I will be handing over my section of Communicating Biology (Bio 380 at SUNY Plattsburgh) to a newbie next semester and so would like to take some time to lay out what I think is the best assignment/learning activity that I experimented with over the last year and a half: setting up and writing public blogs on biology.
The basic structure of the assignment is to 1) set up a blog, then 2) make a series of regular entries where each entry must consist of at least one well written paragraph in some area of biology. The paragraph requirement is to prevent micro-blogging or just posting short blurbs and images. I settled on six entries of one per week with the possibility of the student redoing and editing each for additional points.
The first big question is do you do it in public or in private, the second is how to maximize the benefits and lower the risk when you realize that having the students post publically is the best way to go. There are several reasons that public blogs are the better option. First, and most importantly the level of writing will dramatically improve as peer pressure and pride will motivate students to do a much better job. There is nothing like knowing your friends, family and general public are going to be reading your work to make you pay a bit more attention to spelling and grammar. The resulting difference from a class assigned piece of work and a blog can be like night and day. Second, it gives students a more prominent web presence (if they chose, more on anonymity later). This sampler of their interests, writing ability, thought process and personality also can stand as evidence to future employers of a student’s genuine interests and willingness to go the extra distance.
The first part of the assignment is to set up a blog site. I point the students to Google Blogger and Wordpress. The common set up problem is the confusion between Google Plus, Google’s version of Facebook, and Blogger which is the blogging site. They have to have a Google Plus account in order to set up Blogger and some students think they will be posting on Google Plus which is not the case here. The more serious issue is accidently revealing private information due not understanding the settings (i.e. cell phone number, yes it happened!). It is imperative that the instructor look at the sites as soon as they are active to make sure that the student has not revealed anything they might not be comfortable with. I always give them the option of being anonymous (see the safety lecture a bit a later) so that they can control their own web presence. Some chose this, most use their real names and even post head shots as profile pictures. At this stage I look for the simple set up without gadgets and just want the link to their sites.
For the second part, I point them to news sites and encourage them to do current stories with the benefit of their own insights and to add something to the story. At first they have to be encouraged to add hyperlinks and images. I also start asking them and showing them how to add gadgets. As far as the writing style, they need reminding to use primary sources and to write in good journalistic style with the main point up front. Most of the students seem to get the style after four postings but I go six to give them a chance to really get into it.
As part of the introduction to the assignment, I always give the students a safety lecture covering what I consider the main risks; 1) saying something inflammatory that hurts or destroys their career, 2) committing slander, 3) copyright infringement, and 4) violating hate speech laws and other speech regulations around the world 5) Generally revealing too much about themselves. I consider this as important as a laboratory health and safety lecture because the ramifications can be life altering in the worse case. This lecture is especially important because I have found that our students are completely ignorant of hate speech restrictions in Europe, the backward slander laws in the UK (reversal of burden of proof), and that they have to be very careful criticizing agricultural products in the US and any products made by companies with lawyers. So far I have had to remind students about copyright images (repeatedly . . .), had one case of plagiarism the student would not take down, and one case where the student may have put herself at risk of a lawsuit by parroting criticism of a pharmaceutical drug a bit too directly without supporting evidence. We have yet to get any takedown notices nor threatening letters from lawyers, but it is the world wide web so one has to be careful of international sensibilities and laws especially if one expects to travel abroad at some point in their life.
The good and bad surprises
The greatest surprise has been how willing most students are to exceed the minimum assigned paragraph. All of you teachers out there think about how many times you have assigned a minimum of one paragraph and routinely get back more than one from your students? The authenticity and choice seem to make a huge difference here.
Another surprise is how the freedom of topic choice can bring out student interests. Students tend to find a focus (fisheries, endangered species, tropical stories, human disease etc.) and in many cases students find their unique voices. This control and creative expression is priceless and I believe a strong authentic motivator for student learning.
A less than optimal surprise is how hard it is to get students to respect copyright laws. I fear that the battle over copyright images or any other material online has been lost as this generation simply believes in their hearts that if it is online it is free and morally okay to use for any purpose. I tell them that whether they personally believe it is right or wrong, at this time they still need to adhere to the law and that the best option is to use their own images and media whenever possible.
Another problem that appeared was how prevalent plagiarism and bad reporting is in the blogopshere. As I checked up on student work I found cases where they copied someone who copied someone else, who copied someone else to the point that I could not figure out who the original author was! The standard of good journalism of checking primary sources for any story really needs to be emphasized. It should be noted that plagiarism has to be closely monitored because it is committed in full view of the world. I have to ask students to take plagiarized work down after copying it myself for the inevitable disciplinary proceedings.
There is a real problem with the very few students who still do not care. Some will do minimal work and and end up with juvenile encyclopedic entries or worse. Even pride does not seem to matter to some of these students. I have to ask myself it is my responsibility to prevent these students from embarrassing themselves. The assignment does seem to have a positive effect on most of these problem students and I have seen some lost causes turn it around when faced with having to write publicly.
The missing problem has been trolls. I was bracing myself to having to deal with abusive, sexist, racist and/or threatening comments. Thankfully, those have not materialized but when or if they do I am hoping that our students are internet savvy enough to not let these people get to them. If it ever does become a problem, I may start asking students to dis-allow comments from the beginning.
Finally, I think it is important to emphasize to the students that they are now contributing and giving back to the world the benefits of their biology education to date. The main question I ask the students when grading these is what have you added to the story? This is their chance to make an impact on the world and express their own opinions and thought on current issues in their favorite area of biology. Now if just one of them would keep it up after the class ends (please Bioissexy we all want you to keep on posting!).