Thoughts on group projects

I’m teaching the Library Assessment course for SILS this semester. The major assignment for that course is one large semester-long project: the students work with a client library on an actual evaluation project, usually one that otherwise might not get done at all. Thus, hopefully this project is a win-win: the students get experience working on a real project, and the library gets some free labor. But the point is, an assignment like this only works when it’s a group project; the amount of work involved is greater than any one student could manage solo. Which is of course the point: so much library work, and especially library evaluation work, is done in groups and on teams. Group work gets a bad rap in higher ed, it seems to me, but I think it really is the more real-world approach to course assignments. Thus making it, in my opinion, the more pedagogically sound approach to course assignments, at least in a professional school, for a course like this one.

Now that the semester is halfway through, I have a few things to say about managing group projects in an online course. So I’ll devote a couple-three posts to that topic.

One of the issues that inevitably comes up with group projects is coordination among the group members. I prefer to let project groups in my courses self-organize: I tell students that they can use what ever methods and tools they want to coordinate within their group. I set up shared group spaces within Sakai, if they want to use them, but I also explain that they should feel free to use other tools if they prefer. (What I’ve observed is that in fact most student groups seem to use email for communication, and Google Docs for production.)

In a classroom-based course, of course, it’s easy for students to communicate and coordinate — since, after all, they’re all in the same room together twice a week. I try to set some time aside at the end of at least one class session per week, at least at the beginning of projects, so working groups can get together to discuss. But there’s none of this all-in-the-same-room together-twice-a-week thing in online courses. So I encourage students to exchange email addresses, Twitter handles, and whatever other contact information they cared to share, and I set up private discussion forums for groups in Sakai.

But even so, what I observed was that it took a week or so for groups to fully ramp up. That is, to get to the point of everyone having met and introduced themselves, exchanged contact information, and to start developing a plan of action. All of which would have happened in 15 minutes in the classroom. So lesson #1: coordination online takes longer. No big surprise there, really. But that extra time needs to be baked into the planning for online group projects.

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Metadata MOOC in the news

My Metadata MOOC has been receiving some publicity recently, and I wanted to dedicate a post to documenting it. Not just because I have a big ego –- though I do –- but also because it’s good publicity for UNC and SILS. Honestly, this MOOC is probably the most high-profile thing I’ve ever done professionally. And on that note, I would like to point out that I’ve brought more attention to UNC and SILS being remote, than I probably ever did being on campus. Which is a bit depressing, honestly, but there it is.

First, Steven Chang (@InfoSeer) at the University of Melbourne is participating in both my MOOC and the Hyperlinked Library MOOC, offered by the San José State University SLIS. Steven wrote a blog post, titled “A Tale of Two MOOCs,” about participating in MOOCs in general, and comparing these two library-themed courses.

Second, I was interviewed for the article “Massive open online courses launch at UNC,” in the Daily Tar Heel. I have, as my grandmother would say, a bone to pick with this article: it was published the week my MOOC launched, and I understand that the DTH wanted an article to mark the launch of the university’s first MOOC. But the article is largely about MOOCs in general, which you can get from reading almost any publication these days. What the article is not about is UNC’s MOOC initiative specifically, which is a topic that really only we can talk about with credibility. So I think the DTH missed an opportunity there. But maybe articles along those lines will come in the future.

I was also interviewed for an article in the Carolina Alumni Review. But that hasn’t come out yet.

I was also interviewed by Abby Clobridge for the article MOOCs and Libraries, which was recently published in Against the Grain. This article too had a Basics of MOOCs section, for those readers who have been living in a cave for the past year. But, because it’s Abby, she went well beyond that, and had a really excellent discussion of open access resources, and what libraries can do to support both faculty developing MOOCs and students taking them.

Abby tells me that she’s also writing an article about OA & MOOCs for Online Searcher. Stay tuned; that should be a good one. Update: That article is now out.

Finally, as it turns out, I have a few students in my MOOC who are involved with Europeana. Last week Europeana’s Partner and Operations Manager contacted me to ask if I’d be interested in collaborating on a post to the Europeana blog about the importance and educational value of Europeana in information science. Of course I said yes: I think there’s a lot to say about that topic, and the Europeana blog is a great place to say it. So stay tuned for that as well.

Update: Another article about Me And My MOOC, this one from my alma mater’s news blog: Behind MOOCs: What are They Worth to Higher Education and Students?

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MOOC Forum video: A period piece

This Friday, an open forum will be held for faculty members at UNC to keep faculty informed about Carolina’s involvement with MOOCs and Coursera. This video was produced as a promo for the MOOC Forum. I’m posting it here because it seems to me that it nicely captures the state of the union, so to speak, of the public face of this initiative at Carolina. Which is to say, very early days: There are a few people on campus who are very excited about this, but we suspect that most people on campus have no clue.

That said, I wish whoever made this video chose a different resource to illustrate the point that “most offer supplemental reading materials that are also free and open access” (around timestamp 1:17). Because, of all the supplemental readings from my course, most of which actually are free & OA, someone chose one that’s behind a paywall!

