The Mother of All Posts About Blog Hubs: An Instructor’s Guide to Aggregating Student Blogs

Preface

(You know it’s long if there’s a preface!)
In working with faculty, the need to aggregate student blogs comes up regularly.  Tom Woodward has an excellent short video on the mechanics of setting this up, as well as links to a series of detailed posts by Alan Levine (Cogdog) on the topic.  Here, I’ve elaborated further on some of the issues involved. Hopefully, some of this will be of use to instructors thinking of adopting a blog hub model in their class.

blog hub definition

Overview

The Internet enables instructors to create new forms of learning experiences, either as a supplement to a traditional face-to-face class or as part of a fully online course.  One such possibility is to set up a blog “hub” on a course site that serves as the center for student blog activity. (This model has been around at least since 2002 and is sometimes referred to as a “motherblog.”)1

The concept is relatively simple but some background and instructions might be of value, if you are unfamiliar with it.  To that end, this post sketches out the basics:

  1. What is a “blog hub?” (The Basic Concept)
  2. Why would I try this? (Possible Benefits)
  3. How do I create it? (Some Nuts-and-Bolts)
  4. How do I manage it? (Tags and Categories)
  5. How do I prepare students? (Giving Instructions)

1. WHAT IS A “BLOG HUB”?  (The Basic Concept)

To create a blog hub:

  1. The instructor sets up a course website (at Rampages.us if you are at VCU).
  2. Students set up their own blog sites (again, VCU students can use Rampages.us) or use an existing blog (in WordPress, Blogger, or any other platform that has RSS–the bit of code that “feeds” content from one site to another).
  3. The instructor links the student sites to the course site.
  4. Students create content on their own site  but the content is fed (copied, really) to the course web site where everyone can conveniently see it, thus serving as a “hub” of student blog activity.  (It also exists on the student’s own site, where you would go to add a comment.)
  5. Through the use of categories and tags, content can also be sorted dynamically; streamed to different parts of the course site or pulled up to view by the reader.

blog hub diagram

 2. WHY WOULD I TRY THIS? (Possible Benefits)

Blogs in general–and a blog hub in particular–offer some potential benefits for your classes, including:

  • Students practice being cultural producers, not just audiences/consumers/users.  Many students can use popular web services and apps, but relatively few students have the experience or skills needed to create and customize their own web site. They are adept at choosing from a fast-food menu but they can’t cook on their own.  Creating one’s own site is more challenging (just as cooking is) but it offers the potential for a more healthful and varied diet, so to speak.  Students can do this without a course hub, but integrating a hub into a class–and, ideally, across multiple classes–provides an added incentive and creates an immediate audience for their work.
  • A WordPress site allows for considerable flexibility, making for potentially more engaging, useful, and pleasant web sites.  There are simple ready-made blogs available in places like Blackboard but (in an analogy that comes from Jim Groom, I believe) in these sites students are renters instead of homeowners; very little customization is possible and writing occurs behind LMS walls. There’s nothing magical about the open-source WordPress platform but at the moment–and, more importantly, in the foreseeable future–Wordpress will be a major player.  (At this writing, more than 20% of all websites are built on a WordPress platform.)  Once students become comfortable with the technology, customizing their own web space can be a creative process that enables them to express themselves and communicate who they are to peers and the broader world.  Even simple things like web site themes and photos can add a personal touch often absent from other learning experiences.
  • Students “own” their work space.  This is not intuitive.  Students initially see creating a web space as fulfilling an assignment for a course–which it is. But their work in this space can outlive the course and the site can serve multiple purposes:
    • Student blog sites can be used for multiple courses and customized over time.
    • Students can create content completely unrelated to their courses (interests, hobbies, etc)
    • WordPress content is easily exportable (though formatting tweaks are often not), so students can move their work elsewhere if they want.  (At this writing, VCU’s long-term support plans for supporting student sites after they graduate is still being determined.)
    • These sites can evolve into useful eportfolios and be revised to help students create an online professional identity as they hit the job market.
  • Students (and the world) can more easily see each other’s work.  In a traditional classroom, students usually don’t see each others work unless it is a class presentation; they are writing for the instructor.  With blogs, students get to consider a potential broader audience: fellow students, family, friends, and anyone with the blog URL.  With a blog hub, the likelihood of having fellow students see their work is increased further.  Requiring some commenting on other students’ work ensures a readership.  Some potential benefits:
    • students get to practice writing for the “real” world where their thoughts are public
    • this can help them to “raise their game” since their work is more visible
    • they can learn from each other by reading other posts
    • they can help each other by providing feedback

Having students write in public requires some preparation.  At the very least, they need a reminder that this is available for the world to see and that content needs to be appropropriate for an open audience.  At its best, you might even attract some attention and comments from colleagues, former students, or folks in the field who weigh in on something that catches their interest.

