Can Blogs Replace Journals? Using New Media to Stimulate Pondering and Self-Reflection among Undergraduate Students

By Ric Jensen, University of South Dakota

Recently, I began teaching an interdisciplinary course to college juniors and seniors about the public understanding of science. The course examined issues we face in public relations, including the need to communicate in such a way that the message matches the needs and interest of the intended audience (Wilcox, 2009). The course also presented the adoption process with an emphasis on how persuasive communication can be used to get people to embrace new technologies (Kotler, 2009).

The course was structured along the lines of “The Day the Universe Changed”—a Public Broadcasting Service television series created and narrated by science historian James Burke. My goal was to get students to realize that we have always had technology that revolutionizes how people find and share information. The concept was to develop what I call a “You Are There” approach in which students imagine they were living at a point in history when a paradigm-shifting new communication strategy was implemented that radically altered how people communicated at that time. I asked students to compare how they would have been able to communicate had they lived when written languages, the electronic telegraph, the television (and other technologies) were invented.

At the same time, students developed materials to teach youth about a technology we learned about during the semester. The idea was to see if the students could create fact sheets and hands-on learning activities that could effectively communicate complex information to people at a different learning level. Ultimately, four teams of students (each with about seven participants) presented lessons about personal computers, the optical telegraph, the telephone, and the printing press to a group of Cub Scout pack, their leaders and parents at a Science Day.

The Importance of Journaling and Self-Reflection (Old and New Approaches)

My university emphasizes the importance of having students reflect, ponder and write about what they are learning. The concept is that students might learn more through introspection when they have to express their thoughts in writing. In other words, when students have to write their thoughts on a regular basis, it may make some of them more aware of the ideas being discussed in a classroom and may make them think more fully about what they have read and what has been discussed in class (Moore, Boyd, and Dooley, 2010). Some “old” approaches that were used included hand-written journals and typed essays.

My university offers small grants to encourage the use of new technologies in classroom settings, including blogs, instant-click devices to obtain quick feedback through the use of live polls, and facilitating the use of laptops in class. Part the reason my university offers these mini-grants may stem from concerns that old ways of interacting with students may become less effective with today’s students. In other words, the tradition of writing anything by hand is becoming rarer among this new generation of students, unless someone compels them to do so. At the same time, my university wants to be at the cutting edge of finding new ways to incorporate state-of-the-art technology into the classroom that may more effectively engage with students and make a connection with them. Philip and Nicholls (2009) suggest that blogging and other social networking technologies can be effective in fostering the learning of college students in individual and group settings. McDermott, Eccleston and Brindley (2009) examined how college students at one university used blogs in place of written journals and observed that the majority of students used classroom blogging in an educationally constructive way and said that “All teachers involved felt strongly that the experience of reading and commenting on student blogs had been overwhelmingly positive” (page 124). Phillips (2005) advocates that e-journaling can enhance student interactivity and foster intellectual exchange because it provides more avenues for students to reflect on and express ideas. Along similar lines, Polling (2005) writes that “As students communicate in the blog, they question and challenge each other’s thinking, leading to deeper and more meaningful interaction than previously afforded during individual journaling” (p. 14).

How I Used Blogging
I used blogging in the class in two ways. I developed and wrote a blog for the students on the Blogger.Com website. The address is I knew I couldn’t cover everything I wanted to teach during my 50-minute lectures so I supplemented my classroom teaching with the blog. I also used my blog to help give the students an idea about what a classroom blog should look like and how it could read to let them become more familiar with how the process works. I communicated in a different way with the blogs in this online format—I was more conversational, less formal, and I challenged students to spend more time thinking about the lessons that could be learned from history. I communicated updates about the blog via emails that included my blog address and encouraged students to sign up as “followers” of my work.

In addition, I created 12 hands-on blogging assignments which corresponded with the aspect of science history we were discussing. I signed on as a “follower” of the students blogs. I encouraged the students to share their blog addresses with their classmates. I made a special effort to ensure that the students would do the following things for each blog post: review the readings and lecture, engage in a hands-on learning activity, and write about what they learned in 100 words or more, incorporating elements of good writing, grammar and persuasive communication.

To make this seem clearer, I would like to offer the following examples:
  • In my lesson about the In my lesson about the quipu, I reminded the students that recording local history was thought to be so important that the Incas wanted there to be a record-keeper in each village. I asked the students to mull why it’s important to keep a personal narrative of each of their lives, the values they held, and the society in which they lived. I asked them to find an example of a culture for which no or few records exist and to think about what has been lost because their story was not preserved.
  • In my lesson about telephone, I asked students to imagine what it would be like to be able to hear for the first time in their lives the voice of a friend or relative in some distant place and to be able to communicate instantaneously with them. I reminded them that prior to the invention of the phone people could only rapidly share information by sending telegrams which were asynchronous, less personal and less convenient.
  • I took the students to a local history museum. Our tour guide was a 60-year-old woman who lived in our region most of her life. She walked us through exhibits of what life was like during the 1800s and early 1900s and she gave personal stories. I urged the students to comment on a technology they saw that they found most interesting and had them blog about what it would have been like to live in those times and asked them to compare what they saw with how they use technology today.
  • I asked each student to find someone older than 50 and ask them about when they first used computers, what kind of computer it was, what their situation was at the time, and how they used the computer at the time. I told students to ask if that person felt at the time that computing would evolve in the way it has since then. I had the students compare that older person’s first use of computers with how they use technology today.
Lessons Learned
Each student completed all of the blogging assignments; when I previously instructed students to keep hand-written journals often less than half the class would do so. I found that blogs were a much richer tool to assess student learning than using weekly quizzes. The blogs drew out the first-hand experiences of students and I could tell the class was really applying and thinking about the concepts I presented. Most of the students seemed more enthused about using blogging technology than writing in a journal. Many of the students told me they would continue blogging as a way to contemplate and express what they were experiencing as they went through college and life. In sum, I found that asking students to blog was a rewarding and effective way to encourage student participation and to get them to think deeply about communications issues we were discussing.

Moore, C., Boyd, B., and Dooley, K. 2010. The effects of experiential learning with an emphasis on reflective writing on deep-level processing of leadership students. Journal of leadership education, 9 (1): 36-52.

Kotler, P. 2006. Social marketing and the broadening of the marketing movement. In Communication of Innovations (A. Singhal and J. Dearing, eds). Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage Publications, Inc (pp. 136-144).

McDermott, R., Eccleston, G., and Brindley, G. 2009. Developing tools to encourage reflection on learning in first-year student blogs. In Proceedings of the 10th international conference of the subject center for information and computer sciences (H. White, ed.). Ulster, Northern Ireland: HE Press.

Phillip, R., and Nicholls, J. Group Blogs: documenting collaborative drama processes. Australasian Journal of Education technology, 25 (5): 683-699.

Phillips, J. 2005. E-journaling: Achieving interactive education online. Educase Quarterly, 28: 1. Retrieved May 3, 2010 at

Poling, C. 2005. Blog on: building communication and collaboration among staff and students. Learning and leading with technology, 32 (6): 12-15.

Wilcox, D. 2009. Public relations writing and media techniques (6th Edition). Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.

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