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If you want something done right, do it yourself

We’ve had two issues come up in the MOOC in last few days that I think are worth discussing here, as they’re both related to the issue of relying — or not — on other people’s resources.

First: For some of the Unit 2 homework questions, I had pointed to students to a metadata record from Europeana, and asked questions like “What’s the name of the property in such-and-such property-value pair,”etc. Well, about 3 days after that homework was released to the students, the Europeana site went down, as best as I can tell for about 24 hours. Needless to say, more than a few students then got an error message when they tried to view that metadata record. Some students realized that this was a problem with Europeana, but some seemed to think that it was a problem with Coursera or the link we had provided. Now, it doesn’t take a big stretch to imagine that we may have crashed Europeana’s servers. I don’t know how many students would have hit that one record all at the same time, and I’d like to believe that Europeana’s infrastructure is more robust than that… but it is quite a coincidence.

So, Lesson Learned #1: Don’t direct thousands of students to a website outside of your control if you can possibly avoid it. Instead, a screenshot might just possibly have been a better solution.

Second: Also on the Unit 2 homework, I had some questions that required the students to write Dublin Core markup. The way I had originally wanted to implement those questions was to have a Dublin Core validator that integrated with the Coursera platform. But the Coursera platform requires JavaScript in, and I have been unable to find a DC or XML validator anywhere on the web that outputs JavaScript. And trust me I’ve looked. I wanted Plan B to be to develop our own XML validator, or fork someone else’s, so that it would output JavaScript. But we had neither the time nor resources nor the staffing to make that happen (read: anyone who could code JavaScript well enough to do this in time for the launch of the course, and for no money).

So what we did instead was write short-answer questions that took regular expressions as their response. This is a very cool feature of the Coursera quiz functionality: they have a special category of short-answer questions for which you can specify regexps as the answer. Now, I cut my teeth on Unix, back in my misspent youth, and I’m just a big enough geek that I love regular expressions. So I thought this would be a great solution to the problem of lacking a DC validator. And, if I say so myself, my regexps were good. The problem was, I believe, simply that that the questions were harder than I thought they were. So quite a few students were unable to get the correct answers to these questions, which led to a lengthy and angry thread on the discussion forums. I’m still convinced that having the students write markup is the way to go for those homework questions. But I realize now that without a validator, writing markup was probably a profoundly bad idea, in a course geared for beginners.

So, Lesson Learned #2: If you don’t have the right tools available, and you can’t to develop them yourself, don’t try to be clever. A simpler fallback position is a better option than something more complicated.

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Thoughts on ILS curricula

The Provost’s office at UNC issued a call for proposals for MOOCs back in November of last year. I’d been wanting to teach a MOOC for some time at that point, having taken 3 or 4 as a student by then. So I submitted 2 proposals, one for a Metadata course & one for an XML course. Obviously the Metadata course was the one that the selection committee liked, and the rest is history.

But why metadata? I’ve been asked. Because MOOCs are good for courses with broad general interest… they have to be, with thousands of students enrolled. And as I was thinking through what course I’d want to launch as a MOOC — even before the Provost’s proposal — I figured that metadata would be the place to start. As I saw it then, there were 2 important issues: One, what topic in Information Science is most broadly applicable? Answer: Metadata. And this was even before the NSA phone metadata revelations. But metadata is everywhere, and largely invisible, so I thought it would be useful to offer a course to the general public that peered behind that particular curtain. And two, if you were going to MOOC-ify the entire ILS curriculum, where would you want to start? Answer: Metadata. Because everything builds on that.

Now that the MOOC has begun, however, I’m seeing things differently. I guess I was starting to see things differently a while ago, even as far back as when I was planning the flow of the course. But now, if I were going to do it all over again, here’s what I’d do differently.

First of all, Unit 1 of the MOOC is a very brief overview of the concepts around what it means to organize information. My thought was that, before we really delved into the specifics & technical details of metadata, I had to put the function of metadata in context. In other words, Unit 1 is INLS 520, the School’s Organization of Information course, in about 90 minutes. So I realize now that if you were going to MOOC-ify the entire ILS curriculum, where would you want to start? Answer: not Metadata in fact, but Organization. Which is more or less where all ILS curricula do start. So I have to wonder if I’m just brainwashed by the status quo, or if this is in fact a deep truth about how ILS should be taught. I’m going for the latter.

Second, I’m realizing that, prior to a course on metadata, students really need some experience with databases. Ok, sure, you can start to address descriptive metadata without discussing databases. You can start to address XML without databases. But you can’t really get to the roots of either of those without databases. And once you get to Linked Data, it’s all about data structures & how the web is one huge database. So in order for a metadata course address what it needs to address — RDF, the Semantic Web, Linked Data — you need to build on prior knowledge of databases.

So there you have it: My early thoughts on how I would redesign ILS curricula. The first courses a student should take: Organization of Information, and Introduction to Databases. Then metadata.

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