Author Archives: jon

Class Blogging

A few weeks back, Jay Livingston posted about using blogs in sociology classes. He points to two examples:

  • a group blog Jenn Lena created for a class project, My Sociological Imagination. Each week, different teams of students were responsible for posting to the blog and for commenting on one another’s posts.
  • Mrs. Castelli, a high school teaching outside Chicago, has links to blogs written by her students.

When I taught an undergraduate Political Sociology class a few years ago, I also tried the group blog approach and it was mostly a success. My general experience was consistent with Lena’s experience: blogs encourage a higher quality of writing, but the promise of vibrant online discussions in the comments is mostly unfulfilled. (My hunch on this: students tend to wait until the night before the class to read that week’s postings & this doesn’t fit the asynchronous nature of blog commenting. Scheduled online chats may be one way around this.)

If you’re interested in using blogs in your classroom, here are a few things you may want to consider:

  • There is a traditional blog format (i.e. daily, diary-style postings in reverse chronological order), but the medium is much more flexible than that. Think of blogs as a general purpose online publishing and discussion platform and the uses for blogs in your class may become more apparent. Some assignments fit the traditional “blog post” mold quite well (weekly reactions to the readings, for example), while others may be less “bloggy”: using the blog to share ideas or drafts of formal papers, collecting online resources about particular topics, etc. (Many of us have access to things like Blackboard or Moodle, which have tools for doing these things, but they also tend to be slow, ugly and complicated. Blogs, or wiki’s, often work just as well or better.)
  • Privacy. On the one hand, having a fully public blog has many advantages: it can motivate students to do their best work because they know people will actually read it, it can draw the attention and participation from those outside your class, etc. On the other hand, this may make many students uncomfortable. For example: think back to a writing assignment you had as an undergraduate. Would you want someone to google your name today and have that assignment pop up? One option is to make the blog entirely private: only you and your students can read the blog. Another option is to require/encourage your students to use nicknames on the blog.
  • There are many free services for setting up blogs: WordPress.com and Blogger are probably the two most popular, but there are many options. For example, it may surprise you that even with today’s supposedly tech-savvy youth, technical barriers are still a significant problem. With that in mind, a blogging service like Tumblr, which aims for a super simple, stripped down interface, may be a great choice. Your own institution may host their own blogging software as well, which may be worth looking into. (For example, the University of Minnesota hosts UThink Blogs for students, faculty and staff.)

To close, I’ll just echo Livington’s remarks:

So, at least when it comes to blogging, the kids are all right. And maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, these kids have never known a world without the Internet. Putting your ideas about sociological concepts out there in a blog for the world to see isn’t much different from creating and customizing your page on MySpace of Facebook. Now if only they could learn to use their spell-checkers.

Wikipedia: “often the best place to start, worst place to stop”

- Dan Gillmor, via Eszter Hargittai .

TED Talks

We’ve been big on videos lately, but what can we say: online video is booming.

You may be familiar with TED: a conference about Technology, Entertainment and Design, though really there are talks on just about every topic. The best part: the talks are all online for free.

Most of the videos are around 20 minutes, so they’re perfect for watching in class or as assignments. Here are just two that I’ve watched recently as examples:

First, here’s Barry Schwartz on the decline of “wisdom.” It’s a bit of a rant near the end (in my opinion), but the first half provides an interesting critique of our modern faith in rationality and incentives and is great to compliment lectures on either bureaucracy or on rational choice:

Second, here’s a talk by Hans Rosling on “Third-world myths,” which is worth watching just for the captivating display of data alone. It’s great for a discussion of globalization but also, because the graphics are so good, for courses on research methods and data presentation. You can also see more of these graphics at gapminder.org:

Graphic Sociology in the Classroom

Of course, all of our blogs make for great classroom material, but our newest blog, Graphic Sociology, is particularly good for teaching. It’s especially useful for courses on research methods and the presentation of data.

Graphic Sociology is run by Laura Norén, a PhD candidate in sociology at New York University. Laura’s research is on the impact of design on social behavior and she’s also co-founder of a web design company, so she’s a good person to listen to on this subject.

Each post pulls a particular graphic that tries to represent social data visually. Laura does a great job of pulling graphics from a wide range of sources on just about any topic imaginable. Some examples:

The great thing about Graphic Sociology is that the posts work on many levels. Undergraduates and non-sociologists can appreciate it because the information presented is fascinating and the discussion of how the graphics can lead and mislead readers makes for a good exercise in critical thinking. If you’re teaching a course on research methods, this blog is a great resource for classroom material.

