eLearning and eResearch

I’m taking a course in university pedagogy, and last week we were discussing how to use the web in our teaching. As well as being introduced to software like Moodle, we also discussed using blogs and wikis in learning.
Now after reading Jennifer’s post, I’ve also started musing about using these tools in research.

In teaching, the idea is to provide a platform in (on?) which students can learn. These are known as VLEs, Virtual Learning Environments. They can include stuff like tests, discussion rooms, online material (e.g. pdfs of chapters the students will avoid reading) etc. Wikis and blogs are useful as tools for collaborative work: for writing reports, a wikis would be an excellent tool because it allows several people to work on the same text simultaneously. Blogs are more asymmetric, because only one person writes the main text, but they allow comments. I can see them being useful for, for example, writing initial drafts of essays, or reporting on what a student has done as part of collaborative work.
These methods feel like they could work well, but they need to be planned so that students are encouraged/pushed to participate. One thing that came up in our discussions in the course was that they allow the shyer students a way of speaking up (Finns tend to be quiet, the Irish not!). My feeling is that some thought needs to be applied before using these methods, if they fail they’re a complete waste of time. One point that was made is that the younger generation is used to the online world, so they will find it easier to adapt than those of us who were taught in the days when OHPs were the new thing.
Research is a slightly different. Within a research group, most of the contact will be face to face. But electronic tools might still be useful. For example, a blog might be one way to organise a lab notebook, even if it isn’t left open to be read by anyone else. Hypertext can be used to link to other data, such as files of results. Of course, the option to allow other group members access is available, for example it might be useful to let technicians read your notes, either if they are doing some of the work with you, or so that they can tell you that you’re going about things in the wrong way. This would be especially useful for students!
Similarly, a wiki could be useful as a repository of all the little bits of wisdom and advice that accumulate about techniques used in a lab, or what equipment there is, or how to avoid accidentally screwing up administration. Blogs can be used as a way of encouraging group members to write about their science. I’m a hanger-on in one group which has a blog where the members write about the papers they have read. Andrew Gelman and his group use their blog to discuss ideas and thoughts about their work. That is what I’m doing in this post too!
Within larger collaborative efforts, I think virtual tools like blogs and wikis have the potential to help make the collaboration work. The within group writing can also work for a larger, dispersed group too, and could make a bigger difference as it is harder to chat to someone over coffee if they are 100km away (this could be done by instant messaging). One thing I hadn’t thought about but which came up in the pedagogy course was collaborative writing – a joint manuscript could be put together using a wiki, and transferred to a word processor later. This could work much better than the system of emailing Word documents around, so it has passed through 5 hands before you see it again.
I’m sure there are many more ideas that could be developed, and also more tools available that could be used. I haven’t touched on bulletin boards, for example. But one important point about these tools is that they are only tools, and their use need to be thought through: there is no point in having a wiki or a blog if nobody is going to add content to it or read it. This means it has to be useful, and be seen to be useful. And the users have to be made aware of the existence of the tools, and be encouraged to try it out. I guess that’s often the biggest problem.

About rpg

Scientist, poet, gadfly
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10 Responses to eLearning and eResearch

  1. Neil Saunders says:

    a joint manuscript could be put together using a wiki, and transferred to a word processor later
    Or you might use an online collaborative writing application such as Google Docs or Zoho Writer. One issue with these tools is that they don’t handle citations/bibliographies yet, so academic types tend to dismiss them.
    A wiki could work though and many wikis have plugins to handle bibliographic records.

  2. Neil Saunders says:

    On the subject of wikis in teaching – they can work very well. A colleague of mine runs a course in which the students have to characterise a protein using bioinformatics and present their findings. The projects and presentations are organised using MediaWiki – you can see examples here.

  3. Bob O'Hara says:

    Thanks, Neil. I’ve heard of Google Docs, but haven’t looked into it. I’d like to know if anyone has experienced using these tools.
    The wiki looks like a good example of how it should work. What is the student feedback like?

  4. Neil Saunders says:

    The wiki looks like a good example of how it should work. What is the student feedback like?
    Pretty good, so far as I know. Basically, you give them no choice and they get to like it 🙂

  5. Oliver Hofmann says:

    Google docs works fine, even for scientific manuscripts. Tend to ignore the layout, and just put in citations with some sort of code (Paper for example uses FirstAuthor:Year, I add them in square brackets). Easy to find and replace later, or in my case just to process them in LaTeX.
    Not perfect for everything, for example I prefer SubEthaEdits realtime collaboration features, but it certainly helps and you do not have to set up anything which might be the case for a wiki.
    Other than that, as Neil said: make them like it 😉

  6. Cameron Neylon says:

    Michael Barton did a rather nice video on web based tools for collaborative writing.
    My experience is that googledocs works better than Wikis for collaborative writing but it depends quite a lot on what sort of level you are writing at. We are currently trying to write a paper, on a wiki, which is adapted largely from blog posts. Not going as easily as one my hope…
    But better than sending multiple word files backwards and forwards.

  7. Maxine Clarke says:

    The online bookmarking service Connotea has a wiki part to it, where a research group can have an open or private space, linked to that group’s bookmarked literature for that particular collaboration and/or paper. I don’t know if people actually use the site in that way, but it could be.

  8. Bob O'Hara says:

    I really should look at Connotea more closely. That would be very useful for writing reviews, for example. I guess I’ll have to find someone outside of Helsinki who’s prepared to collaborate and try out all these tools.

  9. Martin Fenner says:

    Bob, I used the online word processor Buzzword for my last paper. The experience was positive, but for the final reference formatting I had to use Microsoft Word and Endnote.

  10. Pedro Beltrao says:

    I have used Google Docs to right a manuscript with other people. We ended up formating the references in the end for the submission but it is nice to stop sending the attached manuscript back and forth with corrections. I did not try Zoho docs as much but it looks like it is ahead of Google Docs in features.

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