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Ditching the Final Paper For a Blog

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Last semester I got to teach a sociolinguistics course (connecting language and social issues) and got ro reconsider what the capstone assignment should be. The content of the course is diverse enough that the traditional assignment has been a final paper rather than an exam.

However I realized a few semesters ago that the traditional undergraduate paper has its drawbacks, the worst being that the traditional paper format is much too easy to plagiarize. The goal of an undergraduate assignment is usually in-depth research and critical review, but not necessarily creation and dissemination of new knowledge (their skills may not be ready for that yet). Maybe the traditional paper is overkill?

Project Blog Instead

To break the mold for both the students and myself, I decided that the final assignment would be for students to use the Blogs at Penn State to create a mini-informational site. The topics would be similar to a final paper, but the product would be different.

To my delight, I think the experiment worked well. The quality was about the same (and probably better in a few cases) and I really think it did filter out of lot of potential plagiarism bombs (it's not easy to use your "blog voice" and plagiarize). I also liked that the new format finally made me really think about what process students needed to follow, the timeline they needed to stick to and what the grading criteria should be.

It also allowed students a little more creativity than a traditional paper might allow (I got some great examples of African-American English in the media). As with any new process, there's room for improvement, but the process below worked overall.

Timeline and Steps

This is a new enough concept that students needed handholding and a clear timeline. This semester, I started right after Spring Break and had weekly assignments/discussions of what to do.

  1. Consultations on Topics - I find this is critical for any course in which I assign papers. Students need to figure out what an appropriate project scope is and be interested in the topic.
  2. Create Blog and Post Topic - This ensures that students are being introduced to the tool early on and NOT in finals week. This also commits them to the project in a way that just claiming a topic does not.
  3. Post Scholarly Bibliography - I ask for three scholarly get them into the library. This is the week that I explain that Wikipedia is a start, but not a "scholarly source".
  4. Post Popular Media Sources - An important aspect of most sociolinguistic issues is popular perception versus the reality of the linguistic interactions. Thus most topics are covered in popular media significantly differently than academic sources.
  5. Linguistic Data Exercise - The homework includes exercises designed to showcase techniques to properly including linguistic data. This is also a good week to discuss how to avoid plagiarism.

Final Criteria

The actual Web page had to be completed during finals week and I made a few requirements.

  • 5-10 unique pages (any organization of their choosing).
    I think this was really important to helping students think about their content. Even if they were to purchase a paper, they would have to read it in order to split it up.
  • About page, Bibliography required

Grading was done on several criteria including these:

  • Quality of bibliography
  • Quality of linguistic data included (a requirement)
  • Relevance to sociolinguistics
  • Coherence of writing

While not all the results were perfect by any means, I did like how this evolved into a way that I could keep track of student progress. I knew who was getting into problems early on, and I got to steer a few in the right direction.

More importantly, I think students did feel a little more ownership for this kind of project than a traditional research assignment. Although there were definite research quality requirements, students did have more latitude in terms of their voice (academic vs. informal) and there are definitely more media options.

If I teach this course again, I am definitely keeping the assignment as a blog.

Styling Blogs for Accessibility

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The content generated by the Blogs at Penn State is generally accessible, but you can adjust the CSS of your blog to enhance accessibility.

Where to adjust CSS

The CSS of any blog can be adjusted in the Templates.

  1. Log in your blog at
  2. Under the Design menus, select Templates.
  3. Click the link for Stylesheet - Main corresponding to "styles.css".
  4. The page will typically include "@import" statements. You can add additional specifications beneath these statements.
  5. Click Save & Publish when you have added additional statements.

CSS for Header Tags

If you develop portfolio pages or long blog entries, you may want to include subheaders. Although the HTML Editor does allow you to increase sizes, it is not really "standards compliant."

If you are interested in generating properly nested headers, you should know that the blog title is an H1 and the title of each entry or blog page is an H2. So I've been using H3 and H4 for sub-headers within an entry. Unfortunately the CSS files for most themes do not display distinct H3/H4 at all.

/* Additional Classes Outside Theme */
.asset-body h3
{font-weight: bold;
font-size: 1.3 em}

.asset-body h4
{font-weight: bold;}

Plagiarism Scandal, Version Web 2.0

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As many an instructor will bemoan, the Internet giveth a lot to plagiarizers in terms of paper mill sites, Wikipedia and just an abundance of online text students can make off with for term papers. But as I found it in a post from colleague Robin Smail, the Internet can also taketh away from copyright infringers.

When an article on historic apple pie recipes written by Monica Guido was picked up by another cooking magazine without her permission...Ms. Guido expressed her outrage to the editors.

The initial result was a proclamation that the Web was public domain anyway. So Ms. Guido expressed her outrage via her blog. Outrage was also expressed by her friend Nick Mamatas and from there the story spread through out the Internet (as Robin documents so well).

