Making the Most of Synchronous Lectures

Synchronous lectures are likely to seem awkward for the first while, but by following the suggestions below you’ll be making the most of your time together and building a community of learners. 

Synchronous lectures mean that you and students are “together” using an online platform or tool in real time.  When you choose to teach in real time, you are deciding that a schedule will be set, you will teach at that time, and students will attend at that time. Students will need to ensure that their schedules are free and they have the necessary hardware (e.g., computer, mic, webcam) and a fast enough internet connection. The supported tool for synchronous lectures at USask is Webex.

Our suggestion, generally, is that the use of synchronous sessions are limited and are saved for topics and activities that must be done synchronously to be effective. If you identify topics like that in your course and decide that synchronous sessions will be flexible enough for you and your students and want to make the most of them, please consider the following suggestions.

Essential Strategies

  • Set norms for how students should interact with you and others in the virtual environment. For example, typically everyone should keep their microphone turned off unless speaking
  • Record the sessions to ensure that if a student cannot attend, that they are still able to review the class
  • Pause regularly and ask for questions. Direct students as to whether or not they should use the chat or the microphone to ask their questions. Be sure to give enough wait-time for students to think and respond!
  • Focus the synchronous lecture on topics and ideas that the students can’t easily learn another way (e.g., through reading the textbook)

Best Practices

  • If possible, have a second instructor, such as a TA, monitor the chat window. This person can either answer the questions in the chat as you go, or they can summarize and respond to the questions using the microphone during breaks in the flow of the lecture. It can be very hard for one instructor to keep up with a lecture and the questions, especially as the group size increases
    • If you can’t get a second instructor, consider having a different student take on this role each class
  • Do a quick social check-in off the start of class. Rather than wait in silence, take the moments while everyone is entering the session to chat with the students 
  • If the class is small in size, ask students to keep their cameras on. This will create greater sense of community
  • In the days or hours leading up to the synchronous lecture, do some polling to assess prior knowledge. This could be administered as a quiz or survey. Adapt your lecture content and delivery based on the results
  • Polling can also be used during the lecture after a point of expected difficulty. This could be done quite easily using the raise hand feature, the chat box, or even the built-in polling tool in Webex. Web-based polling tools can also work by sharing your screen.
    • Whatever method you choose, get students to pick a side and then ensure that you take the time after the poll closes to describe why the various answers are right and wrong
  • After class, create asynchronous discussions in Blackboard or Canvas to allow students to further engage with one another and the lecture topics
  • Consider using breakout rooms to split students into smaller groups for portions of the lecture. In these smaller groups they can engage in discussions around the topics you just covered.
    • Note: you will need to use Webex Training Center, rather than standard Webex Meetings to use breakout rooms

Simple Strategies to Elevate your Asynchronous Delivery

By now you are probably familiar with the concept of asynchronous remote learning. If not, asynchronous learning means you and students are not limited by timing.  You are deciding that students can engage with the material on their schedule, at times, and places when they may have better bandwidth and other kinds of capacity. 

As you can imagine, asynchronous learning can be of varying quality; therefore, here are some tips and ideas to keep in mind to help make the most of your asynchronous design. One important way to make the most of your asynchronous learning is to finalize the learning materials (e.g., creation of lecture videos, suggested readings, discussion topics) during the term, which allows you to respond to students’ areas of interests or difficulties, and their feedback/suggestions, as you go. 

Post and organize your learning materials within a learning management system (either Blackboard or Canvas)

  • Organize your posted content into short chunks, ideally within learning modules. This holds true for both videos and readings
  • If using videos, make each separate idea its own video
  • When using text, use white space and headings to make text easier to process
  • Name course content and files in a consistent way 
  • Place content in a suggested order with a suggested timeline
  • Use analytics features inside of Blackboard or Canvas to help you know what students are viewing and reading. Check in with students that seem to be falling behind

Include student comprehension checks with feedback

  • Students can easily overestimate how much they are learning while viewing and reading
  • Prior to having students view or read content, ask them to complete an ungraded quiz or a set of self-check questions. This will help prepare them for the new learning
  • If creating videos, pose questions to students throughout your presentation and ask them to pause the video
    • An example of this would be to ask students to make a prediction. It helps focus their learning as the video continues
    • If you are used to using polling, such as Top Hat, this is a simple way to reuse the questions you have already created as part of your teaching
  • Similarly, after students have viewed or read a chunk of content, ask them to complete a quiz (ideally automated with built-in feedback). This should still be ungraded as the students are still learning. You could even give multiple attempts to allow them to continue practicing
  • As the instructor, review the students’ results on the quiz and follow-up with necessary resources or a synchronous session

