Category Archives: Undergraduate Research

Getting Inspired at the Undergraduate Exhibition

Undergraduates get a lot of bad press these days. I guess that has always been true, but sometimes the laments about the “millennial generation” seem especially loud. So I found it a useful counterbalance to serve as a judge for this year’s Undergraduate Exhibition.

Picture the scene yesterday in the HUB-Robeson Center’s Alumni Hall: Dozens and dozens of research posters produced by Penn State undergraduates, with representation from the arts and humanities, engineering, health and life sciences, physical sciences, social and behavioral sciences, and course-based projects. I was a judge for social and behavioral sciences and got a chance to talk with some extremely smart and articulate undergraduates.

Strolling around afterward, I enjoyed seeing the variety inherent in the research — everything from posters on biosynthesis of Thiostrepton A to analysis of a poet’s oeuvre to an examination of ways that infants’ crawling behaviors affect their communicative development.

It was a humbling and inspiring way to spend an hour.


Recently I found myself in several meetings discussing ‘learning analytics’.  Basically, we want to identify potential data sources that will help inform our decisions around retention, student success, advising, placement and a plethora of other student-centered topics.  The Chronicle just released a piece on learning analytics, citing examples from Harvard to Rio Salado College, a community college in Arizona. 

Regardless of what lens I view learning analytics through, I see incredible opportunity to better guide and support our students.  From an institutional research perspective, I think we can use these analytics to enhance things like retention and advising.  From a faculty perspective, I can see using analytics to increase engagement in my classroom.  Being part of a small committee looking at potential new CMS platforms for Penn State, I’m thrilled to report that all of our potential platforms have a wide variety of learning analytics modules. 

While I feel this is an extremely positive movement, Gardner Campbell, director of professional development and innovative initiatives at Virginia Tech, has a different take (from the Chronicle Article):
“Counting clicks within a learning-management system runs the risk of bringing that kind of deadly standardization into higher education.”

The article summarizes Gardner’s concerns, pointing out that these CMS environments are not necessarily the best platforms to measure real student engagement and creativity.  I wholeheartedly agree with Gardner! This could be a slippery slope some universities could go down.  But I do argue that counting clicks is an important piece to guiding decision making in terms of retention and student success.

Take Rio Salado for example.  I attended a webinar by their project lead, and he reported that a large amount of the variance in terms of student success (a “C” or better) can be predicted by using two variables from the CMS:

  1. Date of first login
  2. Whether or not the student has clicked on (and assuming, viewed) the course syllabus.

If these two simple, easy-to-track variables play such a large role in predicting whether a student will succeed or fail in a course, why not track them?  This allows the instructor, or student adviser, to intervene very early in the semester, which in turn greatly increases that student’s chance of success.

I look forward to the onset of Penn State’s new CMS, and what data-driven initiatives we can spin up to enhance student success and retention.

Educational Blogging: Course Blog or Student Blog?

I’m in the midst of reading a great deal of blog literature to help me understand some of the data we analyzed from the PSU blog platform last summer.  A question many faculty ask when they are thinking about leveraging blogs in a course:

“Do I create a single course blog, and give my students access to write on the blog?  Or should each student create his or her own personal blog?”

Personally, I experimented with both of these methods and found that a course blog, where all my students have access to write entries and comments, typically generates more discussion.  If one of your goals is to generate a sense of community, I definitely recommend a single, unified course blog. 

Some of the research focused on engaging students in computer-mediated communication (CMC) indicates that a single, student blog is a better approach.  The reasons provided include a sense of ownership (Tolmie & Boyle, 2000) and reduction in anxiety when participating in an online communication environment (Pena-Shaff et al., 2005).  Personally, I don’t know how much of an issue anxiety is, particularly with our current cohort of undergraduates that use, and update, Facebook multiple times a day and likely use other forms of social media.

Ownership, though, is worth thinking about.  Depending on your goal for the student blogs, you might want to use the blog platform differently.  If you’re trying to generate discussion and a broad sense of community, the single blog with multiple authors is likely your best option.  But, if you’re asking students to individually reflect or author specific articles around content, a single student blog might be the way to go. 

Remember, if a student wants to use his or her blog as evidence for potential employers to review, it’s much easier if their writing is all in one place (their own personal blog) compared to scattered across multiple course blogs, where other students are also authoring content.  Make sure you think carefully about your goal for using blogs in your course, then decide what approach fits the best for you and your students.

