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Senior Project Blogs

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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.