For graduate students, sociologists or anyone else who has to present data as part of their job, the blog is a great place to learn what we’re doing wrong and to get ideas for how to present our data in new, more powerful ways. For example, you may not care about web browser market share, but you may be interested in the cool technique for representing data over time used in that graphic.

Video Lectures and Academic Earth

Last week, I posted about using podcasts in the classroom. This week I want to share a few relatively new websites designed for sharing academic talks.

I got the idea from this post on TechCrunch about the website Academic Earth, which TechCrunch called “Hulu for Education.” If you aren’t familiar with Hulu, it’s a joint venture of NBC, Fox and several other media corporations that makes television shows and films available for free (with advertising) online. This isn’t a new idea, but Hulu’s been successful for being one of the first sites to do this that doesn’t suck: the interface is clean and simple, it’s easy to subscribe to the specific shows you want to watch, the advertisements aren’t distracting, the selection is pretty good, etc. Academic Earth does follows the Hulu model of being a nice, clean, searchable aggregator for academic lectures and courses that you can subscribe to and watch in order. (Now as to whether or not the lectures are as entertaining as, say, The Simpsons on Hulu, I won’t say.)

On Academic Earth, you can find a large variety of lectures and complete courses. From Paul Bloom’s Intro to Psychology course to Benjamin Polack’s Game Theory course. You can even embed videos. For example, here’s Bloom’s lecture on social psychology:

What you won’t find—yet—are any sociology courses! So get on it, sociologists! Despite the relative dearth of “sociologists,” there’s much sociological content and many of these lectures will be appropriate for use in classes we teach. (Or even just an accessible way for us to learn a little more about other fields ourselves!)

Academic Earth isn’t the only site like this: also check out BigThink and Fora.tv. Of course, “iTunes U” and the iTunes podcasting section has lots of useful stuff as well.

Update: …and just two days later, YouTube joins the crowd with YouTube edu. (via ThickCulture)

“Teaching still remains the key interest of most faculty. In surveys in 1969, 1975, and 1989, the Carnegie Foundation asked faculty whether their interests were primarily in teaching or research. Roughly the same question was asked by the Higher Education Research Institute in 1996. Over nearly thirty years, the proportion of faculty responding affirmatively to teaching remained an astounding seven out of ten.”

- Arthur Levine, How the Academic Profession is Changing

Podcasting in the Classroom

Is a recording of a lecture a substitute for the real thing? A new study by psychologist Dani McKinney suggests that the answer may be “Yes.” (via New Scientist).

In fact, a podcast of a lecture may be better. Students watching a podcast can pause and rewind through missed points, they can pick their strongest time of the day to focus, and they can wear headphones to tune out distractions.

Just as students can stumble into a lecture hall and nap in the back row, simply listening to a podcast isn’t as important as how the students use the podcast: students who listened to the podcast one or more times and took notes while listening actually scored better on the test than students attending the lecture.

All the usual disclaimers apply: this was just one study of only 64 students, in one lecture, with one test. However, it does encourage us to take a closer look at podcasts as a powerful tool for teaching.

about podcasts

Podcasts are like radio or television shows you can download to your computer and listen to or watch wherever and whenever you want, on your computer or on a portable player such as an iPod. All you need to start podcasting is a podcasting client, such as iTunes.

contexts has a podcast!

If you want to hear an example, I’ll shamelessly plug our very own Contexts Podcast. We release episodes every other week and each episode features an interview with leading scholars—frequently authors from our magazine—and discussions of our favorite discoveries. Each episode is about 20-25 minutes long and are great to listen to on your daily commute or even to assign to your students to compliment your own course material.

On our podcast homepage we have links to many other podcasts listed in the sidebar that you may find interesting. If you find other good ones: let us know & we can recommend those too!

teaching with podcasts

But this post started with a study of podcasting lectures themselves, not just using them as supplementary course material. But podcasting your own lecture isn’t that hard, and some sociologists are doing it already, such as Gianpaolo Baiocchi’s Sociology of Race Relations (iTunes link), and Tina Fetner’s Intro to Sociology (iTunes Link).

If your university participates in iTunes U (for example, our home, The University of Minnesota, does), then it’s easy to get your podcast put online where others can find it. With the rise in online distance education, universities are increasingly well-equipped to handle this sort of thing, so ask around on your campus. Hopefully, you’ll find IT support people excited you’re trying something new & willing to help. (I know we benefited greatly from help from our college’s IT unit when we got started.)

Remember the study’s findings though! Encourage your students to listen to each lecture twice, or at least go back to the parts they struggled with later. Also, the students who did the best had printouts of slides to follow along with as well. And they still took notes, even though they weren’t in the physical class room.