Opportunities for active and social learning

  • As with above, quizzes can be used to promote active learning as they progress through the chunks of content
  • Structure these active learning opportunities from easy to hard to build confidence and mastery. If using Canvas, you can explore using Mastery Paths
  • Use discussion boards as a way for students to be able to engage with the content in a social manner. Here are a variety of ways to structure discussions
    • If using discussions, share with students examples of good discussion posts to help them meet your expectations
    • If grading discussions, grade based on the quality of the posts

Keeping these tips in mind when designing your asynchronous lectures, will help ensure that your students are better engaged in your learning. The comprehension checks and active learning will also help you see how students are doing and where they need extra assistance. These areas of difficulty are ideal places to intersperse synchronous sessions (e.g., Webex)!

Three Ways of Delivering Remote Learning

Making some preliminary decisions about the direction of your remote course for Summer or Fall 2020 can help you focus in face of a sometimes overwhelming number of technological options and educational jargon.

Here are three ways of delivering remote learning to contemplate before you go too far down any one path. Prior to locking yourself into a method, you should keep in mind that your students may face some constraints or limitations for synchronous learning (e.g., bandwidth, webcams, a suitable space to participate in the call). Check in with your students about any such restrictions.

  1. Will you meet virtually with your students at a scheduled time for teaching and learning?

Synchronous” means you and students are “together” using an online platform or tool in real time.   When you choose to teach in real time, you are deciding that a schedule will be set, you will teach at that time, and students will attend and be able to use and access the virtual space.   If you want to design your course for instructor-student and student-student real time interaction, then you are planning synchronous learning.  You and your students will need to learn to use WebEx.  Other tools exist (e.g., Zoom, Teams)  but WebEx is the tool supported by the University and is the best approach because of the support. Do not tie your hands with synchronous learning if you plan to lecture, largely without interaction among students.

  1. Will you set up the learning without scheduled meetings?

Asynchronous” means you and students are not limited by timing.   You are deciding that students can engage with the material on their schedule, at times and places when they may have better bandwidth and other kinds of capacity. You are providing materials that students can go back to over and over again.  You are likely preparing recorded lectures as the term goes (this is more manageable than preparing all recordings in advance and you will want to adapt to what is happening in the course) and posting other materials for students to review/read/learn from (keep in mind that videos should be in short chunks). To do this, you will need to learn to record your lectures on Panopto or on WebEx and to upload these recordings to either Blackboard (available for two more years) or Canvas (new, and being phased in).  You will need to incorporate learning processes for your students that engage them actively, but not on a tight schedule.  For example, you may use discussion forums where students and you contribute in writing to a discussion over a two to three day period at regular intervals over the term.

  1. Will you do some combination of both?

Mixed means you do a combination of the above.  In fact, this is often our recommended approach.  For example, record your lectures for the week, have students watch them and review other materials or do other homework, then have smaller groups of students (best ​would be 6-12/group) meet in real time with you, with TAs, with each other to actively discuss and problem solve. This can be weekly, or could be less often. U of S Instructors are reporting students appreciate the addition of well-planned interactive sessions in otherwise asynchronous courses.

For more on a range of remote learning tools, including WebEx and Panopto mentioned above, see Remote Teaching: How-to and tools.

Teaching Performance-Based Classes Remotely

For those of us who have ever taught courses that require a lot of practicing a skill, this move to remote and online instruction is crushing.  It is one thing to record a video of something you’d tell your students and put it up online somewhere for them to access, and another thing to think about a performance based course.  When I first taught drama online, I could not see how to do it, as I did not want to lose both the “doing” and the “together” parts of when everyone is learning by themselves at different times. To be honest, I still really prefer teaching drama in a room with my students face to face (F2F), rather than asynchronously (students learning at different times) online.  But I’ve learned some things that can help physical movement classes and performing arts, so I thought I’d share them.

As I see it, there are some common elements that are a part of all the moving and arts classes we might call performance classes. Performance-based courses focus on students refining skills by observing, breaking complex components into parts, practicing (often with others), and then refining based on feedback. The process occurs many times, and student practice to improve skills, learning to do complex skills with others, and develop automaticity.  Performance-based courses have periodic culminating tasks that have an audience – think game day or a concert/show.

The 4 key elements for an performance course include:

  1. Observing or listening to understand the criteria for good
  2. Breaking complex tasks into small parts
  3. Iterative loops of practice, feedback, and collaborating with others to refine and improve performance
  4. Presentation of learned skills in a complex situation with an audience

Observing and listening:
This stage is actually done pretty well in a remote setting, and I have built videos I’ve wound up using face to face because I can zoom in, focus on what I need my students to see and hear, and slow things down.  Generally, I find text-bases explanations to be poor substitutes, so I use many short videos to demonstrate and explain in my online, performance based courses.

