Tag Archive for blog

The Best Social Media Tool for the Classroom

What is the best social media tool for the classroom? Blog? Facebook? Wiki? Twitter? Chat? Surprise! It’s the discussion forum. Really? How can a discussion forum be best suited to the classroom, when newer social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter receive all of the hype? Let us look at the desirable features of a classroom setting and how they match up to social media tools.

Classrooms are democratic.

Students continue conversations started during class. They have an equal opportunity to raise their voice — one can speak without interruption in a discussion forum. Students who require more time to process ideas or formulate thoughtful responses have equal access to forum discussions, whereas face-to-face discussions reward quick thinkers and strong verbal processors.

Classrooms are collaborative.

A discussion thread is the combined product of everyone’s contributions. It is not “owned” by any one user. A community of learners work together to make decisions and achieve common goals. In a project-based class, a forum provides equal input to the decision-making process.

Classrooms are private.

Students deserve to take risks and express themselves within a small, trusted group of teachers and peers. While publishing to the world serves a specific pedagogical purpose, it is typically not the standard for all classroom activity. One can make any social media content private, but forums are often private by default.

Classroom work is topical.

In most classes, students engage with a series of topics or projects toward broader learning goals. Discussion forums are by default organized by topic. Any student may create a new topic, which becomes a discussion thread separate from the others. When students reply to each other, the discussions retains its topical organization. Forum tools allow for the creation of categories or multiple forums, allowing the teacher to further organize discussions by topic.

Classrooms are multi-modal.

Like other social media technologies, forums support multiple media: text, links, images, movies, documents, publications, and more.

Classroom activities are diverse.

The forum is an extremely versatile tool. I have seen it used as a news feed, peer review system, debate center, homework club, writing tool, and more.

Is something wrong with other social media tools?

Not at all! Each tool organizes group communication differently and has its place in the educational process. One may argue that new social media tools are better matched to new forms of learning, especially independent study. However, the communication environment of a forum most closely matches a typical classroom learning environment. Let us take a look at the qualities of other social media tools.


In a blog, author(s) write, and then individuals respond. Authors have greater implicit authority than commenters. A comment thread has the potential to become a discussion, but comments are often hidden behind a link, and page views typically far outnumber comments. Most readers just read and do not comment. Blogs are well-suited for the public or community presentation of well-developed work.


In a wiki, participants have equal opportunity to contribute content and organize a shared information resource. A wiki is great for the co-construction of shared knowledge, such as a class review sheet or topical information resource. However, the process of negotiating ideas is hidden behind the “history” and “discussion” links. A wiki emphasizes the final product more than the discussion process.

Photo and Video Sites

Students may publish photos and videos for community feedback. Social media sites also serve as another information resource for research or project work.


I am not aware of strong student learning communities based in Twitter. Teachers have had some success using Twitter as an information source and learning collective.

Online Word Processors

Google Docs is terrific for small group collaborative work, such as when two students develop a paper or presentation together, or as a class document repository. Live, simultaneous editing of a single document does not scale well to a full class of students.

Social Networks

Students are on Facebook, but classrooms should not necessarily go there! The primary distinguishing feature of a social network — curating friend lists — has no place in a classroom.In a school, the learning groups are already defined. Facebook’s photo and video tools are very easy to use, and learning management systems would do well to improve theirs. While popular press about Facebook would have you believe that 100% of students have a Facebook account, in practice one finds that some students have opted out to avoid the distraction or the social scene. Finally, students deserve to have a private, social space separate from adults and classes.

Where can I get a forum for my classroom?

Most course website systems have a forum tool (e.g., Moodle, Blackboard, Haiku). Many social media tools have it, too (e.g., Ning). Standalone forum software also exists, both self-installed and hosted (phpBB).

Versatility: Some Examples

Forum as class discussion

The teacher posts a prompt, and students posts replies, responding both to the original post and building on the comments of classmates.

Class Blog

In Moodle’s “social” site format, one forum is featured on the course site front page. This teacher has added news feeds to the left and right columns for information and inspiration.

Peer Review

Peer review is a key part of the writing process. The author posts her paper, and two peer reviewers write response papers. The original author posts a revision, and the process repeats again.

Single, Public Response

The teacher posts a prompt, but unlike the class discussion, students submit a single response on their own. This is like collecting an assignment but in a public space, so that students may see each others’ responses.

Class Warmup Activity

When students arrive to class, they log into the class site and independently complete the first activity of the day.

Professional Learning Community

Teachers discuss articles with each other in a dedicated forum, having discussions that might not otherwise take place among teachers from different divisions and departments.

Lightweight electronic portfolio

Fundamentally, an electronic portfolio allows students to publish their exemplary work, reflect on their learning, and invite comment. Some schools (1, 2) roll out full-blown electronic portfolio software that can access files from their learning management system. This may be a great approach if a school has adopted electronic portfolios as a major initiative for the year.

In our school, we have not yet explored the topic of whether we should all move to electronic portfolios. We have paper, in-person based portfolio exhibitions in third through eighth grades, but the high school does not, and faculty meeting time is fully consumed with other discussions about teaching and learning. At the same time, we have groups of students and teachers who want to publish exemplary work either to the Catlin Gabel community, project mentors from outside the school, or college admission offices.

