Teaching with wikis: navigation, student notes, and integrating Google forms

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Sandra Porter
This quarter, I'm using a wiki with my bioinformatics class and posting sometimes about the things that I learn. Two things I've been experimenting with are:
  1. Setting up pages for individual students so they can take notes while they're working.
  2. Embedding a Google form into one of my wiki pages for student assessment.
Here's a diagram showing some of the pages in my bioinformatics class wiki site.
  1. Syllabus: I suppose this reflects on my own lack of organization, but I use the syllabus as a dynamic document, making changes and adding information throughout the course. There are links to activities, assignments, and other materials. I used to try and use Blackboard for this, but pbwiki is so much easier to use. I learned that students got confused sometimes, when clicking syllabus links, because some of the links go to pdf documents. Depending on the web browser, clicking a pdf might open the document, or the document might get downloaded to your desktop, either one is okay with me, but for the students this can be a bit mysterious because there isn't any kind of affordance or indication that the file got downloaded. So, they keep clicking the link expecting something to happen. Now, I'm trying addressing this by putting a ".pdf" after links to pdf documents. That way, they should know that the link goes to a document and not a web page.
  2. Activities: Bioinformatics is a hands-on course when I teach it, with lots of activities. I have links to pages with instructions for doing the labs.
  3. Individual student note pages: During the years that I've taught bioinformatics classes, I've learned that students rarely bring paper along when they're working with a computer. At first this came as a surprise, now I'm come to expect that behavior. The problem is that sometimes I want students to take notes. The wiki gives me a way to do this. I set up a page with questions and tables that I want students to answer and complete while they're working. After making the page, I tagged it as a "template." Then I used that template to make a page for each student. Then, for each student I added their own unique part of the assignment. In this assignment, each student works with a different DNA structure and students only have access to their unique wiki note page. I found it was essential that I make myself a student account, too, so I could tell for certain which pages students could see and which pages they couldn't see. I should mention that all of these pages can be downloaded from the wiki site, in any location, as pdf documents, so students can capture a written record of their work, on their own computers.
  4. Assessment questions: Working on the internet and using diverse sites does present a bit of difficulty for people when they confront diverse user interfaces or get lost when going from place to place. To get around this problem and improve usability, I decided to test putting one of my Google assessment forms into my wiki site. I set up my assessment questions in a Google form. Then, I copied the embed code from the Google site, and using the HTML plug-in from Pbwiki, I pasted the code in a page. That placed my questions into a wiki page. Students completed the questions and clicked the submit button. This sent the answers to my Google account, so I could log in, get my spread sheet and I see all their answers at once along with a bit of data analysis from Google. For some of my questions, I expected to see different answers from each student, so the Google analysis didn't always make sense, but for other questions it was pretty handy. This method worked okay except for one thing. If students entered information in the form and navigated away from the page, the information was lost. A few web-savvy students realized that they could work around this challenge by opening the form in a new tab, or new window, but this wasn't an obvious solution to everyone (or me). Next time, I'll use that example and make my wiki links so that those assessment pages open in a new tab or window when the links are clicked. I think that will make the process of completing the forms friendlier for all of the students.
  5. If you want to try a free wiki, you can test these out at different places. I'm using pbwiki, but there are some other sites, too.

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