Sunday, August 24, 2008

Does Internet style reading change our brains?

We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us.
Marshall McLuhan

Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.
Friedrich Nietzsche

Nicholas Carr published an article entitled Is Google Making Us Stupid? in which he discusses his and other's inability to patiently read long, complex articles and books. Web documents are typically short and linked to other documents, and we often jump away from an article after skimming or partially reading it.

Carr feels that reading this way has altered his brain structure, which explains his impatience when reading long documents. If Carr's hypothesis is true, today's students, who have grown up using the Internet and Web, will not learn well from conventional books and journal articles.

Carr's article spurred quite a bit of online debate and commentary. For example, this Salon article with several pages of comments.

Are our students reading habits really different than their parent's generation? Is this due to the Web or to other media like fast-cutting, MTV-style video? If we are becoming hard-wired skimmers instead of careful readers, what is gained and what is lost?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Role-based collaborative writing using a wiki

The following is an excerpt from an interview of Stewart Mader, who describes his use of a wiki for chemistry lab reports at Brown University. The role-based collaborative writing exercises benefited both students and teachers.

When I taught a chemistry lab years ago, I used a wiki to have students write collaborative lab reports. [Before the wiki, I had] 30 students in a lab where each student does an experiment and writes a report. You get 30 reports and 30 introductions and 30 methods and materials and 30 conclusions and so forth. Grading and evaluating that work becomes more about just getting through the pile on your desk than about really providing students in-depth feedback.

And for the students, I don't think they learn as much that way because they're focused on getting the thing done and turned in on time, and they're just repeating the same process over and over.

So one of the ways I used the wiki was to take a group of 30 students, split them up into six groups of five, and as they did an experiment, have each of those groups work much more like they would in the professional world. Teams would work on research projects, and when they wrote their report, each student was responsible for a different section. Student A would write the Abstract, Student B would write the Materials and Methods, and so on. For Experiment 2, roles changed, and Student B wrote the Abstract, and Student A wrote Materials and Methods.

The outcome for me was instead of getting 30 reports, I was now getting six reports, so I was able to spend much more time on those reports, reading what the students had written and giving them a lot more constructive, substantive feedback. For the students, they weren't slogging through with these repetitions every week. They were now trying out writing different parts of the report. Obviously, you're going to be stronger with some sections than another, so that means one week it might be a little easier you and that's fine because next week, you're going to work on the section that's a little more difficult and you are going to be able to really focus and refine your technique on that.

That's just one example, but that's the kind of thing a wiki can do in teaching. It can really allow instructors to focus on fewer, more in-depth assignments or products that are results of highly collaborative work by students.

The other benefit that comes out of that, especially with group work, is you can see what students are doing as they are doing it.... You can help students to keep a project on course towards success, versus derailing because there are problems in the group that you don't know about until the end of the project, when they come to you with a substandard result and start complaining about how members didn't pull their own weights.

Instead, you know what is going on, and you can see from the interaction they are having and the contribution of material in the wiki. If you see one person is noticeably absent from any contribution, you can talk to that person and say "Hey, are you having trouble with the tool, or are you having trouble with the assignment?" You can fix something like that in the first or second week, versus the twelfth week of the semester, when hope is lost.
This excerpt is from the The Power of Wikis in Higher Ed by Linda L Briggs.