title: 'Blogging an employability workshop series: engagement and reflection' author: Module 2 / 33347617 mainfont: Helvetica Neue linestretch: 1.5 papersize: a4paper geometry: margin=1.5in header-includes: \renewcommand{\abstractname}{Declaration}

abstract: '\noindent By submitting this, I declare it to be my own work. Any quotations from other sources have been credited to their authors. Approximate word count: 1050'

This case study examines blogging as a mechanism for supporting a series of workshops on employability – formally a part of the teaching for the final-year project in Computing – examining the effect of this year’s blogging effort and making recommendations for next year.

Students in Computing are expected to produce, as their project, a major piece of work (the result of one term of full-time effort, for 60 level 6 CATS credits), consisting of an implementation of a software artifact, or some original research, and a substantial critical report on their efforts; among the aims of the project is to provide a showcase for what the students have learnt that they can use as part of their portfolio – and also to give them a taste of what working as a professional in a computing-related career might be like.

The workshops on employability are intended to augment this, by helping the students reflect on their practice and their ambitions; a variety of speakers give their perspectives on their work in computing and related fields: sessions last around two hours and consist of one or two talks and some reflective discussion or group exercises. Talks have been given by colleagues in the Careers service, former students, visiting fellows, managers of graduate recruitment schemes, and current students on placement schemes, and those attending seem to find the sessions valuable.

However, there is a problem of engagement with the workshops. The material they cover, while it might be considered important in the overall development of the student, is not formally assessed. Additionally, there are only two taught sessions a week for the project (of which these workshops are one), and in the past academic session those sessions were scheduled on different days – for the most part, the students can work on their project anywhere. The combination of the lack of assessment and the cost and time implications of travel to be present led to a noticeable drop in attendance, particularly as deadlines neared, and no amount of reminding the students that attendance was formally compulsory was likely to be fruitful.

In an attempt to give some flavour of the sessions to the students who were unable or unwilling to join in, and also to help my own conception of the workshops, their content individually and together, I decided to blog the sessions^1, aiming to have some reflection and synthesis in the blog entries as well as a high-level description of the events. Separately, though relatedly, I also maintained a blog of employment and career-related opportunities and resources^2, with the same (finalist) cohort as the primary target audience.

The implementation of these blogs, as can be seen from visiting the respective sites, was through already-existing infrastructure rather than any facilities offered by the in-house Moodle VLE: partly this was from convenience, reusing infrastructure with which I was already familiar, and partly from previous unproductive experiences with Moodle. However, in retrospect this turned out to be a mistake, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, neither my personal blog, implemented using an idiosyncratic set of technical tools, nor the straightforward WordPress installation for the jobsboard, allowed comments. This, in and of itself, probably doomed the effort to increase engagement through blogging to failure: without the multi-way communication (McLoughlin and Lee, 2007) afforded by a commenting mechanism, there was no way to generate a conversation, commentary on my observations, or responses to others – and hence no incentive for repeat visits. There may have been some benefit to readers, but it is unlikely to have been transformative (certainly, no-one mentioned the blog specifically in course feedback). Similarly, the blog as a tool for student engagement would probably have been improved if there were elements of student curation: there is a qualitative difference between responding to a peer’s synthesis and that of a member of academic staff.

In addition, my personal blog was too public a place for reflection: a point brought home to me when one of the guest speakers objected to a draft entry I sent him: I had related some of his discussion with some of the activities of his employer, as reported by news media, and the guest speaker felt that this was not a fair observation. This was demotivating for me as the blogger, as I felt unable to express opinion for fear of alienating guests, who give their time to talk to students for minimal reward. Ironically, while the lack of commenting facility was a failure of insufficient openness (Alexander, 2006), here we have a failure of the approach as a result of too much openness.

These two problems with this year’s attempt both point in the same direction: to use an internal, private blog^3 in the course’s area on the VLE as the location for written reflection and synthesis. This would straight away solve the worry about offending guests, or placing them in an awkward situation with their employers. It would also immediately permit student creation of content, as there is no barrier against students posting: there remains the problem of encouraging the creation of that content through some mechanism (nominated students to produce summaries as starting points for discussion, perhaps) but the affordances of the VLE software are more suitable for this purpose.

displayed in a blog-like format, as described in Moodle documentation.

This could perhaps be taken one step further: to encourage all students to livetweet the session (with a particular hashtag), thus providing material for the first summary, potentially relieving the nominated students from the burden of having to take extensive notes, spreading that responsibility among the cohort. Since students would by choice tend to spend substantial time in sessions on mobile internet devices in any case, this would also allow them to do so without necessarily giving visiting speakers the impression that they were being ignored in favour of the latest title in the Candy Crush Saga series.

Of course, even after all of this redesign to encourage student engagement, the competing pressures of time and money will remain, and it is not possible to force students to learn. However, it is possible to make it easier, and hopefully a student-centred refocus of employability workshop blogging will lower barriers, particularly to those students who need it most.

Alexander, B (2006) ‘Web 2.0: A New Wave of Innovation for Teaching and Learning?’ EDUCAUSE Review 41(2) pp.32-44

McLoughlin, C and Lee, M J W (2007) ‘Social software and participatory learning: Pedagogical choices with technology affordances in the Web 2.0 era’, in Proc. ascilite conference, Singapore