Teaching with Blogs

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Between 2010-2012 I worked with two other colleagues in Divinity to integrate student writing with blogs into one of our courses. We were able to devote some focussed attention to the relative merits and demerits of using blogs in teaching thanks to some funding from the Principal’s Teaching Award Scheme here at the University of Edinburgh (I’d encourage colleagues to apply as it’s a great way to secure resources to explore tech in pedagogical context and PTAS is great about providing avenues for dissemination). If you’d to read a bit more about it, we’ve written up some of our results which were published in 2012 which you can read here. Looking back on the experience of working with this technology in a teaching context over three successive teaching years I have to say that the use of blogging by students is not automatically successful, nor does it necessarily improve the learning experience. An instructor has to be careful about integrating the technology into a learning context which suits its contours as a form of media and a process of content generation. Based on this conviction, for our project, we decided to set up blog writing as an imitation of medieval marginalia. The course was meant to be writing intensive and focussed on “great texts” so we wanted to enable students to have the text right at hand while writing about it. In order to accomplish this, we ran a modified installation of wordpress using a plugin called digress.it by Eddie A Tejeda. The plugin was originally created to allow readers to comment on legal documents as they were released, creating a sort of community commentary. This was perfect for our purposes, as we wanted students to read closely and create a community commentary of their own on texts by Augustine, Aquinas, etc. I should note, if you want to run an instance of this on your own that wordpress development can be a bit fickly, and Eddie has abandoned development on digress.it, so it doesn’t work well with contemporary versions of wordpress. However, the original code which Eddie built on (which was abandoned at the time!) is now back in active development, so I suspect you’ll have a good time with Comment.press. Once we had our wordpress installation in place, there were a few other key steps that we had to undertake in order to make sure our digital marginalia were ready for live University use:

1. Secure Permission for Content

The first issue to be addressed for this project was the issue of permissions. While a large number of texts (or translations) were in the public domain, the course is structured to bring students into a weekly encounter with both a modern and classic text. Rather than miss out on the benefits of this mixed reading experience, we had to take some specific steps to ensure that our site did no present any copyright violations. Our University Library has an E-Resources team who were extremely helpful in acquiring, digitising, and adding cover pages with copyright information for each of the necessary texts. To stay within the fair-use provision and not violate copyright we needed to adhere to two guidelines. First, access to the site had to be restricted to only allow University Students who were participating in the course. Second, we needed to ensure that access to these texts for users was for a duration of less than 12 months. I’ll explain further down how we implemented an authentication system to accomplish this in a seamless integration with existing University systems.

Step 2. Digitise Content

Once we had secured permission for all the texts to be used, it was necessary to convert the texts into a plain text format that could be imported into wordpress/digress.it.

Several concerns shaped our formatting of text:

  • We wanted to allow students to use a mix of hardcopy or digital versions of text in class discussions. As a result, we did a lightweight embedding of page numbers as [Page 16] in the blog document. [Note: wordpress developers are in the midst of implementing pagination so that users can click for new pages rather than scrolling vertically for the entire document using embedded tags.  After testing, we found that this feature was not developed robustly enough to merit use in this project, but we hold out hope for the future! For more, see http://codex.wordpress.org/Styling_Page-Links]
  • We wanted to preserve footnotes for reference, but also take advantage of the more dynamic web-based format. Consequently, footnotes were converted to endnotes, and we used a wordpress plugin (WP Footnotes) to enable dynamic formatting of footnotes. Because some of our texts were partial extracts, it was necessary to specify footnote numbering in some cases. The WP Footnotes plugin handles this well using a tag at the top of the page: <!–startnum=5–>. Footnotes are then left inline and set apart by a <footnote></footnote> tag. The plugin handles the numbering automatically, enables details to be provided on mouse hover, and places footnotes at the end.
  • Add lightweight formatting to replicate text which was in italics or blockquotes in the original. For this purpose, we used the wordpress compatible html tags <em> </em> and <blockquote></blockquote>.
  • Please get in touch if you’d like to see some of the grep searches that I generated to automate footnote and page numbering conversion. It’s easy with command line tools!

Most of the conversion was from a PDF created from page scans which had then been augmented with OCR to embed a digital version of text into the document. There were several recurring issues with this sort of text import to HTML that we were able to routinise. We used the excellent free text editor textwrangler in combination with grep searching to make this process more efficient:

  • Hard-copy formatting often breaks words in half at the end of a line and conversion into HTML, where line breaks are dynamic, left behind broken words like “beginn- ing.” A regexp grep search and replace in textwrangler addressed nearly all these hyphenation-caused issues.
  • There were also occasional misspellings are a result of OCR inaccuracies. Because we were working with plain text which was then lightly tagged, we were able to paste the document into a basic word processor with spell-checking capabilities (we used Scrivener for this purpose) and then manually processed for the latter.

3. Secure Content

To manage security, we used a wordpress plugin, HTTP-Authentication. The University of Edinburgh uses EASE for a SSO authentication system, and this plugin allows us to authenticate against EASE credentials and provide redirects as needed. The configuration of the plugin was relatively straight-forward. For our purposes, we set the plugin to automatically create new accounts for users who logged in to the site, and then after the first week, we turned this off, after we were sure that all students and users had a chance to login and get an account assigned.

I’d love to hear from you if you’ve tried digital marginalia as a teaching tool – as you can imagine there are tons of possibilities here for social learning in low residency teaching and text intensive courses! Have you found other ways to leverage blogs?

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