Faculty Voice

Lecturer Shawn Yeo and his fellow instructors had the most active Module Blog in the previous Academic Year. He has graciously taken the time to share how he used the blog in his CL2280 Basic Translation module. This module introduces students to entry-level translation and interpretation of Mandarin to English and vice-versa. Here is what Shawn has to say:

Basically, I use it as an extended platform to my lectures and tutorials. The first thing I noticed about this virtual platform is that it makes classroom time management less pressurizing. In the past, when I spent more time on a topic, I would have to go faster, or cut short some relevant discussions in order to cover all the topics for that particular session. Now I have the luxury to develop a concept gradually or allow a discussion to go into finer details. Anything not covered within the given time can be posted on the blog for elaboration or discussion.

I use the blog to introduce topics not covered by the module but nonetheless useful to my students. I post for-information articles to bring about awareness in certain aspects of translation. I also intend to post lengthy articles not included as modular reading materials in response to questions raised by students, when the need arises.

I post questions related to current topics under discussion, and encourage students to attempt. Students’ participation is not mandatory, but their performance on the blog is assessed. After a discussion is closed, I print out all the messages posted under the thread and assess them.

I find it most useful to post ad-hoc questions on the blog. In the past, I would collect interesting translations from day-to-day sources, e.g., newspaper, the Internet, and TV and radio programs, and discuss them in my lectures/tutorials. According to the students’ feedback, such discussions are interesting and stimulating. However, they took up so much time that I sometimes ran short of time for my scheduled lessons. As a result, I had to cut back on these discussions. What a shame! Thanks to the blog, I can now post these questions at my convenience, and the students can reply to them when they are ready. It has been a win-win situation for us.

Students are encouraged to ask questions on the blog too, and they have posted questions directly related to specific lectures/tutorials/assignments. I understand that some students are shy by nature, and do not speak up in class even when they have something to contribute or clarify. On the blog, however, I notice that some less articulate students are amongst the more active participants. So, the blog has also become a platform for these students to come forward and share!

My students are also encouraged to initiate new discussions. They have actually taken the initiative to ask about translation issues not included as modular topics, especially those found in our daily life. For example, one of them started a discussion on the Chinese translation for the ‘Demonstration Area’ signs erected at Suntec City during the IMF conference here. Another sought her peers’ comments on the translation for the term ‘blog’, exploring the different translations used by PRC and ROC, the pros and cons of these terms, and why Singapore should use the PRC version instead of the ROC one.

Although the current blog setup does not allow our students to initiate a tread, i.e., they can only respond to messages posted by the manager of the blog, I have set up an all-purpose thread to allow them to do so. Specifically, they would start a discussion by posting a new message under the all-purpose thread, and I would start a new thread and move it there.

As far as possible, after starting a discussion, I let it run without interfering. The students are free to discuss amongst themselves, and I only come in when I perceive that the discussion is going nowhere. For the questions I post, I conclude them when I think enough has been said. When concluding, I comment on everyone’s contribution as far as possible.

I have discussed the issue of moderator intervention with a few active participants of my blog, asking them if they prefer to see my presence during their discussions. Most think the lecturer should come in to provide directions when things are not moving, or at least at the end of the discussion to provide some form of conclusion.

Judging from the view count and comment count, I think the students’ response to the use of blog is encouraging. However, as one of them put it, blogging for discussion is interesting but VERY time-consuming. I, as a lecturer, do feel the same.

I do notice that of the 144 students, about 30 – 40 of them are active participants. The rest just read and contribute only occasionally. I definitely want more of them to contribute, but at this stage, I am happy that at least the rest of the cohort show a keen interest and are following closely. (We have 145 students, but some of the treads have a view count of 350 – 450!)

Are you using technology in your teaching? If you are, we would like to feature you on Faculty Voice. We realize that there is a lot of grassroots innovation in educational technology. However, we may not be aware of these examples of using IT in teaching as NUS is a big place!

So, in this issue’s Faculty Voice, we are calling for you to share your stories about using IT in teaching and facilitating students’ education. Let us know if you:

  • Use CIT’s services in an interesting/pioneering way
  • Use Web 2.0 tools such as blogs and wikis in education
  • Use generic software to facilitate specific learning outcomes
  • Use IT to add an element of fun to learning

Your sharing may inspire other lecturers to try something similar in their classrooms. It may be the spark that helps colleagues overcome a difficulty they are facing with teaching.

Previously, we have featured:

If you want to share your experience with using technology in education, please contact Mr and let him know how you use IT in teaching!

