söndag 18 november 2012

Using social annotation systems to support students' academic writing

Me and my colleagues Björn Hedin and Stefan Hrastinski submitted an article earlier this week. It's called "Using group supervision and social annotation systems to support students' academic writing" and we submitted it to a special issue of the Scandinavian open access electronic journal "Högre utbildning" [Higher education]. The topic of the special issue was "independent works" (pdf file), i.e. independent academic student works - which for the most part means (bachelors and masters) theses.

The purpose of Högre utbildning is "to support the development of knowledge about learning and teaching in higher education and thereby contribute to the development of higher education in Sweden". The term "practice-based forum" is also used to describe the journal and we though our practices around our bachelors theses was a suitable topic for a paper to this special issue. Due to not the least time and other constraints (we all have a lot of work to do at the moment), we chose to not write a full article (6000 words), but rather a "best practice" contribution:

"Best practice. No more than 2000 words. Description and explanation of successful practices in and around teaching. Contributions should be based on an evaluation in some form and should be viable in a broader field than the author's own context and subject area."

Our paper treats our use of group supervision in our bachelor's thesis course. Around 60 students take that course every year and write their theses during the spring semester. Two years ago (spring 2010), a student wrote a bachelor's thesis about "social annotation systems". The thesis is called "Web annotation systems as a technical aid in higher education" (pdf - written in Swedish). Björn was advisor and I was examiner. I was inspired by the thesis and one year later (spring 2011), I used such a system in my thesis group and both my own and the students' experiences of using this tool were very positive.

Last year we switched system (from Diigo to Google docs) and started to use it in the course as a whole (i.e. seven out of eight thesis groups used a social annotation system during the spring 2012) and we (both teachers and students) again had very positive experiences. So when we saw the Higher Education call for papers, me, Björn and Stefan naturally also used Google docs to write this paper about using Google docs... The writing process itself was extremely effective and smooth and our goal is to expand this short paper into a "real", longer paper at some later point in time - perhaps after the 2013 crop of bachelor's theses have been finished by next summer...?

Here are two blocks of text from the paper we just wrote and submitted. From the "Introduction":

There has been an increased focus on bachelor and master theses in Swedish higher education lately. At the Media Technology engineering programme at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, we more or less doubled the number of theses written from one year to the next. From previously only having students who studied the Bachelor of engineering programme write a bachelor's thesis, in 2010 the much larger group of Master of engineering students had to write not just a master's thesis during the final semester, but also a bachelor's thesis at the end of their third year of studies. This led to some practical challenges that needed to be solved:
  • How could we manage limited resources in terms of personnel and costs when the number of theses ballooned from one year to the next?
  • How could we hae a high degree of throughput in the thesis course?
  • How could we maintain or increase the quality of our students' theses?
  • How could we achieve a high level of student satisfaction)
We will, in this best practices paper, describe how we tackled these challenges. Our approach comprises of two different parts:
  • Group supervision, in combination with:
  • Utilizing Social annotation systems (SAS)

From the concluding discussion:

the development of suitable practices has led to a process where the social annotation system (SAS) has been appropriated and have expanded in four different direction:

  1. There is a deepened understanding by the individual supervisor of how to incorporate and use the tools in an improved way as compared to previous years.
  2. SAS has spread to a larger number of supervisors over time. Some supervisors can be seen as innovators in this process while the majority of supervisors adopt the SAS later in the process (Rogers, 1995).
  3. Teachers have attempted to incorporate the use of SAS in other courses and for other tasks, but none yet with the same success as the best practice described here.
  4. The fact that many teachers use SAS means there is a critical mass and a faster turnaround in terms of innovative practices.

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