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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Blogging Beyond Blackboard

With the imminent arrival of Blackboard 9 at UoL, users now have a choice of four blogging tools within the VLE. These are the new blog tool in Bb9, the Bb9 Journal tool, and the Learning Objects (LO) personal and course blog tools:

Blackboard blogging tools
Kudos to the UoL Blackboard team for listening to user feedback and modding Bb9 to try to ease the confusion by adding the Bb prefix to the built-in tools, however, the potential for confusion still arises. The Bb journal tool is "a self-reflective tool that allows students to post their personal reflections" that "can be assigned to each user in a group for the purposes of private communication with the instructor", and the Bb9 blog tool is "a collaborative tool that allows students to post their personal reflections ". Most excellent. However, the Bb9 blog tool can also be configured for individual or group use:

Blackboard blogging tools

I'm at a loss to know why Blackboard felt it necessary to include the bloat and confusion of two "separate" but overlapping blog tools in Bb9, but hey, it isn't my place to criticize Blackboard (oh, wait... ;-)
Similarly, the LO blog tool can be configured for individual or group use (although you have to go to two different places to configure the same tool in different ways):

Blackboard blogging tools

So not confusing at all then! Let me move on and look at the capabilities of each of these tools - but before doing that, why am interested in any of this? I use blogging tools for students in two contexts:

  1. On a first year module with approximately 200 students as a reflective e-portfolio. Last year on this module we used a wiki e-portfolio format but this proved to be confusing for students, and the chronological structure of an (individual/journal) blog framework may be better than the more free-form wiki architecture in encouraging archiving and retrieval of reflective thoughts. We also use a course blog to allow students to submit assessments which take place in distributed services, e.g. the URL of their delicious bookmarks or Google Reader Shared Items, where we want these resources to be shared across the module.

  2. On a third year module for approximately 25 students as a means for these students to demonstrate their engagement with and understanding of the subject matter (virology).

OK, so how do these tools look in practice? I haven't had chance to use the new Bb9 blog tools yet, so I may be missing something, but the functionality is very basic. The LO blog tool offers more, with an RSS feed (very useful on a module with 200 students), archive export, basic search and usage statistics (not very good), recent posts in the sidebar, etc:

Blackboard blogging tools Blackboard blogging tools
(click for larger images)


For the last two years I've used the LO blog tool for both of these modules. But each time, I've wavered over whether to use these VLE tools or use Wordpress.com, then chickened out at the last moment and used the (closed) institutional tool. And each time I've regretted it. Why? Look at the functionality that WordPress offers:

  • Individual or group blog, public or private (free for up to 35 users, $30 per year for unlimited private users)

  • RSS everywhere (blog, comments, single page feeds)

  • Lots of useful sidebar widgets

but most importantly, the killer features:

  • Tagging for retrieval, revision and marking of content - missing in both the Bb and LO tools.

  • Student-controlled blogs which remain available after the module has finished - the only sensible solution for a reflective e-portfolio.

Now that the Bb9 course menu is easily configurable, it's even simpler than before to link to an external blog from the Bb9 sidebar. The downside is that students will have to create an account on wordpress.com and then report the URLs of their blogs or I'll have to enroll them on a Wordpress course blog. It's clear that the upsides outweigh this small bit of extra work.

Case closed.