.

  4. Yes indeed, Vanessa, a network hub is a powerful thing. I really valued the network features of Ning... but luckily I think I can manage to cobble together a sort-of-network of student blogs just by the raw power of linking. I never would have embarked on this whole new adventure if it were not for the demise of the mini-Ning which sure did meet my classes' needs for many years! Sidebar overloading: you know I am plenty guilty of that too!!! :-)


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