The result for Cooks Source has not been good. Their Facebook page has been host to several obnoxious comments regarding the scandal and a report that at least one advertiser has pulled out. This is not good for business. As they say karma can be a mean, nasty lady.


Robin's blog does do a good job at explaining the ramifications from a social media perspective. I think the interesting insight for me is that we are discovering a new way to evaluate "expertise" that will be beneficial in the long run.

Various information literacy seminars will include "source" as a way to evaluate the authenticity of information. Once upon a time a news story from the a professional publisher or media outlet would always triumph over an "amateur"...but that has really changed. Ironically, the Internet is gradually teaching us to evaluate information on its own merits.

On the face of it, Gode Cookery looks like a total amateur production (and it remains proudly Web 1.0), especially in comparison to a media-saavy enterprise who is trying to harness the power of Facebook. But I have always recommended it, and it has built up a reputation in the cooking world.

Part of it is the fact that it has been around since 1997 (that's like 39 years in TV time). A more important part though may be (gasp) the complete bibliography included at the end. Ms. Gaudio claims to be a mere amateur, but she knows enough to cite your sources and carefully document your sources. She is equally detailed when explaining how she converts 14th century haphazard recipes to a modern version, up to an including if you can find authentic 14th century apple varieties (not very easily).

This is exactly what I find exciting about the Internet. Yes, we can pass along photos and updates to each other, but the dedicated hobbyist can now meaningfully contribute to the community of practice and really make a difference. And it appears that discerning viewers really may be able to hone in on what's good on the Internet.

Blog Tip: The Permanent Top Entry

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If you are using the Blogs platform for news you may want to sometimes add an entry which stays on top for a while. One way to do that is to change the Publish Date field to a particular late date (e.g. sometime in 2020 or the time when the information in the announcement "expires"). It will stay on the top because it's the most "recent" entry.

And no the system will not choke because the date hasn't actually happened yet. Best of all, you can adjust dates to reorder items. Just use this power only for good.

Playing with the Password Protected Blog

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OK so I did something slightly naughty and created a password protected blog for a course and had students post responses as comments in the blog. So how did that go?

Not too bad. The worst part was the initial set up. As I noted (extensively) in a staff meeting earlier, the set to connect a blog to a UMG class roster is not so user friendly. In the end I added (and updated) the list of students who could access that directory. It was a good thing that this was a small class. As I also commented then, I hope the UMG situation improves - just this week, Jason and I were talking about potential roster issues for an EGC Game...

But once it was set up, I placed a link in ANGEL, so navigation was transparent for the students. Since I am using ANGEL for other functions such as uploading assignments and lecture notes, it makes sense to just funnel them through ANGEL to other PSU services. Whether or not we keep ANGEL or any other centralized LMS, I do hope we maintain the functionality of an automatically generated online portal for individual courses. That roster function was truly something that sold ANGEL back in 2001.

As far as comments, I thought it worked well and I was confident that the other students could see it. Last round, when students were on their own blogs (before PSU Voices), students were constantly asking how to access the other blogs. For community building, it is important to make sure that blog assignments are gathered together.

The one regret I have was that I couldn't figure out a way to easily bump up students to a level where they could post original entries. I think I would have gotten contributions if I had (especially if extra credit is involved). I know it can be done and I did try once, but it was such a crazed semester, I never had the time to devote to figure it out.

I think my usability lesson is that something that seems trivial to an ID sitting at the office with a little debugging time and access to a support staff will seem much harder to a stressed instructor trying to fit in tech between classes and research proposals. It's a shame because a few times, I forgot to post an "entry" for a homework assignment and the students were flummoxed at not being able to post. Students worried about doing homework are also not in the optimal state for tech problem solving (trust me).

Would I do this again? Actually yes and I would probably find a way to add and bump students up to author at the beginning of the semester. I think the one thing I like about adding the password protected blogging option is that it can accommodate

I have nothing against student blogging in public in their own space if the learning objectives make it a good fit. In fact, two of my students just created blogs and posted URL in the comments (works for me). I just like having the safety net option.

I password protect my Facebook, my Twitter and other "non-public" spaces, and according to danah boyd, so do modern teens. While my class can be a public space, I like being able to make it more private. Sometimes, the point of college is that we can say and do stupid things, then learn in semi-seclusion that they are too stupid to repeat in public....Been there, done that.

Batch Tag All Past Entries "psuets"

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If you are like me and have a blog whose sole purpose is to deliver information to the ETS community, then you may want to tag everything "psuets".

There are some tools in the Blogs at Penn State which can help manage this. First, to batch tag all past entries as "psuets", you can do this as follows:

  1. Log in and open blog.
  2. Go to the Manage ยป Entries Preferences. You will see a list of your previous entries.
  3. Check the box on top to indicate you want to tag all past entries (or select the ones you want to add the tag too).
  4. In the More Actions drop down, select Add Tags. Click the Go button.
  5. In the pop-up window, enter the tag "psuets". Click OK to close window.