Mr Alex Mitchell, an Instructor at the Communications and New Media Programme, who allowed his students to blog for homework, embarked on another trailblazing effort in using technology in teaching: wikis in the classroom. Following on from Game Design I, Alex decided to experiment with wikis in NM4209 Game Design II.

For this module, Alex planned a blog and a wiki. The module blog was conceived as a channel for communication, while the module wiki was to be used as a collaborative group project space and for individual paper presentation reports.

With the group project, Alex positioned the wiki as a central place to store the group's ideas. As any student could add ideas to the wiki as they came along, the wiki would work like a repository. Once all their ideas were on a page, they could use it as a clearinghouse, with the group members coming to a consensus on what to add, what to delete and what to modify. The flexibility of the wiki allowed students to possibly use it as a planning and communication tool, in order to build common understanding.

However, the free-form structure of the wiki, or more accurately, the lack of structure, led to mixed results. Some groups, Alex noted, used the wiki to great effect. Other groups failed to come to terms with this relatively new technology, preferring the chronological structure of a group blog to brainstorm ideas and clarify thoughts.

Alex pinpointed a few areas of improvement. First, he intends to provide scaffolding or a template for the wiki pages. This will give the students some idea where to start and what they can possibly do with the wiki. He noted that there was not much motivation to use this collaborative tool, so he might give participation marks for using the wiki effectively.

Some game design firms use wikis in their workflow, Alex notes. This is especially when developers are geographically dispersed. While his students do not live hundreds or thousands of kilometers apart, he still thinks there is great potential for this tool.

The less successful area of the wiki was its use for the individual research papers. Alex required the students to critically analyze a research paper. He got his students to upload a summary of their presentations, with the other students posting questions based on the summaries. These were to be used as starting points for discussions during the tutorial.

The structure of the wiki did not lend itself well to promoting discussion. Students tended to concentrate on their own presentation pages, instead of perusing others and giving critiques or suggestions. In his case, both Alex and some of his students noted that a blog might have been a more appropriate platform.

From Alex's experience the previous semester, he feels that the wiki should be used primarily for collaborative activities. While Alex's first experiment with wikis did not go as well as desired, there are lessons to be learnt which are useful for other lecturers who want a collaborative online tool for their students.

Related Resources
What is a wiki? An introduction to the educational uses of an online collaboration tool known as a wiki: Wiki | Online Presentation (IE only)
Using Wiki in Education Blog
Using Wiki in Education article at The Science of Spectroscopy Wiki
Uses and Potentials of Wikis in the Classroom at Innovate Online (registration required, free)

It has been almost a semester since the NUS Module Blogs service was launched. IDEAS asks some of the pioneering edubloggers about their use of NUS Module Blogs.

Associate Professor Martin Henz
Department of Computer Science, School of Computing
Programming Languages CS3212 blog

How do you use your module blog?
Blogs in my view are ideal tools for communicating personal opinion to a target audience on a (semi-) regular basis, with the possibility of engaging the audience in a dialog.

In my module blog, I am focusing on the personal aspect of teaching the module. I make it clear that no examinable information will ever appear on the blog, which takes the pressure out of the discussion.

The blog allows me to make personal comments on the level of student engagement, performance, as well to reflect on my own role in the teaching and learning process.

How do you and your students benefit from it?
By reading my module blog, the students realize that there is a human being at the other end, who had good and bad days, feels strongly about this, is annoyed by that, stumbles upon some interesting web site etc.

They respond by opening up and engage in the discussion as human beings, too, who are studying hard to learn, get a degree, find a job etc.

The discussion that unfolds, improves the personal rapport with students especially in a large class, and makes the module a more enjoyable experience for everyone involved (in particular, myself).

Associate Professor Victor Tan
Department of Mathematics, Faculty of Science
Mathematics I MA1505 blog

How do you use your module blog?
I post on the blog after every lecture, twice a week. (My posts are named after the lecture numbering.) I put a web link to the lecture slides of the day in the posting for students to download. I also make additional remarks related to topics I have discussed during the lecture. Sometimes, when I run out of time to cover or elaborate on certain topics, I will ask students to go to the blog where I will continue the discussion. I also put some links to other relevant webpages on the topics I discussed during lecture.

How do you and your students benefit from it?
The view statistics of the blog doesn't seem to reflect the real readership. There are also not many comments from the students for each posting.

