This case study evaluates the use of blogging as a tool for promoting early engagement on a level 6 media production course. Based on an action research methodology the case study draws on qualitative interviews and blogged responses to explore the student experience of blogging as a tool for promoting formative assessment. It outlines the research findings and offers suggestions for ways in which others might implement a similar approach. The need for the research emerges from the need to integrate theory and practice into the curriculum so practice is informed by theory; and to ensure critical reflection on practice is located within an appropriate theoretical framework. The paper builds on previous work into approaches to project-based learning in media practice education in UK HEI’s.
What was Done
During the BA (hons) Media Production Top Up student’s welcome week I arranged for a staff member from the Learning Technology Unit to work with Laraine and myself on a session in which all of the students set up a personal blog. We used the free WordPress.com platform to do this and students were asked to write a short welcome post and to email a link to this to their tutor. Initially the aim was to pilot the use of blogging on Factual Production, a L6 unit for which I am the course leader. As part of the project I then scheduled a session which introduced students to the idea of blogging, the style of writing commonly adopted, the value of commenting on each other’s blogs and so on.
The blogging activity was initiated by a lecture on Documentary Modes (Nichols 1983) which I deliver as part of the course. The students were then set a first blogging task which required them to select a documentary video of their own choice from the Vimeo staff picks list and to critically watch the video using a handout on Documentary Modes as a means of thinking about how the video functioned. The following week the students were asked to apply the concept of Documentary Modes in a short analysis and to use this as a basis for a short 300-500-word blog post. The aim was for students to determine the particular mode their chosen documentary fell into and say why. The task required them to use references and provide a bibliography as per normal academic requirements. The first writing task was started during class time and the students were given 30 minutes to begin their blog posts with an expectation that they would be finished in their own time. The following week the students were asked to comment on each other’s blog posts and the course tutor (me) also evaluated and gave written feedback in the form of a comment on each blog post. This process was then repeated a second time with a second blogging task organised in a similar fashion.
In order to evaluate the pilot, we ran a discussion group at a later point in the following semester which resulted in a number of short blogs being written by the participating students. These were captured via Survey Monkey and have formed the basis for the data collection phase of the research.
Motivation and Aims
It is possible to formulate Media practice education as a form of experiential learning following a claim often attributed to Aristotle (2001) that ‘the things we have to learn before doing them, we learn by doing them’. This idea is further expanded by Kolb (1994) who see learning as coming about through a cycle of experience and reflection-on-experience and by Schön (1983) with his concept of the reflective practioner. More recent literature (see Moon 2004) develops this idea further suggesting that experiential learning occurs through a process of reflection on the actions and interactions that come about through experience, leading towards a refinement of judgements of choice and future action. For Moon and others, experiential learning is analytical, immersive and requires learners to be participant both cognitively and affectively. It develops not only skills and knowledge but attitudes, values and behaviours (Hoover & Whitehead 1975, 25). So it would seem clear the reflection is a key means to developing the kinds of expertise that emerges from practice (Lave & Wenger 1991). This is further supported by Barnett (2007, 79) who suggests that if ‘performance is only to be valued through the material outcomes that it yields, [all it will reveal] is a warped and partial valuing of the students’ educational efforts’. Thus, it is possible to argue that critical reflection is a significant and important element in all practice-based teaching.
However, a number of issues arise when using critical reflection to assess project-based learning in media practice education. The first concerns the need to integrate theory and practice into the curriculum so practice is informed by theory. Secondly, there is a need to promote an engagement with critical concerns that circulate around ideas of practice so that critical reflection on practice is located within an appropriate theoretical framework. Finally, there is the need to promote an early engagement with critical reflection so that there can be a formative component to what is an act of looking back upon practice.
Thus, the project aimed to encourage student’s early engagement with theoretical concerns as they relate to their units of study. It aimed to do this through the introduction of a blogging activity that would encourage students to draw on theory to inform their own practice at a much earlier point in the teaching period. It aimed to encourage students to identify and utilise theoretical sources at a much earlier stage in the unit schedule, preparing them for the critical reflection at the end of the course. In addition, it aimed to build formative assessment of the student’s critical engagement with theory and practice into the course schedule at an earlier point in time. Thereby providing feed forward in support of the critical reflection at the end of the course.
Success and Lessons Learnt
The survey posted on Survey Monkey generated 8 responses from a total of 22 who took part in the pilot study. Initial findings support the use of blogging as a tool for promoting early engagement and even those students whose comments were largely negative responded that “it was good as it got me writing about a subject before the essays and this meant I wasn’t going into the essays completely cold” (Student E). Feedback suggested that in general the students found the tasks enjoyable and got them an early start on the research “so I wasn’t going into the essays completely cold” (Student E). Many identified the benefit of regular writing tasks that improved their writing and they also found that the tasks were a good basis for later critical reflection telling us that ”you engaged with the theoretical concepts and connect them with real life examples” (Student C). Some of the issues that were raised by the students included the need to ensure that their blog posts were reviewed and commented on by tutors. They said “I found my research useful when I came to write my critical reflection, however it became frustrating and I began to lack motivation to do it when my tutor did not look at it or provide relevant feedback” (Student F) and this feeling was echoed in other responses. They also wanted the blogging to be better integrated into course work and they wanted it to start right at the beginning of the course saying that they would like it to be a “more important part of the course and [tutors] to give regular feedback on it” (Student A).
It would seem then that there is a real value in using course blogs to stimulate critical thinking, kick start researching the topic and promote early theoretical engagement. Clearly though there are lessons to be learnt and the full and final evaluation of the research data which will include comparison of assessment statistics and debriefing the tutors involved will derive a range of indicators that can be turned into an effective model for rolling out the use of blogging as a means of embedding critical thinking at a much earlier stage of course units.
Scalability and Transferability
Having successfully piloted the use of blogging on one unit on our L6 Top Up programme there are plans to roll this out across all practice units for the Top Up and to also introduce the scheme for the incoming L4 cohort on the BA (Hons) Media Production. In order to do this the course team will need to be trained in the process and this will be part of a staff development session that is currently being planned for the end of this academic year. In particular, it is anticipated that staff will need a model to work to which we will be able to derive from the research findings. The feedback from tutors who have already participated formally and informally in the pilot (some took part informally making use of the blog tool in their own units as well) will be crucial in identifying exactly what support tutors will need if we are to successfully integrate the tool into all of our practice teaching. It is clear from the findings so far that tutors will need help to formulate tasks that have a critical component but at the same time relate directly to the students practice. The staff development workshops planned for the end of the year will address this through sharing of best practice and an outcomes led workshop process.
The research team have already submitted a proposal to present the interim findings to the SSU Learning and Teaching Conference in June 2017. There is a journal paper planned and the team are also planning on designing a workshop on the subject which will be available to other teams as a staff development session. It is also important to factor into the project the opportunity to review the introduction of the tool into the media programme at key stages during the next academic year. Staff, especially AL’s are likely to find it challenging at first and as with any form of change management they will need careful guidance and support if the roll out is to be successful. [word count 1724]
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