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Expediting education—Blogs and wikis go to college

This article appears in the issue May 2010, [Volume 19, Issue 5]
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Publishing an article in a respected journal can take years, and developing a textbook can take much longer. Those methods of recording and disseminating a permanent and carefully reviewed body of knowledge are essential, but they do not promote innovation in a world of rapid change. Blogs and wikis are augmenting traditional publishing and classroom teaching, speeding up the pace of information exchange for both researchers and students.

At Drexel University, chemistry professor Jean-Claude Bradley launched a wiki and a blog to support an Open Notebook Science (ONS) initiative. The principle is to make data relating to ongoing research available so that others can examine, question and contribute to the project. After exploring the ways in which the field of chemistry could be useful through an ONS project, Bradley decided that novel anti-malarial compounds would be a fruitful area, partly because those compounds were not being aggressively pursued by pharmaceutical companies. Detailed lab notebook information is posted on a wiki, and more general information on ONS on a blog.

ONS uses a variety of components to make information readily accessible. Both the blog and the wiki use free, hosted services, Blogspot and Wikispaces respectively.

“We use Google spreadsheets for the datasets on the UsefulChem wiki,” says Bradley. “People who look at the data can track calculations inside the spreadsheets. They sometimes find errors, which is one of the benefits of open science. We also use the spreadsheets to call up Web services to perform other functions.” For example, a “bot” (a program that acts as an agent for a user) can be invoked to perform integrations on nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy data, and then return the results back to the spreadsheet.

One of the main collaborators on the ONS project is Andrew Lang, professor of mathematics at Oral Roberts University. Bradley first encountered him on Second Nature Island, Nature magazine’s virtual island on Second Life. Lang was using the capabilities of Second Life to create 3-D visualizations of molecules. Now that connection has been incorporated into the Use-fulChem blog; in one post, the blog announces a planned live session on data visualization in chemistry using the virtual platform of Second Life.

Rather than checking the blog daily for readers’ comments, Bradley’s uses FriendFeed to keep tabs on responses from his colleagues. “I prefer FriendFeed because it aggregates comments from multiple sources,” says Bradley. “You can pick any type of feed, including postings from blogs, Twitter and other channels.” One such exchange led to funding for ONS through the non-profit Submeta, which provides supplemental funding for unique, and often interdisciplinary, projects that are not well served by traditional sources.

Wikispaces targets universities and school districts, many of which begin with the free version. “Once a critical mass of users has been reached,” says Adam Frey, one of the founders of Wikispaces, “the IT department often becomes involved and subscribes to the private label version so they can manage it centrally.” With the private label subscription, organizations gain benefits such as single sign-on and the look and feel of their own Web sites. “Our product is designed to be easy to use,” says Frey. “We want to give people the tools to get their work done, rather than building a system that controls the way people work.”

Student bloggers

Although conventional wisdom might lean toward assuming that students are ahead of the curve in using social media, not everyone has gone beyond Facebook. To foster skills that his students will need in their future jobs, Art Padilla, professor in the Department of Management, Innovation and Entrepreneurship at North Carolina State University College of Management, required students in an honors class to learn how to blog.

“I wanted to combine a number of elements,” says Padilla, “including writing, the Internet and business processes.” Set up as a competition, the assignment required students to pick a publicly traded company to track, and to post at least seven blogs relating to news about their firm. Initially, some of the students were apprehensive, but they quickly mastered the necessary skills.

“One of the challenges was to keep them from writing too much,” says Padilla, “to keep the volume of information to a manageable level.” Eventually, all the students learned a variety of techniques including linking videos and embedding graphs.

“We looked at a variety of sources to pull together the information,” says Caitlin Melvin, a freshman in the class. Melvin, who plans to be a civil engineer, picked Netflix (netflix.com) as the company to monitor, and tied for first place in the competition. “I enjoyed doing the research and found the process to be more compelling than learning from a textbook. It’s good to have this skill to use in other classes and possibly in my future work,” Melvin says.

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