Nevertheless, I know that there are many students who visited my blog to download the lecture slides. On the other hand, with the module blog, I do not need to rush through lecture to cover all the topics. I may leave out some parts and discuss it in the blog instead. Students usually ask questions at the end of the lecture. Sometimes a good question is asked, which I think it's worth sharing with the rest of the class. I can post it in the blog for the benefit of other students. If I make a mistake during lecture, I can also rectify it immediately in the blog entry of the day.

Assistant Professor Wong Wei Kang
Department of Economics, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
Behavioral Economics EC4394 blog

How do you use your module blog?
I generally use the module blog to post links to short and current articles that are relevant for my course in Behavioral Economics, a relatively new field that tries to incorporate the findings of psychology into economics. These articles could be from the newspaper, other professors' blogs, magazines, etc.

How do you and your students benefit from it?
For me, the blog serves as an archive of resources that both my students and I can draw on. The materials tend to be more current than the materials in the syllabus. By posting current materials featured in the news, I hope to show my students that what I am teaching in the course is really relevant and applicable. Moreover, because the materials posted on the blog tend to be less technical and more accessible for the layman, I am also using the blog as a channel of public education to introduce the campus community to this relatively new field of Behavioral Economics.

Mr Alex MitchellAs far as tutorials go, Alex Mitchell's classes are quite unorthodox. His students are made to play games during class. Yet, these games are very much a part of the lessons.

Alex is an Instructor with the Communications and New Media Programme at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. He teaches NM3216 Game Design 1 (formerly Gaming Culture 1), which is about games and what makes them engaging. "Thinking and talking about it only gets you so far," Alex observes, "to really understand about how we can design a fun game, the best thing is to actually design a game and play it."

Game Design students engage in rapid prototyping during tutorials. They create board games - or card games - with pieces of paper and coins for playing pieces, exploring different aspects of game design theory by putting them into practice. His students work in small groups to create these games and then play each others' games.

While play may not be normally associated with learning in a tertiary institution, Alex's class is unusual in another way: he makes them blog for homework.

This constructivist learning approach engages students by actively encouraging them to reflect on their learning.

"Rather than getting them to do the readings, come to class and ask them if they have any comments, I give them a couple of questions [on the module blog] to get them thinking about the readings and have them post responses on their blogs. I also encouraged them to post the results of the play-testing that they were doing in class to try to keep me updated on what's going on. I go through the entries, print out the good ones and use them as starting points for discussion," explains Alex.

The Game Design module blog is the place Alex posts his blog exercises. These weekly assignments constitute half of the 20% participation component of the students' Continual Assessment grade. The navigation column of the blog consists of links to his students' blogs - a blogroll, in blogging parlance - and links to previous posts and an archive.

NM3216 Game Design tutorial montage. Click for larger screenshot.
NM3216 Game Design tutorial montage.
Click for a larger screenshot.

Despite the fact that many of Alex's students were first time bloggers, which he found somewhat surprising, they caught on quickly. He notes that several students wrote thousands of words, an equivalent of a mini-essay, almost every week. While Alex considers some of the entries unnecessarily lengthy, he reveals that others were quite insightful.

Alex related, "Just reading their responses, I learn something, which is nice. The really keen ones will link to other sites on the web, and they've come up with things I hadn't thought of. Sometimes I incorporate these into the following lecture. I would bring in points that my students had brought up, and they were quite happy as well, as they realized I had actually read their blogs."

Similarly, comments on the students' posts motivated them to learn. Alex made it a point to actively read their blog entries and to leave comments. He encouraged students to comment on each others' blogs too. However, only the more active students seemed to do so. While he is thinking of allocating participation marks for commenting, Alex realizes that may be a stretch for the students.

"The problem is workload," Alex ventures, "the ones who complained about the blogs said that they have to write something on top of doing the readings. And there are assignments. And there's an exam. But at the same time, I had comments where they said that it was good they had to do this every week because it forced them to keep up with the readings."

60 to 70 percent of the students managed to keep up with the weekly blog assignments. Alex considered not allowing late posts, but he would rather have his students complete the blog assignments. He points out that several students who left the blogging assignments until the end of the semester found that completing these was a good review for the exam.

Alex believes that the blogging assignments went well, and he will continue to use blogs as part of his lessons. He is among a small but growing number of academics worldwide who recognize the multi-faceted value of blogs for teaching and learning.

These are early days yet for blogging in an academic context. Even students find it revolutionary. As one of Alex's students titled his blog: Can't believe I'm blogging for homework!

The same student who expressed surprise at the use of blogs in the classroom has posted an entry even after the end of semester. Perhaps that is a blog's greatest value. Like a good game, it thoroughly engages its user.

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