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.