Breaking complex task into small parts:
Again, video is my friend, as is something instructional designers call chunking. I think of it as the components of each separate skill or decision.  Watching game tape, freezing, and rewinding is a great way to break a complex task into parts in either a face to face or online environment.  So is watching the online concerts and performances that many arts organizations are posting right now. My students have never been able to see the National Theater in London, but they can right now. I combine all that watching with asking them to think about specific parts of what they are seeing and how those parts contribute to the whole.

Practice, feedback, and collaboration:
I think this is the hardest version to do online.  Student can often practice on their own – in fact we expect them to do a lot of drill and practice of fundamentals to develop automaticity. But it is much harder to combine the fundamentals the way we need you to in a performance (especially with others) and give feedback.  I started doing a lot clarifying what good sounds like or looks like, and then having my students create video (think playing tests if you teach music) of themselves performing. There are many good apps available for specific disciplines that allow students to work together at distance, but they tend to be discipline specific, so a summary of all of them isn’t likely to be helpful here.

I have learned that I can’t give all the feedback the way I do F2F because it just takes too much time.  Because the criteria are clear, my students give feedback to each other (and are graded on the quality of their coaching and suggestions periodically) and I focus on feedback for final tasks. It gives me some of the collaboration, but doesn’t actually give full experience of ensemble or team.  I am not saying I don’t have student film joint scenes in two separate locations, because I do (and professional actors do), I just think it is not the same thing.  I have been able to let that go, because the alternative is that my student just don’t get to take the course, and I don’t want them to stop their practice.

Presentation:
I’ve been doing what many of you have likely already thought of – more video.  As restriction ease, I will move to small groups if I can for some practice and all the performances, but we still won’t have an audience, which is a real loss in theater.  I tell myself the professionals are all living with online concerts and considering playing without an audience, so my amateur class can do that, too.

On resources:
Depending on your area, faculty members and high school specialists have been developing online guides and repositories of tools and resources. Good guides are often structured like this Visual Arts higher education remote guide, and include tools, resources, and instructional advice crowd scored from other professors and experts. This physical education sample lesson plan steps you through the type of process that might make sense for structuring teaching a skill and having a student demonstrate it.

Tips From Veterans of Remote / Online Teaching

As you prepare to create and teach courses remotely this spring and summer terms, we asked some U of S instructors experienced with this type of teaching to share some quick words of wisdom based on what they learned from their own experiences. Below are their tips related to design, teaching, and assessment for remote / online. Thank you to Jorden Cummings (Psychology), Allison Fairbairn (Music), Hayley Hesseln (Agriculture and Bio Resources), and Karla Panchuk (Geology) for sharing your experiences teaching remote / online courses.

Design

  • Keep it as simple as possible. Online learning difficult for many students for diverse reasons, and we cannot assume our students have access to all things technology or that they are fully comfortable using technology.
  • Make it as easy as possible for students to find what they need within the course. Karla Panchuk shared this screen shot with us to demonstrate an easy to use sidebar menu in Blackboard.


Teaching

  • Pre-record what you need to, but there are numerous existing resources you may find useful (e.g. YouTube videos)
  • Provide students with weekly checklists that highlight key items they need to look at
  • Post slides with voice-over. Post the notes page as well.
  • Use discussion groups to facilitate students connecting
  • Ask students to introduce themselves and say something that nobody knows about them
  • Ask students questions during the slide presentation/recording
    • Post those questions in a discussion forum to promote dialogue
    • Ask students to post a comment and reply to comments to encourage participation
    • Use the discussion forum with guided questions for readings
  • If you use outside services, avoid ones that require your students to create an account
  • Limit the number of tools that you and / or students will need to learn to use. Never assume that your students will all be tech-savvy

Assessment

  • Have clear rubrics and post them so students can see how you will assess their work ahead of time
  • If feasible, provide a peer review component that  allows students to receive additional feedback on their work
  • If students need to print materials off to fill out and then submit, they need to be allowed to take photos of these to submit since a scanner might not be available
  • Setting up the grading centre to do anything, but the basics is time consuming. Just download your grades and calculate offline
  • Hayley Hesseln also makes use of reflections on learning as assessments

