Make Them Publish


I think I have finally cracked a particularly difficult technological stumbling block in my teaching this year:  Moving most student work submissions to a worthwhile online format.  I’ve tried doing this in several different flavors for pretty much every year that I have taught, but I never really felt like I had a good system that organically worked with my process.  This year, I think I have finally nailed it (in AP Bio, at least), and it’s almost entirely the result of building a class blog.

Obviously, what works for me may very well not work for you.  I tried having students blog before.  A few years back, I gave every AP Biology student an edublog and made them use it for a while, but it fast got too cumbersome.  The major issue was that having 20+ students with 20+ webspaces just seemed too inefficient for the purpose of actually interfacing with the students.  I was the only visitor to their blogs, and they never really interacted with each other.  Each student blog was an electronic island floating on the inter-sea.  Not great.  So, I silently killed the idea and went back to the old way of doing things.  

I’m not sure exactly when the inspiration came along this past spring, but I suddenly realized that the reason that my blogging experiment had not worked was because I was doing it wrong:  Rather than having students run their own, individual blogs, the best way to do this thing was to put all students into the same space and make them all contributors to the same blog.  One place, with 18 smiling contributors, and 1 master-editor administrator with his hand on the tiller.  So it was that in early June, Bioblog was born (an aside—the modern Wordpress back-end is a well-oiled and super user-friendly machine for folks of even a remotely web-literate constitution).  

I have to say that if I had to pick a great idea for this year, I would have to put my SBG grading scheme for Honors Chemistry in the octagon with Bioblog, and let them fight it out.  Frankly, I don’t know who would win.  The greatest thing about Bioblog is the fact that it provides students a super clean, completely modern web magazine format for them to use to publish their work for the entire internet to view.  I don’t suggest that my web-design skills are incredible, but I do think they are functional.  Things look pretty good to me when I click on the site.  Someone on twitter quoted Alan November the other day in saying that if you want students to do authentic work, make them publish.  I think there’s tremendous virtue in that.  Knowing that the work they are doing is going wide really forces students to take a bit more pride in what they are turning in, to say nothing of the fact that it is training them for the modern life in a way that nothing else that I can do for them will.  

I like to run a lot of projects in AP Bio.  Since moving to the blog, it has quickly become apparent that they are all going to live in this space.  I’m keeping a running list of assignments for students.  I love the fact that I can reward them for generating awesome work and communicating with their colleagues and the larger biology world.  All I had to do was frame it out and give a push and they do the rest.  This week, we figured out how to post their lab reports (create them in google docs, make them publicly viewable, post the link—and let’s not forget to give me editor access so I can comment and grade).    

I’m a pretty tech-fluent guy, but I’ve always felt like the major aspect of my student-side tech was giving students an authentic place for them to create and share the work that they do.  That problem seems to be past now, and I can’t tell you how good it feels to be doing something so much fun with a group of students who seem eager to take it all in stride.  Stop over some time and tell them what a great job they are doing.