This week we're exploring various strategies for using a blog to support personal and formal learning as part of the Work Literacy course's focus on blogging. Today we're going to discuss running a blog challenge.
What is a Blog Challenge?
In a blog challenge, several bloggers work together on a group learning project over a period of time--a few days, a week, a month. Each day during the challenge, learning activities are posted for bloggers to engage in and then blog about. Challenge participants also visit and comment on each others blogs to provide feedback and support during the challenge. The 31-Day Comment Challenge and the 31 Days to Building a Better Blog were both examples of blog challenges.
Benefits of a Blog Challenge Format
The Challenge format has a lot of benefits as a learning project:
- It builds a sense of group cohesiveness and connection as people work together on learning a particular topic. This is enhanced by the intensity of focusing for several days or weeks on a specific theme.
- It allows learners to explore various aspects of a learning theme, comparing and contrasting different ideas and methods over a period of time.
- It encourages experimentation and exploration. Each day there's a different activity for learners to try.
- Many people love the challenge concept--it engages them in focusing intensely on a learning area and depending on how the challenge is structured, it can get their competitive juices flowing.
- Well-structured challenges are fun, especially if you bring prizes into the mix.
Organizing a Challenge
The first step in getting started with a challenge is to pick a topic. This is pretty wide-open territory because just about any area can lend itself to a blog challenge. However it's best to pick something that's broad enough for you to identify several different activities that are related to the theme.
Deciding on the amount of time for your challenge is another key decision. Both Challenges that I've run here have been month-long activities. Although both were very successful, I've come to believe that in most cases, 31 days is too long for this kind of thing. I'd suggest at most 2 weeks, and probably an ideal strategy would be to do week-long challenges. This is enough time for people to get into it, but not so long that the challenge begins to feel like a chore.
At the heart of a blog challenge is a set of daily activities related to the theme of the challenge. What I've found works best is to have a mixture of different kinds of activities. Some are concrete, specific tasks like "comment on a colleague's blog" or "try out the active listening technique with one customer." Usually learners will then blog about what happened as a result of that specific activity.
You can also include activities such as having learners:
- Read a brief article or blog post and respond with their own thoughts.
- Develop a set of instructions for accomplishing a specific task.
- Respond to a "big question," such as "What does leadership mean to you?" or "What's the best way to sell XYZ product?"
- Respond to questions asked by their colleagues
- Research a topic and provide links to relevant resources.
Think carefully about how you structure and organize your activities. I've found that it's a good idea to mix different types of activities throughout the challenge and to allow a lot of flexibility in terms of how people respond to the activities. For example, if you're going to have them develop a set of instructions to do a specific task, encourage them to try out using more creative tools to express themselves, like VoiceThread or putting a PPT onto Slideshare. The best activities have both structure and some level of choice for learners.
I've also found that it's a good idea for Challenge organizers to be flexible in coming up with activities. In the Comment Challenge, I watched what people were doing and where they had questions and concerns to adapt the activities accordingly. When it looked like people needed a break, we did a "catch-up" day. We also had participants contribute some of their own challenge ideas and added those to the activity list.
At the end of the challenge, be sure to include at least one activity that asks learners to somehow summarize what they've learned. How did the experience change their practices? What three things did they take away from the activities?
Running the Challenge
The challenges that I've run here have both been "open"--I interacted with bloggers from all over the world, as opposed to bloggers within a particular organization. Personally I found that openness to be one of the key advantages of the challenge format--we had people with different perspectives and approaches responding to the activities, which opened up some interesting discussions about what we were doing. If at all possible and appropriate for your topic, I strongly encourage making challenges as open as possible.
In terms of logistics, I used my blog to post each day's activities.This gave people something to look forward to each day, plus they could use RSS to subscribe to the feed. If they had questions, they could ask them in comments on the post. They could also leave links to their own posts so that everyone else could see what they were doing.
For the Comment Challenge we set up a wiki where we could keep track of the participants, the entire month of activities, etc. This also allowed us to have a central location for people to find instructions on how to participate.
Encouraging Interaction and Participation
One of the primary benefits of blog challenges is the ability to build up group connection and interaction. It's important to have a mechanism for participants to be able to find each other. Select a unique tag and have learners tag their posts with it. You can then embed the Technorati feed to that tag in your own blog or in a wiki.
Technorati can be a pain, though, so I've also had people use Delicious to tag and save their posts and then participants could subscribe to that tag feed or, again, it could be embedded in a blog or wiki.
Encourage people to interact with and comment on each others blog posts. In part, this can be done through the daily activities. For each daily activity, for example, include visiting someone else's blog and commenting. If that doesn't encourage interaction, set aside a day for people to somehow interact with another blogger, such as "visit your colleague's blogs and identify the top three ideas for solving a problem" or "go to a colleague's blog and answer one of their questions."
It's also a good idea to have at least one facilitator who is reading all blog posts and helping to connect learners to each other by noticing and commenting on common threads, contrasting ideas, etc. This helps connect learners to one another as well as helping to connect the different strands of thinking and learning that are happening.
One thing I would strongly encourage is to engage your participants in some process evaluation as the challenge goes on, particularly if you've decided on a challenge that runs for more than a week. Find out what people feel is and isn't working so you can make adjustments accordingly. Try to find out where the energy and engagement is and see how you can build on that. Social media is, in many ways, more of an organic, from the ground up tool. You have to watch where the seeds are taking root and be alert to opportunities to nurture that growth.
Ending a Blog Challenge
As part of concluding a blog challenge, a few things I'd suggest:
- Invite learners to develop a summary of what was learned and how they will apply it. This is an area where you could invite a lot of creativity--people could record audio or video, create a slide presentation, etc.
- Write your own summary post of what was learned. What were your observations about the experience? What key issues and questions emerged?
- Recognize participants. If you decided to use prizes as part of the process, now's the time to award them. For the Comment Challenge, we had participants nominate and vote on people in several categories. This can be another way to extend the learning as people reflect on what they considered to be quality work during the challenge.
- Get feedback. Use an online poll to find out what participants did and didn't like about the challenge format. Particularly if it's your first time, you'll find that you may need to refine what you're doing.
Although a blog challenge requires more planning and structure than other strategies for learning with blogs, they can also be really powerful learning experiences. What experiences have you had with blog challenges? Have you run one yourself? What tips do you have for participating or managing a challenge?