It’s Okay to Keep it Simple

As we all rapidly transition to remote instruction this week due to COVID-19, it is actually better to keep it simple.  When a friend sent me a blog post called Please do a bad job of putting your course online, I was initially offended.  As I read the post, I realized it offered some really good advice.  We aren’t trying to make awesome online courses (that takes too much effort at this stage), and faculty and students are dealing with lots of complications in their lives.  We are trying to protect ourselves and others with social distancing while ensuring students don’t lose the credits they are working for. With that in mind, here are some quick tips for rapid remote teaching:

  1. Choose to cut things that aren’t absolutely essential for students to meet learning outcome or objectives.
  2. Everyone already has a Blackboard shell for their course. Your students are already enrolled.  Use that as the home base for everything that you can.
  3. Keep the technology simple. Posting of simple text documents in Blackboard, like your notes, will be best for everyone.  
  4. If you have to use video, keep it very short.  Use small clips of 5 minutes or less if you can, and don’t worry about umms or editing for professionalism.
  5. Recycle what you already have.  Captured a lecture last year with Panopto – re-use it. 
  6. Avoid your class needing to meet at the same time (synchronous).  It will cause potential problems for students with low bandwidth and people dealing with sickness. 
  7. If you need to give a final, make the test open book if you can.  Technical solutions to proctor at distance are often ineffective or invade personal privacy.

Remember, everyone is working and learning in less than ideal conditions.  Simplify everywhere that you can. 

Other great links:

 

Top Hat: How is it being used at the U of S?

The University of Saskatchewan has a continuing commitment to a technology-enhanced learning environment for students and in January 2016 acquired a campus-wide license for the Top Hat student response system. Top Hat is a software-based student response system, incorporating a “bring-your-own-device” solution, that is available at no direct cost to instructors and students. The primary goal of Top Hat is to enhance the teaching and learning experience for both instructors and students by bringing more engagement and interaction into traditional passive lecture-style learning approaches.

Who we are

We are a research team at the University of Saskatchewan who are interested in student response systems with a specific focus on Top Hat, their pedagogical effectiveness, and investigating the best teaching practices for these systems. Our team is organized under the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) cluster titled “Technology-Enhanced Learning: An Assessment of Student Response Systems in the University Classroom.”

  • Carleigh Brady, PhD, Instructor, Dept. of English
  • Soo Kim, PhD, B.Sc.PT, Professor, School of Rehabilitation Science
  • Landon Baillie, PhD, Professor, Dept. of Anatomy, Physiology and Pharmacology
  • Raymond Spiteri, PhD, Professor, Dept. of Computer Science
  • Neil Chilton, PhD, Professor, Dept. of Biology
  • Katherina Lebedeva, PhD, Instructor, Dept. of Anatomy, Physiology and Pharmacology

In March of 2018, we invited all individuals with a Top Hat instructor account at the University of Saskatchewan to participate in a survey about the use of Top Hat on campus and to share their experiences.

Results

 A total of 58 instructors responded to the survey. We found the majority of instructors using Top Hat at the University of Saskatchewan:

  • incorporate it in class to assess student concept understanding, test student recall, and share student perspectives (opinions, experience, and demographics)
  • use it for asking questions, creating discussions, and monitoring attendance
  • prefer “multiple choice question,” “word answer,” and “click on target” formats
  • think that the greatest advantages of Top Hat are: increased participation and engagement, student assessment, instant feedback from students, and the system’s ease of use/functionality
  • consider that Top Hat’s biggest disadvantages to be the time investment for software setting-up and grading, design issues, and technical issues (e.g. room connectivity)

In summary, we found that most instructors using Top Hat found it effective in facilitating a collaborative teaching and learning environment. Top Hat encourages students to participate actively during lectures by asking questions and polling student responses online. Despite some disadvantages, Top Hat is still preferred over clickers for its increased functionality (various question formats, interactive functions, and use of graphics), as well as its instant feedback and results polling.

However, further studies should be conducted to systematically evaluate the effect of Top Hat on student academic performance.

 Find more information

First-time Thoughts on a Student Blog Assignment

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By Yin Liu, Associate Professor, Department of English
History and Future of the Book Blog

Why I did it

In 2016-2017 I taught, for the first time, a full-year (6 credit unit) English course, “History and Future of the Book,” which is one of our Foundations courses – that is, it is one of a few 200-level courses required for our majors. As in all our courses, there is a substantial writing component, usually in the form of essay assignments. I decided to complicate my life further by trying out a type of student assignment also new to me: a student-written course blog.

I had been thinking about using a student blog assignment ever since I heard a talk given by Daniel Paul O’Donnell (U Lethbridge) about using blogs in his own teaching. The point that struck me most forcibly about Dan’s argument was his observation that students wrote better when they were blogging. Since one of my goals in teaching writing is to help students write better, I thought I should give the idea a try.

