July 9, 2020

Comments and Randomizers

I've written up all the technical notes about blogging and blog networks, and in these last few posts, I'll share some comments about the logistics of how I run my classes, hoping that these ideas might be useful to others. All classes and contexts are different, though, which means each person has to find their own solutions. I'm glad to help brainstorm anytime about this kind of stuff; you can find me at Twitter: @OnlineCrsLady or send me an email at

Weekly commenting. Students actually have two commenting assignments each week: they comment on the story posts at each other's blogs, and they also use the blog space to leave each other comments about their project websites. The comments on the story posts are short and more social in nature, but the comments on the projects are more detailed since those comments are feedback for students to use as they work on project revisions. Taken together, these two commenting assignments account for one-third of the work that students do in the class each week, so it's definitely an important part of the class (the class is roughly one-third reading, one-third writing, and one-third commenting). Most students are really excited to see each other's work and interact in this way, and some students do additional commenting each week for extra credit (and there are also extra credit reading and extra credit writing assignments; the extra credit is a way for students to tilt the balance of the class in favor of the assignments they find most fun and/or useful). You can see what a typical week looks like here if you are curious: Week 10.

Commenting at blogs. The commenting feature of blogs is their weakest point, and I'll be the first to admit that. At the same time, I've stuck with the standard blog comment space as the student interaction space and that has worked well for me. Here are some advantages of using the blog commenting space for me:
* students keep their focus on the blog network as our "classroom" which in turn motivates them to do a good job with their individual blogs
* students get ideas for their own blogs from visiting the blogs of other students
* students have control over their blog comments: they can delete comments if needed (although spam or other unwelcome problems is not a problem; if it were a recurring problem, I would take a different approach)
* I can keep an eye on the blog commenting overall because there is an RSS stream for comments that I can view in Inoreader
* my students can comment on blogs of students in the other classes I teach (the classes I teach have a lot of overlap, and students are usually very curious to see what's going on in the other class)

How to support commenting the blog space. There are some things I do to make sure the blog commenting goes well, starting from the very beginning of class:
* I explain to students how to configure the blog commenting options right away when they set up their blogs
* I leave comments on students' blogs during the first week to make sure it's configured properly and also to model good commenting (most of my work in the first week of class is commenting on the new blogs)
* I have a troubleshooting page for the kinds of technical problems people sometimes run into with blog comments (usually browser-related problems)
* I'm a co-student in the class which means I have a blog too, and students are leaving comments on my blog too; I'm sharing that experience with them
* I promote a culture of feedback throughout the course; more about that in the next post

Commenting alternative: LMS. If I did decide to abandon blog comments (for example, if spam or unwelcome comments became a problem), then I would opt for having the commenting in the LMS discussion space, with each student having a discussion board space of their own that I could link to. The drawback here is that this solution would not work for students commenting on students in other classes. For other people, that might not be a problem at all, but for me that would be a huge drawback. Still, it would be do-able, and I consider the LMS to be my emergency alternative which I can put into play if needed. There are other possibilities too, like a dedicated Padlet for each student or a dedicated GoogleDoc or GoogleSlides. So, I do ponder these alternatives as "just in case" options, but my current system is working good enough (and I am definitely an advocate of good-enough... the rhetoric of "excellence" really leaves me cold; I'm very glad for good-enough solutions!).

Randomized commenting. The way I spread comments out through the whole class is by using a randomizer each week to assign students to comment on one another. The power of random means that, over time, the commenting gets distributed throughout the whole class (it's another good-enough type of solution; not perfect, but definitely good enough).

There are lots of different ways you can create a randomizer. Spreadsheets, for example, are a great way to randomize: just put the student names in one column, and put the blog links in another column, and then randomize one column (plus jiggle any individual item if a student gets randomly assigned to their own blog).

You can also create an actual randomizer that displays a link; that's what I do, creating a javascript randomizer that I can then put in the webpage with the assignment instructions. Here's a screenshot:

As you can see there in the screenshot, I ask the students to comment on each other's story posts and also the Introduction post at the blog so that they are getting to know each other over the course of the semester (and if they've already commented on the Introduction post at that person's blog, I ask them to pick some other blog post to comment on; each blog always has lots of posts, and it's fun to just choose any post of interest to comment on).

For more about randomizers (I LOVE RANDOMIZERS), here are notes to a conference presentation I made: I am proud to say that the tool I use to create these javascript randomizers,, was built by a student of mine many years ago, and the tool is still going strong all these years later.

So, that's a very quick overview of the blog commenting process... and in the next post, I'll talk more about the culture of feedback in the class as a whole: Building a Culture of Feedback.