  • Blog hubs can help promote a sense of community online.  Community requires repeated and sustained interaction to exist, which is one of the challenges of all classes. In a face-to-face class, there is the structural requirement of repeatedly sharing the same physical space for a set period of time.  An instructor can build on this to facilitate structured interactions that students share (small group exercises, pair-and-share activities, even general Q&A portions of the class). In addition, valuable serendipitous interactions can occur (students chat before class, a discussion continues after class).  These features of community are what can be lost in a traditional online course that focuses only on content delivery.  A blog hub can create a “course commons,” if you will; a space where intentional structured interactions take place (assignments and the like) as well as a space that can prompt serendipitous communication through comments.
  • Blog hubs can foster a sense of student ownership of a course.  Typically, faculty create content for a class.  They write a syllabus and create a course web site to help manage the class and promote student learning.  The instructor is the creator of the course, the students take it.  By integrating a blog hub onto the course web site, the instructor signals a subtle but significant shift: student creations matter and are part of the course; they are right there on the course web site.
  • You can also take advantage of non-student blogs.  Using the same mechanics described for student blogs, you can add any blog’s content to your course site.  For example, you might want to add blogs from professionals in your discipline to show some of the contemporary work being created.  These can be fed to a separate area on your site to keep them apart from student work (see the categories/tags discussion below).

 3. HOW DO I CREATE IT?  (Some nuts-and-bolts)

(Reminder: Tom Woodward’s video does a nice job with this material and you may want to view it now.)

Blog hubs don’t set themselves up (not yet, anyway).  If you’re at VCU folks at ALT Lab will help you set this up, if needed.  But it’s not that difficult to do on your own and there’s a lot to be said for poking around your WordPress dashboard and learning by doing.  (You can always use the WordPress instructions–its Codex, its deep support forums, or just Google “Wordpress [your issue]” for help.) Even if you seek help to set this up, it’s still useful to understand how it works.

First, a caution: step-by-step instructions become quickly dated as WordPress revisions are introduced.  (I’m using version 4.1.1 for these instructions and screenshots.)  Still, this may be useful for some, even if the particulars have changed by the time you read this.

To get your blog hub set up:

  • Go to your course web page’s “Dashboard”
  • Choose “Plugins” from the menu items in the left-hand column
  • Find and activate the FeedWordPress plugin.  (You may have to download it if it’s not already available on your installation.)  This will enable you to “feed” your site with the blog entries from your students’ site.
  • Once activated, FeedWordPress creates a new “Syndication” item on your Dashboard menu.
  • Open up the syndication menu item and enter the URL of each student’s site into the “new source” window in Feedwordpress.  (At VCU, you should add “/feed” after the URL as in the example below.)

feedwordpress

  • If you have more than just a few students, you’ll want to assemble URL’s in advance and add them all at once, which FeedWordPress allows you to do using the “add mulitple” button (see above). Regardless of how you add them, you need to collect your students’ blog URLs.  You can set up a Google form, for example, and ask for the URL along with any other survey questions you might ask at the start of the semester.
  • Once you’ve set up the feeds, have your students write a simple test post on their site and check to make sure it’s getting syndicated to the course site.  (A simple self-introduction is always nice.)
  • If things are not working properly, double-check to make sure you have the correct URL from the student.  If that’s not the issue, have students check the following:
    • Is the site visibility set to be public?  In setting up their site, students haven’t made it publicly visible.  To work with RSS feeds, site’s visibility setting needs to be public (either of the first two options below), NOT private (any of the bottom three options below).

blog hub site visibility

  • Is the post visibility set to “public”? If not, it won’t be “seen” in FeedWordPress.
  • Have you “published” the post? Until you do, the post remains in “draft” mode.

blog hub post visibility

Once any glitches get cleaned up, you’ll be good to go.

4. HOW DO I MANAGE IT? (tags and categories)

Depending on the size of your enrollment and the number of blog assignments you make, a trickle of posts can quickly become a fire-hydrant-stream of content flooding your course site.  You need to think in advance about how this stream will be handled to make it usable for you and your students.

There are two basic ways to organize the content stream: by grouping individual posts or by grouping authors.  Grouping by post allows you to view content from multiple authors on a single topic, such as when you review responses to an assignment.  Grouping by author can be useful if you want to create small groups within larger classes to keep a more intimate sense of community.  (You always have the option to view all posts by a single author by simply clicking on a post’s title, which will take you to their blog.)

