For the last four years, undergraduate seniors in UNLV's journalism department have been participating in an innovative approach to learning digital convergence. These students have been engaged in transitioning from traditional methods of gathering, delivering, and marketing news from print media to digital media by actively manipulating online technologies. At the core of this technique is an effective combination of second-generation blogging environments.
Although blogging is not new to education, current improvements to blogging systems have enabled this technology to be applied in innovative and creative ways. Instead of simply being mechanisms for individual reflection or announcement, newer features allow open-source blogging systems to become full-fledged virtual communities that enable sophisticated social interaction, collaboration, and peer evaluation.
Participants in this educational approach have expressed high satisfaction through course surveys and testimonials.
A combination of the open-source blogging software, WordPress, with the free BuddyPress plugin, creates an environment in which students can create academic publications with a full-range of contemporary word-processing features (including the addition of images, video, and podcasts), share resources, work collaboratively, and comment and evaluate each other's work. At the same time, this system allows students to have direct control of their learning environment (through customized themes), to participate in Facebook-like social interactions ("friending," "liking," commenting, user profiles), to integrate social media (such as Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, YouTube, Flickr), and to collaborate (via document sharing, group support, and wikis). In addition this educational practice allows mobile access (via smartphones and tablets) as well as badges and gamification.
* Student evaluations:
Student evaluations of the course indicate a high degree of satisfaction with the course and the learning environment. In a recent end-of-term student evaluation, ninety-two percent of all students strongly indicated satisfaction (n=12). Eighty-three percent of the students felt that the course increased their interest in the subject area at an above-average level (or higher). One-hundred percent of the students felt that the course increased their knowledge in the subject area at an above-average level (or higher).
* Student testimonials:
Students are asked to reflect on their experience participating in the course. Over the last four years of teaching using this technique, these reflections are overwhelmingly positive.
"Learning to blog is fun and a great way to express yourself. Knowing how to use a blog is helpful in many ways such as bringing out creativity and design. Before having a blog I wrote only when I had writing assignments in school, but now I can write about anything that comes to mind. Thanks to this Interactive Media Design class I’m able to create stories with videos and podcasts that I couldn’t do before.
"It’s great to learn new things and use them to reach out to my peers. It feels great accomplishing things that seemed out of reach before. I had an idea of how blogging worked before, but not like this. Having videos and images in a story adds more to the story and makes it approachable to others. YouTube was fun and new to me, but with a little practice I ended up surprising myself."
"The aspect I was most enthralled to take on was simply learning the basics of WordPress, a place I had no knowledge whatsoever. Overall stepping in this world that is so new to me has been a very positive experience, and I am eager to take on this new challenge."
"I now feel like I have a chance in this high tech world. Not only do I feel I may be able to keep up my own blog in a manner that might be described as competent, I no longer see tasks like getting video onto YouTube, or starting a podcast, as so daunting."
"I never would have called myself a technologically savvy person, but now I have a fully working blog with all the add-ons. If you had said the word "widget" four weeks to me I would have thought you were speaking a foreign language. Now I am fully schooled on the blogging language and all the details it entails."
"After taking part in this class I have learned that a relative novice, like myself, is able to do some really cool thing on a site like WordPress that not only looks clean and professional, but also can do some really creative things that will separate your blog from the other ones on the Internet."
* Student product
In addition to developing their own student portfolio, students produce at least nine full-length articles that are peer reviewed and evaluated. Once the semester is over all students migrate their work to off-campus, free blogging systems. Many of these students go on to use the skills they learn as part of this course to continue professional blogging and becoming employed in online journalism and communication.
Due to the stringent accessibility standards of WordPress, students with learning disabilities are able to access the online system. WordPress itself provides advice and resources that continue to enable this technology to be accessible. "Make WordPress Accessible" (http://make.wordpress.org/accessibility/) is the official blog for the WordPress accessibility group - dedicated to improving accessibility in core WordPress and related projects. Furthermore, course content is fully accessible to mobile devices.
By enabling students to interact with each other and provide peer evaluation, the reliance on faculty as the sole provider of support and feedback is decreased. Students develop instructional content that extends learning beyond what the instructor may have provided. As a result, faculty express appreciation and happiness.
Prior to enacting the current blogging practice, prior course offerings had no mechanism for students to collaborate and affect their learning environment. Once implemented, learning outcomes using the multiuser blogging system far exceeded previous methods of teaching the course.
Due to the nature of this open-source technology, this practice is both inexpensive and scalable. Cost is minimal, and the technology scales to accommodate thousands of students. Dozens of institutions of higher learning (such as SUNY, Texas A&M, Penn State, and Yale) are currently using combinations of these technologies to serve educational blogging communities.
Surveys of student satisfaction both during and after the course indicate a high degree of satisfaction with the practice. Furthermore, alumni repeatedly return to the course and participate through guest blogs, communicating that participation in the course has impacted their lives positively.
A Web server (or host)
A connection to the Internet
WordPress blogging software
BuddyPress plugin software
Assuming that an educational institution already has a Web server and connection to the Internet, then the set-up cost would be minimal. The software and associated plugins are open source (free). Configuration and maintenance may require time and technical expertise from a salaried technician.
Cost to an individual instructor is also relatively inexpensive. In addition to the free open-source software, an instructor may need Web-hosting service (~$100 a year or less), and domain-name service (~$10 a year).
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