Setting it up

From the outset, I had to make some fundamental decisions about how the blog assignment should work within the course. It became one of the writing assignments, taking the place of a regular (2000-word) essay: the blog post itself was to be 500-1000 words long and accompanied by a commentary (read by me only) in which students discussed the process of writing the blog post, especially the challenges they encountered and the solutions they developed. The commentary gave students a chance to reflect on and thus to learn from their own writing processes; it also helped me to evaluate the effectiveness of the assignment. The blog was made publicly available on the Web, but students could opt out of having their own work posted, although it still needed to be submitted to me for grading. Thus students also needed to supply signed permission to have their work published on the blog.

Heather Ross of the GMCTL guided me to the U of S blog service (words.usask.ca) and gave me valuable advice about permission forms and other such matters. The ICT people set me up and increased my storage quota, I fiddled with the WordPress templates, and we were good to go.

Results and learning

Each student wrote one post for the course blog, and thus the assignment was like a regular term paper except that (a) it was not an essay, and (b) it was published to the Web. Acting as the blog editor, I suggested changes to students’ first submissions, which they could incorporate into the final, published version if they wished; but I resisted the temptation to tinker with their final versions, which were published warts and all. I also used the course blog to post a series of Writing Tips for the class.

Students did, for the most part, write noticeably better in their blog posts than in their regular essay assignments. More was at stake in the blog posts; students knew that their work would be read not solely by their professor, but also by their peers and possibly by others outside the class. The informal nature of a blog also allowed students to write, in many cases, with a more genuine voice than for an essay assignment, and thus more effectively. This less formulaic, less familiar genre compelled students to rethink the basics of writing: ideas, information, audience, organisation, clarity. There was a higher chance that they would write about something that truly interested them, and quite a few expressed enthusiasm about the assignment. Students could also read and learn from the work of others in the class. The experiment was a success, and I would do it again.

Our course blog, History and Future of the Book, can be found at https://words.usask.ca/historyofthebook/. Some of the students’ posts have been removed at their request, but most remain, and you are welcome to browse through the Archive and read them – the best of them are excellent.

Putting it All Together

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In this blog, I pull together several of the concepts discussed in previous posts, such as Portals and WikiProjects, and consider how you can begin to develop course materials and assignments for a Wikipedia-based course.

Let’s say, for example, that you are teaching a physics course and want to assign students the job of editing or writing physics-related articles. A good place to start, for both student and instructor, is the Physics portal, which briefly reviews the field and links to the main article on Physics (see excerpt below).

Physics Portal Main PageIt also has a tab entitled “Topics, Categories, Textbook, and Featured articles,” which links to Wikipedia articles on classical physics, modern physics and cross-disciplinary topics, as well as a “textbook” that slots Wikipedia physics articles under chapter headings. While the textbook remains a work in progress, it is a more efficient way to gauge Wikipedia’s coverage (or lack thereof) than simply using the Wikipedia search engine. Apart from the main Physics portal, other relevant portals might include Astronomy, Cosmology, Electromagnetism, Gravitation, and Science.

The third tab on the Physics portal page is “WikiProjects and things to do,” which I turn to next.

WikiProjects

Table of physics articles by quality and importanceThe Physics portal lists four WikiProjects and task groups: WikiProject Physics, WikiProject Space, WikiProject Time, and WikiProject Cosmology. WikiProjects are valuable both to the quality of Wikipedia and to instructors; for an explanation, see my two-part blog, “WikiProjects, Article Importance, and Article Quality: An Intimate Relation­ship” (http://bit.ly/2l8fSEa and http://bit.ly/2lH9hjJ).

One of the key things that a Wiki­Project does is rank Wikipedia articles for importance and quality on a two-dimensional grid. For example, shown here is the grid from WikiProject Physics (screen shot of 27 May 2017, linked to the current version). I’ve selected 822, which is the number of stub-class articles of mid-importance to WikiProject Physics, a list of which can be accessed by clicking on the number.[1] Stub-class articles can be a good starting point for student projects, though start-class articles are also good. An example of a start-class article that is also considered to be of top importance (of the seven in this category) is Classical physics.

It is a good idea for students to become familiar with the different categories of importance and quality in Wikipedia articles, so they know what to strive for and how things can be improved. For example, it would be instructive for them to review at least a couple of the project’s 61 Featured articles,[2] one of the six List articles,[3] a few of the 144 Good articles,[4] and a smattering of the remaining categories. Reading the Talk pages associated with these articles and looking at their View History pages is also a good introduction to the kinds of issues that student editors might face. See, for example, the “Classical physics” Talk page.

