Charlene VanLeeuwen teaches a third year course on Current Issues in Children’s Health and Development in the Department of Applied Human Sciences at the University of Prince Edward Island. It is an elective, inter-disciplinary course with about 25-30 students. Students come with a wide variety of prior knowledge from these different disciplines and hence with diverse interests in the subject area.
The challenge then was to find topics and activities within a three credit course to meet the goals and interests of a wide variety of students.
The class meets weekly for in-class activities with guest speakers and student-led face-to-face discussions (usually in the form of Socratic Seminars). At the beginning of the six week session, Charlene VanLeeuwen divided the class into groups of five. Online, each group works independently, starting with each student choosing his/her own topic to research. Each member of the group is part of a blog style discussion forum, set up within the university’s Moodle learning management system. Each student is also required to develop by the end of a course an online (virtual) poster on the topic of their choice. The posters are usually a synthesis of the research literature on the chosen topic.
Students are encouraged to develop a plan to gather research on their chosen topic. Students are asked to post each week what they learned, and share ideas, constructive feedback or questions with their classmates to help them gather relevant information from peer-reviewed or highly reputable sources of grey literature and begin to synthesize what they are reading about.
The instructor monitors but does not directly intervene with the blogs, and encourages the students within each group to support each other during the face-to-face class meetings. Where appropriate, the instructor may send a private e-mail to a student rather than reply within the blog, which can be seen by the other students in the group. This e-mail message might be a suggestion for a keyword to help refine their literature search, a link to recently published relevant literature, a reminder, or some words of encouragement. Each group’s blog discussions are private to the group and cannot be seen by the other groups.
Students use their blogs to share within their group their ideas and work towards their individual poster. Thus the ‘product’ at the end of the course is 28 or so posters, one for each student in the class.
The instructor provides students with some suggested poster design templates to work to. Students can create the posters in a variety of ways but they are eventually posted as PDF files into WordPress within Moodle (hence the work is password protected but can be shared within the class).
With support from the e-Learning Office in UPEI’s Office of Skills Development and Learning, the posters are loaded into the WordPress site. Students share their poster through an online asynchronous poster session, using a discussion plug-in over the course of one or two days.
During the Virtual Poster Session, students and invited guests (other faculty in the department) share comments, feedback and questions with the creators of the posters. Everyone checks in a few times during the Virtual Poster Session in order to view classmates’ posters, leave comments or questions and then later post replies to comments about their poster. Students know from the beginning of the project they will be asked for permission to share their posters with the entire class and are reminded the platform for the Virtual Poster Session is password protected.
The instructor marks students for their blogging and separately for their posters.
Benefits and outcomes
The instructor found the approach supports the key learning outcomes of
- Development of critical thinking;
- Effective team-work; and
The design works well in encouraging students to explore a topic and to do their own research. Students use the members of their online blogging group as sounding boards. Although they are working very closely in their online blogging groups, students are not concerned their individual grade could be influenced by the comments or questions posed by classmates.
A student survey was given after the first offering of the course. Although there was a low response rate, since the timing was at the end of the spring session and everyone moved on to summer holidays, student comments were highly positive about the assignments.
This is the first year the students developed posters and the instructor intends to repeat the design.
Challenges and Enhancements
The instructor believes it would be difficult to use this approach with a larger class, at least without some assistance. Some kind of technical support would be helpful, perhaps a graduate student with technical expertise.
Students would like to see the final class gallery of posters randomized in some way. Posters at the beginning and end of the gallery ended up with more views and comments than those in the middle.
During the online poster session, students are not automatically notified when someone posted a comment. They would like a system of notification so they know someone viewed their poster and left a comment.
Because the student choice of topics is not predictable, it needs an experienced, confident instructor.
Developing effective posters is an increasingly important requirement for graduate students who go on to do research.
Combining blogs with group discussion towards the development of research-based posters enables students with a variety of different disciplinary backgrounds, prior knowledge, and interests to work effectively together.
Department of Applied Human Sciences
Faculty of Science
University of Prince Edward Island