Here’s an interesting vision of digital learning. I can’t make any use of it in my large History 100 survey courses, because it would require more individualized work on methods than I have time for. For a smaller, more specialized course, however, it could work in history, as long as actual books were integrated into the plan too.
What I especially like about this idea is how it would help students learn about the social and institutional structures within which knowledge is produced and passed on. But is that even possible in a general education course, even if the number of students were smaller? Or is this more for undergraduates already in their third year or working inside their major?
[hat tip: Ed Webb]
The multilingual World Digital Library is now online. It is designed for students, though I imagine specialists with narrower regional focuses could learn a thing or two. For more information, see the Washington Post’s related article yesterday. This piece also references a related, but more mature digital history project, American Memory, which is hosted by the Library of Congress.
I’ve started a simple blog called History Courses for my students beginning this summer. The point is to have a simple one-way communication stream, a bulletin board of sorts, although students are free to comment on the blog, if they want.
By the way, my iBook was out of commission all winter. That’s one reason for the paucity of new posts here. The other is that I have been teaching ESL instead of history, because budget cuts at George Mason University left me without any courses this winter. ESL entails a lot of hours in the classroom.
My Western Civ courses last winter and spring had some mandatory discussion components. Students had to visit the Holocaust Museum and talk about their experience online. I had them do the same with two old movies as well. (They chose from a list I had given them.) Both assignments went pretty well, except for a couple students who thought they only needed to copy and paste someone’s words from an online movie review. The other downside to the assignment was assessment. Blackboard gives precise statistics for each user, so it is possible to combine one’s impression of the students’ quality of effort with numbers. Wikispaces, which I like, did not offer these statistics. (It might for its Private Label version, but my school doesn’t have that. I had to set up my own Wikispaces account.)
What was really interesting about the Wikispaces experience, however, was that students started using the discussion feature in other parts of the course. It wasn’t mandatory, though I had told students I’d keep it in mind when doing their class participation grade. I’ve said the same thing to classes where I have used Blackboard, but without such positive results. The difference was related both to Wikispaces and the number of students involved.
Wikispaces lets people stay logged in on their laptops or desktop computers. That makes it really easy to check on a regular basis. Wikispaces also makes it easy to create course content that is easy to navigate. Blackboard makes creating course content much more difficult, at least that’s been my experience with their folders. I put course content in them and then got all kinds of emails asking where the stuff was. I never had that happen on Wikispaces. Obviously, I could learn to use Blackboard more effectively, but that will cost me more time than I’ve had, and the process of building pages will continue to be clumsy and slow. Wikispaces is so much easier, especially with one learns it’s easy markup, though that is not necessary.
My experience with Wikispaces forums was different for another reason, however. Last spring I put together all three courses on one Wiki. That gave me about 110 people. Since the course is required and not everyone is as interested in online participation, or even familiar with online forums, these numbers gave me the critical mass I needed to get self-sustaining discussions that did not require too much shepherding on my part.
By way of comparison, this fall I am using Blackboard again, because I did not feel like paying Wikispaces any money or dealing with student usernames. (Neither of these things would be an issue if the university bought the service for the whole campus.) The result has been mixed. I have not required online participation because of the bibliography project, but I was hoping to see a little discussion about the content of the course like I saw last spring. That has not been happening much. The problem, I think, is that while I have 95 students, they are split into two courses and therefore two places on Blackboard. (I should have asked for consolidation of the two.) This means I lost my critical mass. Also, logging into Blackboard is a pain in the neck. Not only can it not leave one signed in, but it insists on checking browser compatibility every single time. Why can’t it just drop a cookie? And Firefox asks me every single time whether I trust the security certificate or not. (Using Safari is not even an option.) These minor things really get in the way, because logging in distracts the user from whatever she might have wanted to say. Adding insult to injury, Blackboard automatically logs one out after a certain amount of time has elapsed, which limits the utility of its note-taking and calendar functions. (I’m not sure how much time has to pass, but the automatic logout has happened to me a lot this semester.)
One other thing I’ve noticed is layout. Many students need teaching about threaded discussions, no matter what platform, it seems, but Blackboard’s are just plain clunky next to Wikispaces’.