  6. Click the Publish link or the recycle icon to post updated entries.

This is a good way to back tag entries if you begin using new tags.

The next step...create a way to include "psuets" as a default tag. I was able to create a "Default Tag" field following Chris Millet's custom field instructions. When you create a custom field, there's a Default field for default values in a field. Now new entries have a default tag field with "psuests".

I admit I'm stuck on figuring out how to have the Tag cloud widget recognize the new field, but at least I can cut and paste this into the real tag field. This is an improvement since my typing & memory skills are not as good as they could be.

CALICO 2009 Conference Report

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Last week, I attended the CALICO conference on technology use for foreign language teaching. Since foreign languages involve communication skills, it's always a good conference to see communication tools in action as well as other developments such as gaming.

ESL Homework "Game"

There was only one game element in this English as a Foreign Language class (taught in Thailand), but it really changed the dynamics of doing homework. The students were assigned the usual reading & grammar exercises, but with the following conditions.

* Students earned "money" for completing exercises.
* The money could be used to open up more exercises and gain more money
* Students start at $0, but can continue to earn higher amounts of money to open more advanced exercises. The most "expensive" was $1400.

This simple device turned homework into a "beat the system" competition in which students were asking instructors to grade assignments more quickly so they could earn more money (reminds me of Mafia Wars). Students could see each other scores, but only the top 1/2 liked that feature. The presenter said he might disable scores, but I wonder if it should be a top 5 or top 10 list (like the old arcade games).

Very interesting psychology, and it might be easy to program.

Other CMC

As always, CMC (Computer Mediated Communication) was a major topic with presentations on Twitter, Second Life, blogs, RSS and wikis. Presentations were mixed, but one blog presentation was able to document that using blogs with a second language pen-pal was as effective as e-mail (if not more so) in positively changing student attitudes towards a foreign culture.

Neverwinter Nights

The best demo was probably Neverwinter Nights, a system where you can create custom "quest" modules. The instructor made a Neverwinter Nights module with a mystery. The wizard has to go through a village (where everyone speaks in a different language) and determine if a witch has cursed the town. The answer was that it was her chickens who caught the bird flu (and later stolen) that was the problem (interesting plot twist). It also showed the use of both dialogues and "realia" (maps and signs in the target language). The speaker also noted that you can set traps to destroy wizards who refuse to help the town.

Then of course we saw her insert an attack grizzly bear into the module and eat a character. Totally realistic.

Tech Room Design

We got to see some of the computer lab & tech classroom layouts at ASU. First there were lots of electrical outlets for our laptops, many built right into the desk. Clearly the school had a lot of money available in the recent past, and it seems to have been well spent.

But it seems like the designers are thinking about facilitating collaboration. Many labs grouped computers in groups of 3-4 at a round table. It would be pretty easy to swing around to one screen or compare screens. The newer flatscreens also make it much easier to move monitors around, and some were set on special arms (so you could lower the monitors for a compelling lecture).

Another room that was interesting was my seminar room in the Cronkite School of Journalism (yes that would be Walter Cronkite). It had the Macs all along the wall, but a central table in the middle. I think the idea was to do a mini-lecture than have people work on their own machine (maybe research a story). Interesting idea, but awkward for a hands on training session because the students in the back would be have to face me or their monitor. Fortunately, the class was small enough that everyone was on the side and could face both me and the monitor.

Sample Teaching with Technology Portfolio Created

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As a way of promoting the use of Movable Type as a portfolio tool for the Teaching with Technology Certificate program, I decided to create a Sample Teaching with Technology Portfolio.

You can also see the "Classic Blog version" of the portfolio and the Plain 1.0 version. I think you'll agree that the new Professional template is a vast improvement!

My Once-A-Week Blog Challenge

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When Cole issued his once-a-day blog challenge in August, I did not participate, and unfortunately, I may not participate in the new once-a-day challenge issued by Allan for February. However, I am glad the challenge was issued anyway.

I was inspired by the August challenge to increase my output - to once a week for two blogs. Since September, I've been able to post once a week to this blog and the Got Unicode blog (even if I did a few "Scheduled" tricks). That's a pretty good record if I may say so.

I am glad I took up this challenge because it has pushed me to produce something (especially in Unicode terms). I also found that this frequency works for me, since it gives me time to edit and think of new ideas (my profoundness quotient last week was kind of low). In short, it's an rate I can sustain, and that's what important to me in the long run.

If you do go for the full-blown once-a-day challenge, I wish you the best of luck, and I hope you'll find the blogging pattern that suits you best. I know I will be looking forward to reading a few more entries. As for me, I may add a third blog to my once-a-week list.

Scheduling and the August Blog Project

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I'm not officially attempting the 1 blog post per day feat, but if I were, I could write up a bunch over the week-end and use the schedule feature to separate the appearance by 24 hours.

Use this to reader overload.