Tag Archives: GRAD602

My experience with wikis for collaboration and teaching: OpenWetWare

It’s been a while since we actually discussed the use of wikis and other collaborative software in teaching, but I thought I’d give a review of my own experience with the format for anyone who’s interested.  A little more than a year ago, our lab began using some of the tools provided by OpenWetWare, an open-access wiki which aims

“to promote the sharing of information, know-how, and wisdom among researchers and groups who are working in biology & biological engineering. OWW provides a place for labs, individuals, and groups to organize their own information and collaborate with others easily and efficiently. In the process, we hope that OWW will not only lead to greater collaboration between member groups, but also provide a useful information portal to our colleagues, and ultimately the rest of the world.”

Our lab has a page in this system that any of our members can edit that serves as a repository of information for internal use, as well as a resource for anyone else interested in what we do and how we do it.  Overall, the tool is extremely versatile, and we don’t take advantage of everything available, but here’s an overview of the more common uses and my thoughts on how it stacks up for each.

  • Lab webpage – OWW provides a very simple, no-HTML-knowledge-needed interface and hosting service for labs in this field, and allows all members of the lab to be involved in maintaining a public front.  This makes it relatively easy for current research projects to be updated regularly, which means a lot to potential graduate students (at least it did to me).  This also gets everyone in the lab involved in shaping the goals and image of the lab, which joins us as a team and helps our individual development as scientists.
  • Online protocols – Protocols on OWW can be either lab-specific (like these used by our lab) or consensus (like this excellent protocol for Ethanol precipitation of nucleic acids). The consensus protocols are the resource that brought me to OWW in the first place, and the quality of the entries is indeed very good, better in many cases than those on protocol-online.org or other similar resources.  From a personal development standpoint, I found it to be a tremendous exercise to post the protocols I use regularly because the threat of peer review causes me to be that much more thorough and to closely consider every step I take for it’s purpose and validity.
  • Course webpages / Teaching – I have a friend in the lab who keeps course materials from a few courses he’s developed under his user page on OWW.  This space serves not only as a public repository for syllabus information, but also as a space for discussions of shared readings and project brainstorming and planning. There is some – although not insurmountable  – technical barrier to entry, and the courses here were relatively small and the students were more tech-savvy than many.  We have both found that, in other cases where users are less comfortable with the medium, there is some hesitation to try it out, and it can be difficult to get students to participate.
  • Open Lab Notebooks – One of the most interesting features on OWW is the Lab Notebook, which does what you’d think, except online and open.  I can’t use this personally because of IP issues, but I love the idea of a similar system on a private server if necessary, if only out of the convenience of having easy organized access to my collaborators’ and my own notes, protocols, and progress readily available and searchable. Aside from this, I think it could be fantastic as a teaching tool.  Online lab notebooks could replace or enhance lab reports in teaching labs where individuals or groups link to that for their grade.  The notebooks can be organized by project, and summaries of each project and the results could replace the traditional lab report.  Because the wiki tracks changes, it would be relatively simple to monitor distribution of work among a group, and the talk page for each project could be a forum for feedback from the instructor or TA.  What I’m describing is essentially what is done by each team as part of iGEM, the undergraduate synthetic biology competition that VCU participated in for the first time last summer.  I’ll have more on this experience and its good and bad in a follow-up post.  In any case, I highly recommend looking over some of the recent notebook entries found on the Lab Notebook link above for ideas about how they are used and organized.

Like any other technology, wikis are not a magic bullet for Instant Student Learning, but it is a pretty powerful medium for online collaboration of all types, and, in the right hands, it could greatly enhance student engagement and encourage meta-level thinking about the content they are presenting to the world.