When it comes to individual posts:

  • You don’t want everything a student writes to show up on the course site, just the relevant posts. (This becomes an important issue if students are using their blog for more than one class or otherwise creating non-course content.)
  • You do want to be able to pull up posts related to a particular assignment or topic, especially if you are using it for assessment.

To handle this, you can use tags and categories attached to individual posts.  These are labels that enable you to pull up only what you want to see.  The basic difference between tags and categories is that:

  • Categories are most useful for a limited set of labels that you know ahead of time.  (For example, a set of core concepts, particular assignments, or a list of small groups for your students.)  They are a top-down, or deductive, taxonomic structure.  You develop the category structure first, then fit content into one or more of them.
  • Tags are more appropriate when developing labels that you don’t know ahead of time.  (Open-ended assignments, for example, where students come up with their own ideas that need to be labelled.) They are a bottom-up, or inductive, folksonomic structure.  You create content and then label it with a tag.

Tag clouds (such as the one on this site) or category lists can easily be placed in sidebars to create easy access to groups of posts that share a label.

You can also attach a category to an entire blog, thereby allowing you to sort by author.  This is especially useful when you want to organize students into small groups. To do this you would:

  1. Create a category for each group.  (This could be as simple as “Group 1,” “Group 2,” etc.)
  2. Assign each student to one of the groups.
  3. Associate their blog stream with the appropriate category.  To do this, you:
    • Go to Dashboard/Syndication and hover over the student’s blog feed.
    • You’ll see “categories” is one of the options that appears; click on it
    • Now scroll down and check off the group category you want to assign under the “All posts: Give all posts from this feed these categories”

blog hub categories

This will now be a default category applied to all posts feeding from this site, enabling you to steer these posts (along with those of fellow group members) to separate space on the course web site.  That’s because a collection of posts that share either a tag or category actually have a unique URL, which can be used in WordPress’ menu feature to create a dynamic “custom link” on your course site’s menu.   Each of the small groups in your class, for example, could easily be assigned their own “page” based on the category label you have assigned it.  You might have a menu item on your course site labeled “Group 1” for which the URL would be (using Rampages example) “htttp://rampages.us/yourcoursesitename/category/Group1”, where all content from students in this group was aggregated.

Finally, keep in mind that the same content can be fed to different places.  In the example above, a course’s default category (“aggregate”) could be used to feed all course content to a single page, while one blog’s group category (“Group 1”) could simultaneously feed this blog content to a small group page.  This allows flexibility in setting up multiple viewing options on a course site; you might want to create a more manageable small group space but also keep open the possibility of serendipitous reading and interaction on the site’s aggregate blog stream.

5. HOW DO I PREPARE STUDENTS? (Giving instructions.)

If you’ve made it this far, you probably see that hubs are a bit of a challenge, especially if you have quite a few students with limited digital skills.  Don’t assume students will know how to do any of this just because they are “digital natives.”  Instead, provide students with enough scaffolding to get them started.  You can avoid most problems by anticipating and addressing them in clear basic instructions.

I’d suggest a comprehensive five-fold approach:

  1. Explain a bit about why you are using blogs and a hub.  Describe some of the benefits you’re hoping the class gets from this exercise.  I think it’s usually easier to tackle a challenging task if you have some sense of why you are being asked to do it.
  2. Acknowledge students’ (and perhaps your) discomfort and possible short-term frustration.  There will be problems that arise as they set up blogs and get started.  But, it will be worth it and–surprise!–everyone will survive.  Expecting everything to go smoothly sets an unrealistic and anxiety-provoking standard that will never be met.  You can model a healthy attitude towards learning by acknowledging ahead of time that learning new things can be a challenge.  That’s a plus, not a problem.
  3. Provide some minimal, but detailed, step-by-step instructions on the most essential items (such as how to create an account on Rampages at VCU).  Less is more in this case.
  4. Explain how to find more info about any issue or topic (WordPress codex, support forums, or plain old Google) and offer some links to information you think is especially useful.
  5. Offer a forum or other mechanism for students to help each other with questions.  Students who have already successfully set up their blogs can be the best source of information for others, saving you the burden of having to answer individual questions.

Don’t be intimidated by the length of this post. There’s nothing like learning-by-doing; jump in and much of this will take less time to do than it has for me to try to explain it.  But know that you have this post and lots of online resources available should you need some assistance.

Happy Hubbing!

  1. I don’t use the name “motherblog” because I find it misleading.  A mother produces offspring.  A “mothership,” for example, is defined as “a large spacecraft or ship from which smaller craft are launched.”  The “motherblog” is NOT the source of the student content; it’s the other way around. In this sense, I find “blog hub” a more appropriate term. []

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