In response to this level of interest, I decided to provide a very lightweight electronic portfolio tool. I used an existing feature in our Drupal website (rather than a new tool) to allow students and teachers to publish exemplary work in multiple media forms, reflect on their learning, and invite comment. Students simply create a blog post but then mark the item for inclusion in their portfolio. They can also make the item publicly viewable if they choose. The “portfolio” home page is really just the student’s blog, filtered by one or both of these flags. The way Drupal works, if a user is not logged in, they only see the items marked public.

blog checkboxes

So far, art seminar students have created public portfolios of their work, principally for the college admission process. Here is a portion of one. In May, all seniors will blog about their individual senior projects. Some may choose to make these posts public for their on-site mentor and others to see.

<%image(20091203-portfolio example.png|450|318|portfolio example%>

Techies out there may find the following Drupal module code useful.

function cgs_blog_form_alter(&$form, $form_state, $form_id) {
  if (isset($form['#node']) && ($form['#node']->type == 'blog')) { // apply only to "create blog entry" form
    // add a submit function
    $form['#submit'][] = 'cgs_blog_form_submit';


function cgs_blog_form_submit($form, &$form_state) {
  // load content access functions
  require_once(drupal_get_path('module', 'content_access') .'/content_access.rules.inc');
  // load node object
  $node = node_load($form_state['values']['nid']);
  // set anonymous user grant array
  $settings['view'][0] = 1;
  // change node access permissions for this node
  if ($form_state['values']['field_blog_public'][0]['value'] == 'Make this post public') {
    // add view grant for anonymous users to this node
    content_access_action_grant_node_permissions($node, $settings);
  } else {
    // remove view grant for anonymous users to this node
    content_access_action_revoke_node_permissions($node, $settings);


Senior Project Blogs

blog feed
Senior project blog entries

This week, 25 students begin their “senior projects,” volunteer internships around town in environmental, bike, journalism, and many other types of organizations. The senior projects coordinator asked me some weeks ago whether students should blog about their work. I replied, “of course!” First, I asked what the students used to do in past years and attempted to determine how well that would translate to blogging. Students had before completed weekly reflections and sent them to their advisors for comment. The coordinator wanted these reflections to be more visible within the school, so that other students could gain ideas for their work. Blogging seemed like an excellent fit.

I had been waiting for an opportunity like this. We run both Moodle and Drupal on our intranet, both within a “walled garden” — restricted to our students, employees, and parents through authentication. Moodle is for discrete groups within campus (classes, clubs, committees), whereas Drupal is for community-wide content. This clearly fit the description of “community-wide,” and Drupal automatically provides a blog to each user. It seemed ready to go.

I provided a how-to article to explain blogging to new users. I was pleased to include blog writing tips gleaned from a variety of sources.

  • Write a distinctive subject line.
  • Use a conversational tone.
  • Keep paragraphs short.
  • Vividly describe your experiences. Which of your experiences are most compelling?
  • Link to organizations or articles you reference.
  • Post images when you can. They really do say a thousands words.
  • Invite your readers to comment.
  • Determine a writing schedule and stick to it.

I found it a little tricky to explain to teachers how to directly find the blog of a specific student. Drupal’s default search looks for content, not users (does anyone know how to modify this default behavior to include user names?). Thinking that most people would miss the Users tab in the search results, I created a new menu item that links directly to user search. I didn’t want to use the node profile module, which would take on a lot of overhead and unwanted features just to make users searchable. At our school, students don’t need to modify their profiles much — they don’t rely on the intranet to describe themselves around school!

Nearly all teachers prefer to find out about new student blog posts by email notification. We use the subscriptions module to add “subscribe blog” and “subscribe post” links to each post. This also permits the author of each post to automatically receive email notifications of comments to their content. This is essential in this environment, in which blogging is new and people are unlikely to check the web site frequently to notice new blog posts and comments.

If blogging takes off here, RSS subscription may increase in popularity. Given that our entire site is login protected, we require the HTTP auth module to use HTTP instead of web authentication for specific URL paths. This allows RSS readers and “podcatchers” such as iTunes to subscribe to login-protected Drupal feeds.

I didn’t require students to tag their posts with particular keywords to separate them from other types of blog posts, mostly because no one else is really blogging at this time. I don’t really see an easy way to do this, as requiring people to select from a list of tags would seem too strict. Does Drupal have a group blogging feature other than Organic Groups? It would be great if blog posts off a specific link automatically gained a particular tag.

A half-dozen students have posted in the first day. One challenge is completion — the system does not have a strong disincentive for those who do not post regularly. After all, the students have volunteered to undertake a senior project in the first place. The writing itself has been pretty lively and interesting so far — one student even included an image! I will watch closely for the development of each student’s blogging voice and look for signs of impact from writing to the community in this fashion.

Reflective blogging occupies the middle space in the senior project, between proposal and final project. We may extend the online support for senior projects by collecting proposals and final projects online as well and linking all three content types together for others to review in the future.

Do let me know your lessons learned from similar student blogging or Drupal configuration experiences.