The freedom of design

Understand by Design (or UbD, if you’re pressed for time) is an exciting, if somewhat intuitive, approach to course and curriculum design in which planning does not begin until clear goals for understanding are defined.  It seems obvious that this is how teaching and everything else Should Be Done; life and semesters are too short to waste any time without a clear direction.  But this, of course, is missed by all of us at some point.  Things get too busy, responsibilities pile on, and at some point, we have to just do something whether it’s the right thing for our goals or not.    When we are actually able to get it together, it’s amazing how pervasive the benefits of good planning can be:
That’s what I find so exciting about this process: it is so much better for me and the students to be in the middle of a UbD. Everything seems so relaxed, I’m more confident, and the students are very excited. They seem to sense something more at the core of what we’re doing. I suppose they sense the goal: the goal is usually not revealed as completelyand clearly. I know what my students know, I know what they don’tknow, and I know what I need to do. How liberating.
—A teacher reflecting on using UbD [emphasis mine]
The quote above is from the introduction to the book Understanding by Design, which is available for free in e-book format to VCU students through the library catalogue. My wife will gladly tell anyone who will listen that I am not a planner.  I tend to let things roll how they will and run with it, so “freedom” is not something I naturally associate with this kind of structure.  On the other hand I have felt both the regret of time wasted without direction, as well as the freedom that can develop from the confidence that I’ve “done my homework.”  I’m excited to have an opportunity to develop course goals and a suitable curriculum to meet those goals now, as a grad student, before I am faced with additional pressures associated with a new faculty position.

What’s the classroom good for, anyway?

Many in the class seem to agree that the classroom provides some value over entirely remote learning approaches, and many stated advantages are in the area of how well the teacher is able to monitor student engagement (e.g. catch a sleeping or slacking student, detect the end of an attention span, etc.)

In a hypothetical environment where students are more mature – or at least more motivated – and are able to reliably self-police their engagement, to what extent does the value of a classroom meeting diminish?  Some students thrive in personal face-to-face conversation, and this should be encouraged, but video chat and video conference technologies are getting to be remarkably smooth and reliable, and study sessions with other students and the professor or teaching assistants may be more use of time spent together.  Additionally, the internet has made a ton of information available for interested students of any topic.  Wikipedia has a Wikiversity branch in which volunteers put together lesson plans and reading on topics ranging from religion to engineering.  Admittedly, the content currently available is pretty limited, but it is sure to grow, and there are myriad other similarly open resources. I think that a suitably motivated student could self educate to a remarkable level of understanding simply by consuming existing online material, participating in online forums, and even jumping into contributing to wikipedia pages. Oh, if only I could reach such hypothetical maturity! :)

I’m not saying the classroom isn’t valuable.  After all, even internet nerds see the value in meeting often for conferences and symposia.  It’s thrilling to experience the amount of learning that can happen in such a short span when lots of motivated individuals get together in person, but I think it’s a mistake to rest on the classroom as mostly a tool for policing lazy students.

Practical formative assessment

It is intuitive that teachers should constantly monitor the learning of their students, and then use this knowledge to constantly adjust – or completely re-imagine – their pedagogy. In practice, however, this takes considerable and maintained effort, and it can be hindered by external pressures from administration to “cover” a certain range of topics and from students to reduce workloads and keep things fun.  A number of suggested classroom assessment techniques (CATs) are given by Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching that are relatively easy to implement and, interpreted carefully, can greatly inform the relative success of different teaching methods and give feedback on what topics should be covered in more detail.  One suggestion I found interesting was the What’s the Principle CAT, decribed here:

The What’s the Principle? CAT is useful in courses requiring problem-solving. After students figure out what type of problem they are dealing with, they often must decide what principle(s) to apply in order to solve the problem. This CAT provides students with a few problems and asks them to state the principle that best applies to each problem.

I like the stated intent to understand the thought-process of the students as they approach problem solving, but I’m wondering how well it would be received in practice.  Many students  are going to have difficulty identifying such an abstract concept when faced with a new type of problem to solve, and I wonder how much extra time a professor would need to spend describing what is meant by the term “principle.” I have not had much teaching experience, so I could be way off.  Those of you who have more experience, have you tried this approach?  Do you find the extra time investment to be worthwhile in longterm development of problem solving skills?