Why Personalizing Your Blog Matters

As I’ve written in other posts, courses such as Collaborative Curiosity incorporate openly networked learning spaces into the course design. An openly networked learning space is one in which students maintain their own digital learning spaces (i.e. blog sites), which are networked via RSS feed to create a course website.  More complex course designs might add additional layers of networking; for example, Virginia Commonwealth University’s Summer 2014 Thoughtvectors (UNIV 200) pilot accommodated more students and invited more diversity by feeding student sites into section sites (managed by individual faculty), which, in turn, fed into a general course site (managed by the course director).

openly networked course structure

The purpose of openly networked learning spaces

I suspect that students who are new to openly networked learning spaces – especially those who struggled with linking their blog sites to the course website in the first place – are wondering “What’s the point of all of this?”  

Individual student blog sites allow students to personalize their workspaces, using and accessing them as they please. The e-portfolio literature suggests student blogs (when implemented correctly) offer opportunities for increased student agency, engagement, and connected learning.  By connected learning, I mean that when students take their blogs seriously, they tend to incorporate more diverse aspects of themselves in a holistic, multimodal, complex endeavor of learning and meaning making. I won’t belabor these points here, because I’ve blogged on it before.

Furthermore, by juxtaposing student work in a single course website, we facilitate serendipitous learning.  Think of this like putting together a puzzle. When you put together a puzzle, you dump all the pieces out – or at least spread them out so you can see all of them. It’s almost impossible to do a puzzle by looking at one piece at a time. Laying out student blogs in a single visualized space is like spreading the puzzle pieces out on the table so you can see them all, mix them around, and try different things out.

sample bloggregate
The aggregated student blogs (called a bloggregate) from VCU’s Great Bike Race Course. Note how colorful and inviting the space is.

Why you should spend time fixing up your blog.

Collaborative Curiosity students explore digital spaces as potential areas for professional collaboration, data collection & dissemination, and community building.  They need to personalize their student blog spaces as a means to practice writing for a public audience in digital contexts.

This means every student should take a step back and look at their blog site through the eyes of a stranger. Could a member of the general public:

  • Quickly identify the site as something of interest to them?
  • Judge the trustworthiness of the information based on how you’ve identified yourself and your credentials/position/perspective?
  • Read the information? Is it visually engaging? well-organized? Grammatically correct (and I mean that in the sense that hyperlinks are neither broken nor naked; images are cited; embedded materials function, etc…I am not and never will be the APA or MLA style police.)
The argument can be made that student blogsites – particularly those of students who are early in the learning process – are not (yet) community engagement sites, and should be seen through a slightly more pedagogical lens than the bullets above suggest.  Okay.  Try these.
Could a member of the general public:
  • Quickly identify the site as a student workspace?
  • Judge the trustworthiness of the information based on how you’ve identified yourself and your credentials?
  • Read the information? Is it visually engaging? well-organized? digitally sound?
Note the two lists of bulleted questions are almost exactly the same. One of the purposes of edublogging is to learn how to express yourself, but also to be understood by an audience.

The essentials in fixing up your blog

Full disclosure: I’ve worked on my blog for over 5 years.  I’ve used four different blogging platforms, changed themes more often than I can count, organized and reorganized material on a daily basis sometimes. Heads up, I might even change my theme tomorrow – the button motif is getting a little cutesy for my current mood. Such is the nature of blogging – it is as dynamic and time intensive as you want it to be. I don’t expect the world to work over their blog as often as I do.  However, there are some things everyone should do so that they might effectively answer “Yes!” to the bulleted questions I listed above.
  • Contextualize your blog. Name it so that it makes sense. Is it a student blog? Name it something meaningful to you and then add a tagline to contextualize it. I love Serra De Arment’s blog. It’s simple, and simple is often best, but I know exactly what the blog is about and who is writing it. *A note about anonymity – there are good reasons why some people might not want to put their full identity on their blog site. That’s a personal decision, but things to consider: (1) you probably need to tell your instructor the name of your blog site – they need to know who you are so they can assess your work; (2) It is possible to put together some sort of “about me” information without sharing personal information. Try writing a couple of sentences about what you will be sharing on your blog. Your research interests. Your favorite epistemological frameworks. Don’t want to use an actual picture of yourself? Use an obscured picture, or draw one, or create an avatar. Use a pseudonym. Whatever you do, give people something so they can use to assess your trustworthiness and decide whether or not they want to read your blog.
  • Make it as accessible as possible. Yes, I’m talking in terms of universal design for learning. More specifically (today) I’m talking about font. If you have a choice on what font you use on your blog (and you always have a choice but some templates are more flexible than others…I’m not expecting anyone to use html code to do this), go for sans-sarif fonts.  They tend to look better on all computer displays and are easier for screen readers to interpret. Once you get used to embedding (and sourcing!) your images, we can talk about adding alternative descriptions for pictures (I’m not the best at this – we can work on it together) and subtitles for your videos.  For right now, just think about your font.
  • Finally, get rid of the original template space holders!  I am passionate on this point (note punctuation). There is no excuse for “Sample Page” or “Sample Post” to show up on your blog once you have started publishing.  It’s like wearing a dress with the price tags hanging off the sleeve. Go into your dashboard.  Open up “All Pages” or “All Posts.” Throw the samples into the trash.  For VCU RamPages users: many students leave the “Just Another RamPages Site” in the website tagline.  Go into the dashboard. Click on Appearances. Go to Customize.  Go to Site Identity.  Change your blog site title and tagline.  Please.  If you need help, I will go to the ends of the earth to help you with this.  Whatever it takes.
changing tagline
Steps to changing title and tagline on a fairly standard WordPress – or RamPages – site.

Please take a moment to personalize your blog space.  Consider it like your office desk. Put a plant out or maybe a picture of your dog or your kids.  I think you’ll feel more at home if you do and ultimately it will be a better blog.


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