CRLT Brown Bag (Jan 2009)

January 28, 2009 — These notes are for an Instructional Development Brown Bag presentation that I made on January 28, 2009 for the University of Michigan's CRLT:


Engaging Students Using Wikis and Blogs
Scott Moore (Thurnau Professor of Business Information Technology, CRLT Faculty Advisory Board, Associate Professor at the Ross School of Business, BBA Program Faculty Director)
Are your students browsing the Internet during lecture? Are they drawn to technology and away from your class? Do you feel like giving up? Instead of fighting technology, Professor Moore shows how embracing technology can draw students into a course. As they create course content via wikis and blogs, students take ownership of their own learning. Professor Moore demonstrates these tools, along with the challenges they can pose and ways of addressing them.
BIT330 “Web based information resources”, Ross School of Business, 16 students this year (goal of 300), second year it has been offered, juniors and seniors

Summary of the course

In this course I tried to create a community of interested, contributing scholars with transparency in as many facets of the class as possible. Since students are generally comfortable with and drawn to Internet-based technologies (especially Web-based applications) and since both my vocation and avocation are related to technology, I thought I'd fight fire with fire. I decided to use technology to gain students' interest in the course. With the appropriate choice of technology, I hoped to minimize the cognitive distance between the student having an idea and subsequently sharing it with the class.

I used a wiki as the home page for my course information because of the ease of editing pages, version control, access control, and reliable backups. I chose Wikidot as the host for my course wiki specifically because it is free to students (and generally free to me), has excellent uptime, is programmable, and handles categorical information (allowing for different types of communication and information on the site). When you are looking at all of the sample pages and information below, keep foremost in your mind that every page is created and edited in exactly the same, trivial manner; no special skills or tricks are needed for one type of page relative to another.

Pillars of the class

This whole semester was put together with the idea that the students should be scientists — creating, discovering, and sharing knowledge. The major pillars of the class were the in-class exercises, an experiment, blog entries, and a term project.

In-class exercises

Daily class time was organized around in-class exercises (example). We did these almost every day and took about 40 minutes of every class period. Since we had no book or readings, these were the primary means (other than lecture (example)) by which students learned the concepts from the class. The mind-set I had when putting these together was that they should be exploratory, experimental (possibly cooperative to allow aggregation of data), and get the students in the mind that they are seeking and possibly constructing new knowledge. A double-bonus would be if I could make the exercise pertinent to each student's term project (below). We did this on this day — you can see where the students submitted their data and the (rough) summary and analysis at the bottom of the table.


We went through an experiment (data gathering on this page and this page, and analysis on this page) to model what type of work needs to be done to gather useful information in this field. They gathered their data, submitted it (here and here), and then wrote up their analysis. I even provided a template for the analysis to help them along. After the assignment was turned in, I provided my own write-up of the results. I also had students who wrote a couple of the better analyses to post their answers to the course wiki (example). Much of the rest of the semester was spent on “experiment-lite” activities in class or with students writing up similar work in their blog entries.

Blog entries

Throughout the semester students wrote 8 blog entries to their personal wiki. I instructed the students to write the blog entry with an intended audience of a Ross BBA student who is not in the class. The topic of each entry was fairly loosely defined — “something related to the class.” Sometimes I provided some hints, but most often I let them figure it out. They posted the URL to the SiteMaker grade form so that I would know to grade it. I posted my comments to the same site so that the student could see my comments and the grade. If the student received a 10/10 on the entry, then he/she posted it on the course wiki so that other students could see what a good blog entry looks like (see here). I graded these entries on the following dimensions:

* Is the entry informative? Would a student learn something by reading it?
* Did the entry incorporate a personal reaction to the information contained within the blog? I wanted some of the student's personality to shine through.
* Did the entry reflect some insight on the part of the student? The entry could not simply be a reporting of facts or regurgitation of something that could be found on the Web — the entry needed to contain some insight into the problem, solution, or resource.
* Did the entry provide enough context and links for the reader to understand what the author is writing about? On-line writing inherently demands links to other information and writing on the Web.
* Is the entry's length and level of detail appropriate? Is the entry long enough and detailed enough to make the point but not so long that it belabors the issue?

Term project

The final major piece of the class was their term project. The project entailed the student picking a topic, and pretending to be an outgoing analyst on that topic who is creating a site to instruct his/her replacement on the topic, how to learn about the topic, and how to continue to follow ongoing information about the topic. This entailed that the student bring together their knowledge from throughout the term, perform searches, complete in-depth analysis and evaluation and comparison of resources, and write a tutorial that organizes the information in a comprehensive and comprehensible manner. The output for this assignment was contained in the student's own wiki (also hosted at wikidot). Students kept their wikis private (except for enabling me to be a nominal co-author) until the end of the semester when they made the whole thing public for all the world to see. (And I have asked them to keep it public for at least 18 months as a favor to future students in the class.) In general, the students responded very favorably to this assignment (after they struggled with getting their heads around it). They worked on parts of this assignment during each in-class exercise and outside of the class throughout the semester but, certainly, quite intensely just before each of the 3 mid-term checkpoints and the final due date. After I graded all of the projects, I wrote up and published some general feedback including what the best projects looked like, specific problems that appeared in some of the projects, and specific instances of good work completed by different students.

Other facets of this class

Other uses of the wiki

The above are not the only ways that I used the wiki in the class. Here are a few more:

  • Standard class-related functions
    • Syllabus
    • Announcements
    • Assignments
  • Daily schedule
    • “Beginning of class” announcements
    • Plan for that day's class
    • Links to the day's slides
    • In-class demonstrations & examples
    • In-class exercises
    • Related resources
  • Student controlled
    • Industry updates
    • Notes on the day's class
    • Proposed exam questions

Other technologies associated with the class

I tried a multi-pronged technological approach when thinking about how to draw the students into the class, focusing on livening up my presentations with images, varying the presentation style, and using videos to extend my reach beyond classroom hours. Much more detail (and many more links) is available on this page.

