I was reading Vanessa Vaile's reflection on a Facebook discussion about "why blog?", and it got me thinking. In teaching, I've used blogs and forums, as well as Facebook and twitter. While I may have likes and dislikes among the different forms, the one thing that they have in common is that they get people talking. That for me is the most important thing.
Life sciences are conceptually heavy. Unlike chemistry and physics, where you are doing a fair amount of math in the introductory classes, biology focuses on having the students build conceptual models. It helps to talk these models out. It helps to have feedback so that you know your going in the right direction. It's important to start communicating these. If it starts the students talking about their discipline, then it's a good thing.
Personally I like blogs. They are a space in the digital world that I can call my own :). Where I can put my thoughts down, and let people come in and discuss them. But, they can also be unwieldy for the novice. Getting my freshmen to set up blogs and use them can be rewarding and frustrating. Realizing that they won't use them once the semester is over; really frustrating. The larger the class, the harder it is to get them to really make their blog a learning environment. But the worst is getting them to visit each other's blogs. It amazes me sometimes how resistant students can be to click on another link for class.
Even with a centralized RSS feed, I found students reluctant to go to each other's blogs and post comments. So I started using other tools. The first was the social framework called Oxwall. It worked wonderfully. Each student had a blog space that they didn't have to decorate and customize (like WordPress), and it built a Facebook like feed. The problem was that it was hard to build other activities.
So this year, I'm trying Moodle. It is a great LMS platform, and highly customizable. Instead of blogs, I'm using forums for their daily challenges. Strangely, I'm getting them to respond to each other more though this system than I did in Oxwall. I think this is because each daily challenge has an independent forum. They don't have to hunt for things to comment about. That I think is the ultimate key, novices have not learned to effectively hunt for information and learning opportunities.
OK, they have also never been taught to appreciate and take advantage of learning opportunities (i.e., the grade is all that matters mentality).
I'm not a great fan of Facebook when it comes to undergraduate learning. There is far too much signal to noise. Students either never go there (because it's boring) or it takes on a life different than the intended community function.
Twitter is better, especially if you want to get students to start thinking about their discipline outside of class. I love sending students tweets asking them to think about how knowledge of X (genetics, metabolism, etc...) affects how they look at things. I also get some great feedback from them.
Like so many things, the audience is what you have to look at first. Having focused forums seems to help my freshmen. They can focus on their challenges without having to try to figure out how to build and maintain a blog. Now, if our school began emphasizing ePortfolios, I would revisit having my freshmen maintain blogs. Until then, using forums seems to be a great middle ground.