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Professor Alexandra Halasz on WordPress and Shakespeare

Looking for an engaging activity for your students during winter term? A blogging project on WordPress could be just what you're looking for!

alex_halaszAlexandra Halasz, Associate Professor of English, was developing a new assignment for her course on Shakespeare during Summer 2015. She wanted to give her students the opportunity to develop a responsible public voice in a personalized and engaging forum. After consulting with the instructional design team, she decided that a WordPress blog was just right for the assignment.

Please read a Q&A with Alex after the jump and take a look at her students' Exploratory Shakespeare blog!

Scott Millspaugh: What is English 15?

Alex Halasz: English 15 is an introductory Shakespeare class. It enrolls between 30 and 50 students.

SM: Why did you decide to use WordPress as a course blog instead of another tool, like discussion boards in Canvas or the Campus Pack blog?

AH: I decided to use WordPress as a course blog because it provided a smooth, public and professional-looking interface for student work. The options within or associated with Canvas didn't provide the public aspect. I haven't used the Canvas discussion board, but my experience with Blackboard discussions was that they rarely became exciting or highly motivated exchanges and, with larger classes, they were often unwieldy. I have used the Campus Pack blog in other classes for specific limited assignments where the appropriate audience for student work is limited to the other students in the class. Because the Canvas option for blogging is an add-on, its interface with Canvas itself is clunky, at best.

SM: Did your students need any specialized training to use WordPress?

AH: Scott Millspaugh gave the class a short introduction to the WordPress site and its functionality. No further training was necessary. Students were quite interested in the public aspect of the blog--the kinds of comments and spam their posts attracted and which sorts of posts, or titles, attracted what kind of attention.

SM: How did your students use the blog? What sorts of things did they post and what did it tell you about their learning?

AH: The blogging assignment for the course was weekly and ongoing. In the course design, it replaced quizzes given on each of the plays covered with an open-ended small research assignment. I set default options for the research such as investigating the semantic range of a keyword in the play using the Oxford English Dictionary, reading and reviewing a critical article on the play, exploring visual representation of images or scenes from the play, or focusing on a character or dramaturgical issue in the performance history.

The length requirement was 500-700 words; the only other requirement was that each post be given a title. Students posted on a wide range of topics, generally within the range of the default options. They often used images and over time learned to integrate the images into their discussion (rather than appending them as illustrations). The assignment emphasized the blog post as a somewhat formal genre, information dense, focused, and deliberate in its solicitation of reader interest. Over the course of the term most of the students became increasingly adept at handling the expectations of the form; some of them accumulated a portfolio of posts that demonstrated their mastery that they could potentially use in seeking jobs or other opportunities.

The assignment also foregrounded questions of research and evidence. Students drew from a very wide variety of resources--scholarly, professional, amateur and commercial--and learned how to contextualize and frame the sort of evidence that provided the basis for their claim or insight.

I think the most important learning involved developing a responsible public voice for their thinking. Students clearly read the blog and over time the research and commentary on the blog became a shared resource for the class.

SM: When you teach Shakespeare again, will you ask your students to do the same assignment? If so, is there anything that you would change?

AH: Yes, I would do this again. There's nothing I would change.   One practical tip: I had students post their text to Canvas as well as the blog so that I could comment in Speed Grader.


If you're interested in creating a WordPress blog for your Winter 2016 course, please write edtech@dartmouth.edu.

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