What’s in a grade?  That which we call a blog by any other grade would sound as sweet.

To begin with a bit of brutal honesty, the thought of learning about academic blogging was not appealing to me.  In my past experience, blogging for class has often felt like a chore.  As a student, I never minded composing the short essay that I would use as a blog post, but the process of commenting on peers’ work often felt forced with a required number of comments and a rigid description of what constituted a substantive comment.  Unfortunately, the simplest criterion for an acceptable comment was a question, to which a response was required.  The result unsurprisingly felt like an uninspired and obligatory conversation on a Canvas page.  As a TA, the process of grading blog comments felt similar.  The comments often met the bare minimum requirement set for a perfect score but rarely brought about meaningful conversation or insight.

However, as a student of higher education, I was excited to read Gardner Campbell’s piece that examines networked learning as experiential learning.  I hoped that reading about networked learning in the context of George Kuh’s high-impact practices would help me see academic blogs in a more positive light.

Kuh’s high-impact practices have been a point of professional interest since I discovered they were the basis of a meaningful program in my undergraduate work.  I graduated “with leadership distinction” from the University of South Carolina by taking part in a program where I created an ePortfolio about an internship I had completed.  The process of reflection and creating that ePortfolio generated a lot of self-knowledge and helped me clarify my professional goals, but it was not until later that I realized that high-impact practices were at the center of the program.  While the nomenclature was made to be easily understood by students, the requirements of the project were to create an ePortfolio (a high-impact practice in itself) about one of four high-impact practices: undergraduate research, global learning, service learning, or an internship.  Having experienced this first-hand, I am always eager study high impact practices or incorporate them into my work as a practitioner of higher education.

Because of my past experiences, I read Campbell’s piece very critically.  To equate my underwhelming blogging experiences with the high-impact practices that proved so meaningful to my learning simply seemed wrong, even if my evidence was anecdotal.  However, upon further consideration, I realized that networked learning (including blogging) shared characteristics with many of Kuh’s high-impact practices I already saw as meaningful.  It can involves writing like a writing-intensive course would, can involve collaboration, can be a learning community of its own (albeit a digital one, which is unlike those Kuh describes), and ultimately may be comprised of the same sort of reflection one would use to create an ePortfolio.  As Campbell points out, this sort of collaboration can provide learners the authority to make their own connections, and that seems characteristic of high-impact practices.

These are all things that networked learning can be; blogging can be a high-impact practice.  Still, I can undoubted say the blogging that I experienced was not that.  In thinking about what created that disconnect between theory and practice, I quickly found what I perceive to the problem: an approach to blogging that centers on grades.  This attitude might be described by the notion of “getting by” from Michael Wesch’s TED Talk, the attitude that manifests itself as questions like “How many points is this worth?” or “How long does this paper need to be?”  When the experience is reduced to its bare minimum for the sake of sliding by with an A, its high-impact ceases to be.  Grading remains a necessity, and thus a complex problem presents itself.

Grades are important.  A GPA can be a major factor in determining whether a student is admitted to their ideal graduate program or gets the job they want.  Hence, there is an importance to providing students guidelines and metrics on how their grades are to be determined.  It maintains a sense of objectivity in grading and provides students more control in reaching their goals.  While it only seems fair to create grades based on objective measures, learning and engagement are not objective measures.  Hence, grades become separate from learning, as demonstrated in my blogging experiences.  The comments that I read as a TA – and even those I wrote as a student – often succeeded in meeting the requirements for full marks but failed to engage students in the full potential of networked learning.

This poses a problem with no easy solution, far broader than academic blog posts.  How can we engage in learning if we are focused on grades instead of learning itself?  As an educator, I can appreciate the approach of this course’s blogging requirements.  Separating learning and grades allows engaging with course content and the ideas of peers to become the priority (and blogs that can be seen by the public eye adds implicitly heightens standards).  While this approach may not be directly related to each of my other endeavors as an educator, it serves as a reminder of the importance to highlight learning over grades, even if there is no simple means to that end.  That said, the reminder is perhaps more pertinent to me as a learner, where I have the autonomy to determine whether I am deeply engaging in learning or just getting by for the sake of a grade. I can always choose learning.  How can I encourage students to do the same?