I spend a lot of time talking to people about the benefits of blogging. Students writing for a real audience and purpose leads to better writing, more motivation, critical thinking, collaboration, yada yada.
However, there are some admittedly sticky issues around student blogging. This week I had a chance to work through some of these in collaboration with a progressive district that is encouraging teachers and students to use blogs and other Web 2.0 technologies to develop literacy and critical thinking skills. Some of the issues we’re talking about are:
- How do you set up student accounts without having student email accounts?
- If you want students to go beyond commenting on teacher posts to creating their own posts or even hosting their own blogs, how can that be monitored?
Many of the common blogging tools don’t really address these issues. I’m a big fan of WordPress, so I started there. WordPress.com (they host) requires a valid and unique email address to get an account. WordPress.org (you host) will accept a bogus email account, but it’s a hassle to have a large number of blogs on it. On either of these, if a student is administering their own blog, there is no automated way to see their work.
Some other popular blogging services (e.g. Blogger) are blocked in many schools, making their use less than optimal. Other blogging services that strive to be safe for students (e.g. Class Blogmeister) limit administration and primary authorship to teachers. Others charge a fee. Some school blogging platforms that are free aren’t open source, meaning that they may or may not be free or even available next week. Other free services are less than reliable in terms of being up 24/7.
In the course of all this, we looked at WordPress MU, the multi-user version of WordPress. This works like WordPress.com in that any registered user can create a new blog easily on the fly. (This works by setting up a domain with a wildcard, for example, *.blog.someschool.edu. Then if a student creates a blog, it becomes jsmith.blog.someschool.edu.) And the administrator can easily monitor and manage all blogs under the domain. The only drawback is that you have to host it yourself, but it really isn’t very difficult. You just need a box with Apache, MySQL and PHP.
The interface is very slick. It has all the things I love about WordPress plus a whole suite of useful admin tools.
(Sidenote on student email: A pretty usable workaround on this is the Gmail trick. If your teacher gmail account is email@example.com and a student uses the email address firstname.lastname@example.org, all email to that address will go to you at email@example.com. That allows you to register students for services that require a unique and valid email without maintaining or needing to monitor an email account for them.)