One important point to note about Wikispaces: The free version does not shield students’ comments from the public, and it includes ads via Google AdSense in the right-hand bar. The instructor can gain privacy and get rid of the ads by paying $5.00 per month or $50.00 per year. That is good if one
plans to recycle the same site. If not, the number of sites could grow. Sooner or later one will have to release the comments to the public and allow the ads. I knew this was going to happen, so I told students ahead of time that I would be opening the wiki at the end of the semester. I also offered to delete their names, though only one person took me up on that. Of course, none of this is an issue for universities with an enterprise edition. Also, teachers in primary and secondary education can obtain free wikis for their classes.
Bottom line? I wish more universities would buy Wikispaces Private Label, which is between $1000 and $8000 per year, depending on levels of storage and service. I don’t know what Blackboard costs, but I suspect this is a pretty cheap price that would make an invaluable tool available for student collaborative projects as well. And instructors would have control over their course websites and forums in a way that Blackboard users can only dream of. Of course, some instructors might be using Blackboard’s testing features, which Wikispaces doesn’t have, but I’m not.
Update (1/7/2010): I have deleted the wiki initially linked to at the beginning of this post. As interesting as the experience was, I would like to maintain the privacy of the students, and I cannot afford the annual dues to password protect the thing. I do wish that the universities I teach for as an adjunct were subscribed to the enterprise version of Wikispaces.
Last winter and spring I had my students write Wikipedia articles and then monitor those articles to see what edits other people made. The point was to give them a firmer appreciation of how this online resource works, so that they would understand its strengths and limitations. The Wikipedia projects were of varying quality, but I wasn’t unhappy with them. The student feedback at the end of the semester also showed that most of them learned the lesson, though a few were excited to be exposed to this resource for the first time. To be sure, the latter kind of comment made me feel dirty, though I’m sure the students would have found Wikipedia sometime, at the very latest through Google searches, which is how I discovered it some years ago.
As much as I liked the Wikipedia experiment, I have decided not to repeat it this semester. For one thing, the process of helping 100 or more students find a suitable topic that has not already been done in Wikipedia is enormously time-consuming. So is teaching students how to use Wikipedia’s relatively uncomplicated markup. Contrary to the stereotype about the youngest generation of university students being internet savvy, many of them only know how to use the internet in highly specific ways. (If you can read German, see Jan Hodel’s comments on this issue here and here.) I did not have much time for technical details in class, so I had a lot of one-on-one student meetings in the computer lab. This circumstance does not mean that Wikipedia projects are not worth doing, but it is a significant factor to consider for the kind of large survey course that I have been teaching.
More to the point, however, the Wikipedia project and especially the group electronic scrapbook project I had students do revealed a more traditional weakness: too many students did not know how to do basic research using the library’s catalog, reference desk, and databases. Indeed, they did not know how to use Google very well either. Furthermore, most students did not know how to evaluate the potential usefulness of books they found. They seem to have just assumed that a book was a book. The idea of examining the bibliography, for example, never occurred to many of them, even though I discussed the issue in the directions as well as in class. I thought that this kind of need was supposed to be filled in required English classes, but if that is happening, it is inadequate, because most of my students last semester were not freshman.
Hence, this semester I have decided to incorporate research skills into my course. A research paper is out of the question with so many students involved. Moreover, a research paper can become a distraction, since students are often most concerned simply with producing enough text. At the same time, I want to do something that gives students some choice, as most students really appreciated that aspect of the course last semester. Hence, I have decided to have students choose a research topic, develop a bibliography and write a short bibliographical essay to go with it. If you are interested in learning more, see the current version of my directions for the bibliography project on one of my course websites.
I plan to devote some time to research issues in class and on a forum on Blackboard, to which George Mason recently switched from WebCT. Finally, I expect to talk to some students during office hours. Instead of giving technical lessons for Wikipedia markup, however, we will be able to talk research methods and history. Students also need to improve their electronic literacy, but I have to pick my battles.
Finally, some notes about plagiarism: An unusually high number of students thought they could get away with copying and pasting text for their online scrapbook projects. I instructed them about the university’s honor system, but it seems much additional work is necessary in this area, should I ever do electronic assignments again. Interestingly, though, I did not find such copying in the Wikipedia projects. Perhaps students understood that others would be reading that work? Some students actually commented to me on how good it felt to do a homework assignment that they knew others would be reading. Be that as it may, it is possible that this semester’s bibliography project will reduce plagiarism opportunities and temptations, since it will not be as readily available on the open market.