One of the things an instructor should consider doing is creating a list of articles that need work and that are within the scope of knowledge for a particular course. Students choose an article to edit from this list, and may also be assigned the task of peer-reviewing another student’s edits to that student’s chosen article. Both the editing and the peer reviewing can be graded. The aim should be to take assigned pages to Good article status, or as close as possible. (Students can make significant contributions to articles, even if, for example, they only start within C-class status, which is not the same as a “C” grade on the U of S grading guidelines.) Here are some Wikipedia articles that might be candidates for editing in a basic Physics course, arrayed in a table that also shows their importance and current quality assessments within WikiProject Physics, along with assignments to a hypothetical set of 15 student editors and peer reviewers:

Article Importance Quality Editor Reviewer
Aerodynamic force Mid Stub-class Student 1 Student 15
Avogrado’s law High Start-class Student 2 Student 14
Electrical energy High Start-class Student 3 Student 13
Focus (optics) High Start-class Student 4 Student 12
Liquefaction of gases Mid Stub-class Student 5 Student 11
Magnet High C-class Student 6 Student 10
Materials physics Mid Stub-class Student 7 Student 9
Measure (physics) Mid Stub-class Student 8 Student 8
Neutron-proton ratio Mid Stub-class Student 9 Student 7
Newton’s laws of motion Top C-class Student 10 Student 6
Pressure Top C-class Student 11 Student 5
Quantum mechanics Top B-class[5] Student 12 Student 4
Quantum vortex Mid Start-class Student 13 Student 3
Rarefaction Mid Stub-class Student 14 Student 2
Time dilation High C-class Student 15 Student 1

The Wiki Ed Advantage

Instructors should also take a close look at the Wikipedia Education Program, set up through the Wiki Ed Foundation to support instructors and students. Help ranges from accessing brochures to training to designing and implementing a 12-week course with Wiki Ed support and an instructor dashboard. The dashboard is a powerful resource that lets you see what aspects of the training that students have completed, as well as all articles or other projects they are working on. You can get started at the main page for educators and proceed to various pages, such as the one that provides case studies of assignments and grading.

Let’s consider an example of a Wiki Ed course, this time from the life sciences. The course is “Molecular Genetics” and the main course page shows that it was taught this spring by Eric Guisbert of the Florida Institute of Technology, with assistance from Wiki Ed’s Ian Ramjohn. Clicking on the Dashboard link takes you to the details for the course; the header excerpt, linked to the Dashboard, is shown below.

Wiki Educator Molecular Genetics Page

This header, and further information found by clicking on its links (Timeline, Students, Articles, etc.) show that of the 27 students who registered for the Wikipedia option, 23 completed the training, and that this cohort edited 55 articles and created three new ones—about 1100 edits comprising some 31,400 words. The articles were viewed by Wikipedia users about 1.7 million times during the course, which provides a sense of the real-world impact—positive or negative—that student editors can have.

Let’s look at the work of one student with username Ncameron2013 (accessed via the “Students” link). Ncameron2013 was assigned (or chose) the article “Receptor Tyrosine Kinase” to edit and was also assigned (or chose) three other articles for peer review—that is, the student was tasked with reviewing and commenting on the work of the three student editors for those articles.[6]

View of student changes page

We can find out what Ncameron2013 did by clicking on the dropdown arrow on the right. The resulting screen shows that after completing the training modules and preliminary assignments,[7] Ncameron2013 was active, first in the Sandbox, commenting on the work of LBates2008 and Cbyrd2011 and creating a new section of the article entitled “Regulation” (March 12–15); then working on the article live from March 15–16. (See below.) Clicking on the “Show” button for any of these entries allows us to see the work that Ncameron2013 did on these occasions. This feature is helpful in giving an instructor a precise understanding of a student’s contribution to article development; it is especially useful in the event that another Wikipedian edits or deletes the student’s work (as has happened more than once with my students).

Table showing list of changes and contributor user names

In the case of Ncameron2013, the most extensive edit was the 8148-character addition on March 15 at 3:29 pm adding two new sections to the article—“Regulation” and “Drug Therapy”—as well as subsections, body text, references, and a table. (See the excerpt from the “Show” screen below; It shows the first two sentences and the relevant citations in Wikitext format.)

