Instead of using a course-management system to distribute materials and run class discussions, why not use free blogging software — the same kind that popular gadflies use for entertainment sites?
The approach can save colleges money, for one thing. And true believers like Mr. Groom argue that by using blogs, professors can open their students' work to the public, not just to those in the class who have a login and password to a campus course-management system. Open-source blog software, supporters say, also gives professors more ability to customize their online classrooms than most commercial course-management software does.
To demonstrate how a blog might be used in a course, Zoë Sheehan-Saldaña, an assistant professor of art at CUNY's Baruch College, showed off the blog for her course "Designing With Computer Animation." Students posted their assignments on the blog so that other students — and people outside the class — could see them. Students were encouraged to post comments on one another's work as well.
Although new versions of Blackboard include a bloglike feature, Ms. Sheehan-Saldaña said there are benefits in teaching students to create blogs using systems they might encounter in future jobs.
"It looks like a real Web site," she said, noting that the course blog has a look and feel similar to those of other blogs. "For students to have a sense that they're doing something 'for real' is very powerful."
Mr. Groom, in his talk, described a project he runs at Mary Washington in which professors create blogs for dozens of courses using WordPress. Attendees expressed interest in the approach but wondered how widely it would catch on.
Setting up a course blog would be more work for professors, said Stephen Powers, an assistant professor of education at Bronx Community College. "Blackboard has a fairly short learning curve," he said.
Some professors asked whether it was possible to run a blog that only students could see, noting that they had concerns about making course activities public.
In an interview, Mr. Groom said some people at Mary Washington had worried at first about opening up their online classrooms. Some feared that students might post crude comments on course blogs.
"A lot of people said it is going to maybe detract from the institution's public profile because people are going to say things, and there's going to be some sort of scandal," he said. "But it has done nothing but reinforce what we're doing as important — and get us press from people like The Chronicle."
Columbia uses Courseworks rather than Blackboard, which now has a Wiki option. I have toyed around with the idea of creating a blog for a course, but ultimately have used Courseworks anyway--it is just convenient, since my students' registration information is integrated, etc. But the style of a blog, I think, would create more interesting discussions rather than the format of the discussion option on Courseworks.