Like many other profs, I started using the internet by posting lecture outlines online – PDFs of PowerPoint slides. But a friend of mine who knows something about the web asked why I didn’t just email the files, since I was using the web purely as a distribution mechanism. Good point! The potential benefit of the web over emailed PDFs would lie in converting the slides into linked pages, so that students could navigate from one idea to a related idea, or between multiple instances of a single idea, rather than having stacks of slides organized in one linear fashion. The logical structure of the material is web-like, so why shouldn’t it’s physical structure online be web-like? So I started making webpages to go along with presentation slides.
Immediately I ran into a problem. I was having to reformat the material, which was time consuming. Why am I, a political theorist, fidlding with html? That’s not my comparative advantage. Plus, if I decided to make a change to the page, in response to questions from students, my presentation would be out of date (and I would forget that, before next year rolled around). That’s when I found TiddlyWiki. TW was great because it was very easy to take content from my presentation program (now Keynote), and put it a TW online. TW’s micro-content approach fit nicely with the arrangement of the material into short slides, each of which had only a few points.
I eventually figured out that I could also use TW as a slide presentation platform, using one of a number of different plugins that made it easy to switch between ordinary and slide templates (bigger font, no sidebar, etc.). This was a big breakthrough for me, in terms of my workflow. Yes, I no longer had those lovely 3-D slide transitions, but now I only had to enter the material once, and it was ready for class and web at one go. I even managed regularly to get the slides posted online prior to class, for the first time. I also realized that by adding a “load” function from Eric Shulman, my students could annotate their local copies of the course page, and thus have an integrated, cross-referenced, tagged, searchable repository for my slides and their notes.
Additionally, none of my students were actually using their local copies of the page as a personal notebook, in which they could keep all of my and their notes. The system I had cobbled together was, as my logic prof would have said, “highly non-obvious”. Plus they had to be careful not to erase my content. (And which was my original content, and what their added notes? They were liable to forget).
A third issue had to do with the relationship between the online TW and the course discussion board. For the last few years, I had been using the discussion board feature in WebCT. It worked fine, but it was hard to link between the discussion board and the TW course page. Ideally, discussion should be integrated with content.
Then along came Saq Imtiaz (of the not-for-profit, open source software developer Unamesa), who solved all three problems! Instead of trying to use TW as the course webpage, Saq suggested using a simple commercial wiki focused on educational users called Wikispaces. Using Wikispaces (or in fact any other full-fledged wiki) solves the accessibility problem and the discussion-integration problem, plus gave a full revision history for each slide. Tiddlywiki would now be reserved for local / offline use. Saq developed a simple, stripped-down “student notebook” version of TW that would automatically pull down content from the course wiki. The notebook was designed to look pretty much like the wiki, and to understand its formatting commands, and above all to be simple and easy to use. Saq has also developed an “instructor’s notebook” that uploads content, as well as downloading, and which has the necessary presentation capability. I can also annotate my own slides, in my instructor’s notebook, and these notes do NOT upload – they stay private. Private notes linked to slides! This means not having to keep reams of paper notes, which inevitably get lost as they pile up. The instructor’s notebook isn’t as far along as the student notebook, yet. It still has some glitches, but it IS working, and I love it. I make my slides (simple), add my private notes (if I have time, simple), upload (simple), and then walk into class with my computer to present. If I’m away from my own computer, and think of a change I want to make, I can make it online, and my instructor’s notebook will update the next time I sync. Beautiful!
The system is not perfect. Having discussion integrated with content is great in one respect, because any student with a question about a particular slide can just click on the discussion tab of that slide to see what other students have said. It’s also easy to link to other pages, in a discussion post. But discussion is fragmented across many pages. True, one can follow recent posts by clicking on the “discussion” tab of the “Recent Changes” page – and I have made a direct link to that page on the main course page. But the “Recent Changes” page prints all recent posts in their entirety. It would be better to have some kind of table listing of recent posts. Even better would be to have the wiki remember which users have read which posts, but that’s probably asking too much. In any case, there are disadvantages of doing discussion via the wiki, rather than via the WebCT discussion function (which did remember which posts you’d read, and allowed you the choice of displaying all posts or only unread posts). I’ve noticed that discussion is down a bit this year. But with some fairly simple changes to the discussion tab of the “Recent Changes” page, I still think the wiki-way is better, for this kind of thing, where discussion is closely related to lecture notes.
Saq will shortly be setting up a demo, where anyone who is interested can download a notebook with content and see how the annotation works. Later, he will set up a demo that will allow people to create their own wikispace and get their own notebook attached to that wikispace.