Snapshot of changes made by a student during one session

Ncameron2234 continued to modify this addition to the article over the next 24 hours before wrapping up on March 16 at 3:20 pm. You can see the net effect of Ncameron2013’s edits by using the “diff” feature in the View history tab for the article:

Changes made by an individual student in a 24-hour period

This generates a page that shows the differences between the version of the article before Ncameron2013 started working on it (version saved by Headbomb on 2 March 2017 at 5:30) and the by the time Ncameron2013 finished working on it, ignoring any edits in between (version saved by Ncameron2013 on 16 March 2017 at 21:20).[8] The current version of the article (with subsequent edits by others) can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Receptor_tyrosine_kinase. A screen shot from that version, reflecting Ncameron2103’s additions, is shown below:

The version of the page after student has completed updates

Finally, the citations that Ncameron2013 added to support these edits are shown below:

Citations included by student to reference sources

I hope that these blog posts have provided greater insight on how you can use Wikipedia assignments to help your students make the leap from consuming knowledge to creating it. From here, my recommendation is to “just do it” and learn how to adapt all of this to your own context. And if you’re excited about getting more involved, consider attending the annual international Wikimania conference, being held this summer in Montreal. Conference themes include the contributions of academic and cultural institutions within the Wikipedia movement, privacy and rights, and the role of technology in disseminating free knowledge. As for me, this will be my last blog post in this series before I take up my new position next month. I thank the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching and Learning for giving me this forum to share my thoughts, and invite you to stay in touch with your stories about the use of Wikipedia in higher education.


John Kleefeld is an associate professor at the College of Law, a 2017 teaching fellow at the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching Effectiveness, and incoming dean of law at the University of New Brunswick. Portions of this blog series are from an article that he and a former law student wrote about using a Wikipedia assignment for class credit. See J. Kleefeld and K. Rattray, 2016. “Write a Wikipedia Article for Law School Credit—Really?” Journal of Legal Education, 65:3, 597-621.


Notes

[1]    Hyperlinks in this grid direct to an external site, Wikimedia Labs. The link for the first 1000 entries in the stub-class, mid-importance category (that is, the intersection of these two ratings) is https://tools.wmflabs.org/enwp10/cgi-bin/list2.fcgi?run=yes&projecta=Physics&namespace=&pagename=&quality=Stub-Class&importance=Mid-Class&score=&limit=1000&offset=1&sorta=Importance&sortb=Quality. However, each of these categories has an equivalent article in Wikipedia itself; here, the relevant article link is https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Stub-Class_physics_articles_of_Mid-importance.

[2]    See https://tools.wmflabs.org/enwp10/cgi-bin/list2.fcgi?run=yes&projecta=Physics&quality=FA-Class or https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:WikiProject_Physics#Featured_articles.

[3]    See https://tools.wmflabs.org/enwp10/cgi-bin/list2.fcgi?run=yes&projecta=Physics&quality=FL-Class (see especially the Featured List article, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Nobel_laureates_in_Physics).

[4]    See https://tools.wmflabs.org/enwp10/cgi-bin/list2.fcgi?run=yes&projecta=Physics&quality=GA-Class or https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:WikiProject_Physics#Good_articles.

[5]    This is a former Featured article, which means that the quality has slipped over time (see the articles’ Talk page).

[6]    The articles, not shown here, were “PLCG1,” “TLR4,” and “Classical genetics.”

[7]    See https://dashboard.wikiedu.org/courses/Florida_Institute_of_Technology/Molecular_Genetics_(Spring_2017)/timeline. See also the thorough set of assignments there, designed to gradually bring students up to speed on Wikipedia conventions and editing practices.

[8]    Times shown here are Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), closely related to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), and used by Wikipedia to keep track of edits. For the “diff” comparison between former and revised versions, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Receptor_tyrosine_kinase&type=revision&diff=770669168&oldid=768683561.

Wikipedia’s Ways of Knowing – Part 2

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In the first part of this two-part piece, I discussed arborescent (vertical, discrete, hierarchical) and rhizomatic (horizontal, overlapping, interconnected) ways of acquiring and classifying knowledge, as well as the convergence of the arbor and the rhizome in modern knowledge systems. In this part, I discuss how this applies to Wikipedia.

Most of us use the Web rhizomatically: we enter a search term in Google or Wikipedia, look at the search results, and follow the links, whether to other Wikipedia pages or other online or offline resources. As I said in the previous post, this lets us explore pathways that interest us most, and may also lead to more engaged learning. But this approach can be both over-inclusive, requiring us to sift through a lot of information before getting to what we need the most, and under-inclusive, in that we can miss relevant material that requires different search terms than the ones we used for searching. Fortunately, Wikipedia provides a number of ways for accessing knowledge that makes it a more powerful encyclopedia than it would be if you had to rely on the search engine alone.

The first of these is Portals, which in turn direct you to Categories. A teaser is found on Wikipedia’s home page, which has links to eight named portals as well as a link to all of them (see linked screen shot below).

Top bar on Wikipedia's home page with link to major categories.