What Citation Software or Services Should I Use?

Emily, via the TLT Diigo Group, posted a great resource from Library Learning Services: Choosing a Citation Manager. This is a great resource, especially for graduate students that might be new to citation software and trying to figure out what to use throughout their graduate student tenure.  I’m guessing most of us that use citation software on a regular basis, and have for years, are still using EndNote.  Judging by the features on the resource page, it might be time to look into some of these other services.  I’m currently giving Mendeley a try, and already tried Zotero.  I really liked Zotero, but when I experimented with it I had trouble saving citations that were behind Penn State’s authentication…hopefully that is now remedied! 

Happy Citing.

Facebook Research

Today I had the pleasure of listening to a talk by Dr. Rong Yan, a research Scientist at Facebook.  Dr. Yan was speaking to IST students in the Cybertorium regarding some of Facebook’s research undertakings.  The talk was enlightening and also peppered with some interesting statistics.  The overall research question for Facebook:

“Can we understand users better and help them to share more content and connect with more people and friends?”

This question led to several sub-questions, three of which Dr. Yan focused on today.

  1. What are people talking about in the newsfeed? Facebook users spend 20 billion minutes logged into Facebook each day (I wonder how much of that is idle time?), the majority of this time is spent on the newsfeed page.  Facebook users make 1.5 billion newsfeed updates per day.  Similar to twitter research, Facebook has several initiatives surrounding the analysis of newsfeed data.  One is the General Happiness Index, a Facebook application that takes the text from a newsfeed entry, and creates a happiness index based on positive and negative language use. 
  2. What types of advertisements are most useful to users?  Not something I’m terribly interested in, but ads bring Facebook over $1 billion in revenue a year so they are very interested. 
  3. Can we suggest face tags for each uploaded photo?  Facebook receives 2.5 billion image uploads each month, but 75% of the images have no friends tagged in them.  Facebook currently is testing an algorithm to do this, and it is suggesting tags successfully 99% of the time.

Remember, all of this data is being used to better understand users, to help them share content and make connections. Why don’t we abstract this to a University?  We could frame a similar research question here at PSU, something like:

 “Can we understand students better and help them to identify and grasp new content, also helping them to connect with faculty and other students with similar interests?”

Penn State certainly has the data, right?  We could easily look at trends in registration data, assisting students to find others with similar interests and create an environment where these students can come together to form study groups, clubs and so on to further their educational experience.  We have all sorts of log data from computers, that illustrate what types of web pages and PDFs students are searching for in our labs and dormitories.  Couldn’t this data be used to help inform class content for faculty?  What about ANGEL?  David Wiley spoke at the February Educause Conference about the mostly-wasted data under the hood of our CMS/LMS systems.   Why can’t we use the connections forged in these systems (emails between student and professor, message board postings, team configurations and all other forms of human-to-human interaction) to help give our students the best chance of success?  Many of these data points will also help drive content decisions, allowing us to get a better understanding of what content works in a course, and what content might need some polishing.

I do understand the massive policy hurdles involved with something like this, and how difficult it would be to build and implement systems that could assist in such a momentous undertaking.  But it’s still worth thinking about how we can leverage all our institutional data to help create a better educational experience for our students.

Mobile Learning

I just uploaded our second research kit over on the “SITE Research” page dealing with mobile learning.  Similar to our research kit on assessing educational games and simulations, this kit contains:

  • Current research, specifically meta-analysis articles with summaries of current research efforts.
  • Examples of specific studies with associated methods.
  • Specific variables of interest.
  • Several different research instruments.
  • Conferences and journals dealing with mobile learning.
  • Penn State and external resources to help interested instructors experiment with mobile learning.

If you have any comments or questions about the research kit, please do not hesitate to email me at Note that this is not intended to be an exhaustive examination of mobile learning research in education; rather a starting point for faculty interested in the application and/or research of mobile devices for learning.