Image-based presentations
I use the Beyond Bullet Points (Cliff Atkinson) approach for many of my presentations. I buy most of the images from iStockPhoto.
Simple-drawing-based presentations
When it's called for, I use the approach described in Back of the Napkin (Dan Roam) as a change-of-pace.
I created a series of videos on YouTube that provide some basic instruction on how to use wikidot. I made these for my students but they ended up being publicized on the wikidot home page with the result being that one of the videos has been seen over 7,000 times. Remarkable.

Effectiveness of this approach

I have several kinds of proof of the effectiveness of this tool within this class.

The student blog entries were informative, fun to read, and improved throughout the semester. By the end of the semester, their blog entries were excellent, reflecting careful thought and insight into the material.
While most of the student projects showed a basic knowledge of the material, a few really stood out. These reflected extensive engagement with the class material, the project topic, and the wiki tool itself. And since they mostly had to teach themselves how to use the wiki, and since the wiki is the tool that enabled the effective structuring of the material in the project, I would consider this a positive outcome.
I did not require student attendance. I did not take roll. I specifically told students on the first day of class that my goal in constructing the course wiki is to enable them to not come to class if they didn't want to. I told them I only wanted their attendance if they were interested in listening and contributing to the class. My attendance during the semester ranged around 80-90%.
Test scores
While I have only taught this class one year before this one (with a different structure), I have taught for about 15 years. Generally, students did about how I expected — median of 89% with a range of 41% to 98%.
They liked the class even though they didn't think they would (4.1 to 5.0). Many of them reported (anonymously) that they use the material that I taught in class in their other classes and in their personal lives. About 3/4 of them commented on how much they liked the wiki and writing the blog entries —- the rest were silent on the subject.

A few ways in which I might improve

While this class went well, it's still very much a work-in-progress. I think the topic of this course, and the student learnings resulting from this course, are absolutely first rate. I feel this course is worth the effort I put into it to make it more popular, more effective, and more interesting. I offered it in 2007 for the first time, and it went okay for a first offering. I asked for and received a lot of feedback from the students as to how the class might be better received. I reflected on their feedback and made several significant structural changes but ended up not changing the pedagogical approach much at all (from what I've described today). The main changes were that I cut from 2 projects to 1, made the in-class exercises much more applicable to their term project, and had students post the best blog entries to the course wiki. This year I'm contemplating the following:

  • I need to write up a summary of the major points that I want to make in each lecture. Little-to-none of this information is available any place else; a clarifying summary would be useful for both me and the students.
  • I need to figure out how to use blogs more effectively. I'm thinking that most students did not read very many of the entries by other students after the beginning of the semester when they only read them to figure out what good blog entries look like. I learned a lot from these entries. I need to figure out how to incorporate student writing into the required course material. (Maybe like Coppola's chemistry classes here at UM?)
  • I would like the class to be based even more on experiments and knowledge creation.
  • I need to figure out how to use the student's industry updates more effectively. Again, I'm not sure how much the students listened to these 2 minute presentations at the beginning of class. I learned a lot, so I know the information could be useful.
  • I need to provide better feedback to students during the semester on their project. I got way behind and need to stay on top of their progress.

Specific ways that I used the wiki

In the following I have tried to capture in one list all of the different ways that I used the wiki to teach class this semester.

  • Professor's content
    • Syllabus: the usual stuff, but the student can't misplace it.
    • Blog entries: Example, bottom right column of home page — general information from industry information or research that I read that I think some students in the class might possibly be interested in; they are not tested on this at all. It also contains the best student-written blog entries.
    • Announcements: Example, list of all — these contain information that every student needs to know.
  • Student content
    • Blog entries: see above
    • Notes: Example, list of all — one student per class signs up to take notes for the class; other students can then edit the notes if they see something is amiss.
    • Exam questions: Example, list of all — one student per class is assigned to come up with questions that might be used on the exam.
    • Industry updates: Example, list of all — students do these just about one per class; they are on either Google, Yahoo, or the search industry. They take about 3-5 minutes per class.
    • Sharable data (for experiments): Example — one of the assignments for the class involved gathering data and then posting that data (with all other class members) to a wiki page so that everyone could then download the whole class's data set.
  • Student's personal wiki
    • Blogs (essays): Example — eight times during the semester, students write a 1-2 page blog entry (that they post on their private, personal wiki) about something we're doing in class. After I read and grade them, students who get the highest grades post their blog entry to the course Web site so that everyone else can see their entries.
      • Start private, but good ones become public
    • Term project: list of projects — students work on their term project on their own private wiki; this will be made public at the end of the semester. The benefit of a wiki is that I can see when and how much they work on their sites.
    • Assignments: list of all
  • Daily schedule: Example, list of all
    • Daily Announcements: see ``At beginning of class'' — instead of writing the announcements on the board, I write them at the top of the schedule page for that day.
    • My notes: see ``My notes'' — these are notes that I put together when reading an article (or articles) on the topic; generally contains the basic information that student will get out of that day's lectures and exercises.
    • My slides: see under ``Class structure'' — more than anything, this is just a note to me to remind me what to do during the class.
    • In-class demonstrations: see under ``In-class exercises'' — these are the demos that I show during the class.
    • Student exercises: Example, list of all — these are the exercises that students begin to work on after I'm done lecturing and are expected to finish before the next class.
  • Assignments: list of all
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