The Biography portal reveals that biographies are categorized in various ways (e.g., by association, ethnicity, gender, nationality or occupation). Thus, using this method, you could find, for example, a linked list of all Wikipedia biographies on signatories of important documents (an association category), which in turn leads to a subcategory of Signatories of declarations of independence. The most famous of these is the United States Declaration of Independence, and a further subcategory links to the Wikipedia articles on all 56 signatories of that document. These articles are also listed in the Wikipedia page Signing of the United States Declaration of Independence, showing that there is often more than one path to an information source on Wikipedia.

There are currently 1491 portals on English Wikipedia, with one of these portals being an alphabetical index to all 5.4 million Wikipedia articles from Aa (you might be surprised to know how many rivers are named “Aa”) to ZZ (a scale used in model railroading). When it comes to categories, there is also an alphabetical index to all categories, though given the many thousands of categories, it may be more useful to access the topical category index, which organizes categories under 12 broad headings and provides a separate search engine just for categories (see linked screen shot below).

Wikipedia's Contents - Categories

I tested this by searching for a highly topical subject—cybercrime. The results show that this is a named category (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Cybercrime, the standard syntax for categories in Wikipedia). The results list a number of other related categories, such as Cyberwarfare and Cybercrime by country, several of which may be relevant to writing or editing a Wikipedia article. The Cybercrime category in turn currently has 20 subcategories and 123 pages, and the subcategories also have subcategories and pages of their own. Using this approach, I quickly found, for example, the recently created article on the WannaCry cyberattack, reported to have affected more than 230,000 computers in over 150 countries in May 2017.

The above approach proceeds from the general to the particular in a branching or arborescent fashion (though I could have started at an even higher level of generality—Crime by type). The point I want to make, though, is that you can also discover this structure by going from the particular to the general. For example, if I use Wikipedia’s basic search engine and type in “WannaCry,” I get the article on the WannaCry cyberattack; then, scrolling to the bottom of the article, I find lots of related information, including links to six portals; a template for the category Hacking in the 2010s, showing a timeline with major incidents, groups and vulnerabilities; and links to several other related categories, from “2017 in computer science” to “Ransomware.” From here, I can switch modes and proceed rhizomatically to other topics, while still being able to see the overall structures within which they are organized. In other words, Wikipedia lends itself to a high degree of convergence of both arbor and rhizome.

Image of the links to the major incidence of hacking in the 2010s

Wikipedia provides other methods of organization besides portals and categories, including third-party systems such as the Library of Congress Classification (LCC) system that I mused about previously (see below).

Letter Subject area
A General Works
B Philosophy, Psychology, and Religion
C Auxiliary Sciences of History
D General and Old World History
E History of America
F History of the United States and British, Dutch, French, and Latin America
G Geography, Anthropology, and Recreation
H Social Sciences
J Political Science
K Law
L Education
M Music
N Fine Arts
P Language and Literature
Q Science
R Medicine
S Agriculture
T Technology
U Military Science
V Naval Science
Z Bibliography, Library Science, and General Information Resources

While the LCC system has been criticized as being more a guide to the books in a library’s collection than a classification of the world’s knowledge, it is well developed and in use by many academic and research libraries. Its 21 classes are further subdivided into a large number of two- or three-letter subclasses that are listed on the LCC page, with, in many cases, links to their own pages. For example, subclass AE – Encyclopedias, mentioned in my last post, has its own Wikipedia entry. Many of these are important subject articles in their own right. For example, RB – Pathology, a subclass of class R – Medicine, links to the Wikipedia article on Pathology, considered of high importance to WikiProject Medicine and currently rated B-class on the project’s quality scale. (On these rating systems, see my blog posts from February 14 and February 28.) Thus for a researcher already familiar with the LCC system (or a component of it such as, in my case, subclass K – Law), Wikipedia offers a way to translate that familiarity and move easily from browsing a library shelf to browsing an online encyclopedia.

In my next post, I’ll bring together a number of concepts that I’ve been writing about. Specifically, I’ll tell you how you can work with Portals, WikiProjects, and the Wiki Ed program to create a course that incorporates Wikipedia assignments and that uses the Wiki Ed dashboard to keep track of student work.


John Kleefeld is an associate professor at the College of Law and a 2017 teaching fellow at the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching Effectiveness, where he is coordinating a campus-wide project on integrating Wikipedia assignments into course materials. Portions of this blog series are from an article that he and a former law student wrote about using a Wikipedia assignment for class credit. See J. Kleefeld and K. Rattray, 2016. “Write a Wikipedia Article for Law School Credit—Really?” Journal of Legal Education, 65:3, 597-621.