Reading Compliance

As part of our Teaching Support Grant initiative (which we are currently accepting proposals via our application page) I get the opportunity to work with a wide variety of faculty on research projects that involve enhancing teaching and learning.  One such project involves the topic of reading compliance.  I recently sat down with several undergraduate students as part of a focus group, exploring the topic of students’ reading habits.  Some of the interesting discussions points:

  • Case studies/Journals vs. textbooks: Unanimously, students indicated that case studies and journals are much more valuable to their understanding of concepts.  One student mentioned that case studies specifically feel more “first person”, that the student can put himself/herself in the shoes of the writer and really see, first hand, what the author was attempting to do.  Compared to textbooks, which were referred to as “third person”. The authors of most textbooks simply provide the factual information in a manner that infers “this is the way it is, 100% of the time”. 
  • Students reported that they read case studies and journals more frequently, even if the instructor assigns this type of reading spontaneously (“I just found this great article on topic X, please take a look at this before tomorrow’s class”).  In addition to being a case study or journal article, the students also reported that this type of email and attachment shows that the professor is actively seeking new types of information to enhance student understanding.  By simply sending out an article via email, it shows the students that the instructor is thinking about the class and on the lookout for quality materials.  If the instructor thinks it’s important enough to send out an email, students often think it’s important enough to read.
  • One big complaint is that some instructors simply lecture straight out of the book during class times.  Some students expressed disappointment specifically when a professor uses the Power Point slides that come packaged with the book.  Students mentioned active discussion in class of the book’s content as a big determinant for whether they read or not.  If students need to come prepared to talk about the content, students reported a high motivation to read the assignment.

We are in the process of conducting additional focus groups on the topic and hope to provide a short summary towards the end of the spring semester or over the summer.

Penn State’s Education Technology Ecosystem

I finally put the finishing touches on Penn State’s Education Technology Ecosystem report. This document will likely live on the “SITE Research” section of this website until we move the blog and research page over to departmental webspace later this year.  The first draft of the report (what I’m calling version .1) contains information on the usage of the Penn State Blog Platform and Wikispaces, our institutional Wiki install.  Check it out and let us know what you think.  Big thanks to co-authors Jimmy Xie and Cole Camplese for ideas and assistance with the analysis.  Also thanks to Brad and Hubing for the data dumps.  This project would not have been possible without collaboration between the Schreyer Institute, Education Technology Services and Emerging Technologies

One of the highlights of the report includes a cluster analysis of blog users, which returns three classifications:

  1. Comment dominant users
  2. Entry dominant users
  3. Infrequent users

When we dig a bit further, we find that, over time, the entry dominant users’ GPA increases .06 GPA points from the time they start blogging, compared to .01 GPA for infrequent users and .02 GPA for comment dominant users.

The next minor update will add examples of faculty use of wikis and blogs.  The next major update will focus on the inclusion of iTunesU data.  Thanks to Brian in ETS for the recent export of iTunes data.  Once the semester calms down a bit, we’ll be getting that data into a format to mash with the datawarehouse and see what we discover…

Institute Research

We are in the process of moving this blog/website from personal PSU space over to departmental space, so I’ll be toying around with the settings over the next week or so in prep for the migration.  In the meantime, we created a “SITE Research” page, available from the top navigation of this page.  I’m putting a lot of effort into finalizing a large report on Blog and Wiki use that will eventually be posted to the Research page, and we’re also working on what we are tentatively calling ‘Research Starter Kits’, basic packets of information for our Teaching Support Grant recipients to hopefully jumpstart the research process around specific topics.  Anyone think of a better name or acronym instead of Research Starter Kits?

Learning Design Summer Camp 2010 slides

The presentation slides from the Learning Design Summer Camp are now available in PDF format. I’m working on the first draft of the actual report and I’ll be posting a link in the next few weeks where people can go do download that document. 

Some really good questions and ideas were discussed during the session. Many folks were interested in the number of blogs and wikis that are being used for educational vs. other purposes.  Unfortunately, that’s not something we can determine from the quantitative data; that will take a good chunk of time for someone to determine a random sample then go out and visit each URL to classify the usage of each space.  We are hoping to get to that, but it won’t be any time in the near future. 

A few notes of interest from the presentation:

  • When examining instructor use of both platforms, ‘Professor’, ‘Associate Professor’, and ‘Assistant Professor’ make up nearly 50% of all instructor usage of Wikispaces.  Those three categories of instructors make up ~25% of all instructor usage of Blogs @ PSU. One reason could be the flexibility of Wikispaces to be used for things like project management and research collaboration.  Another reason cited numerous times related to IP; it appears that faculty see Wikispaces as a much more secure space for their intellectual capital (but the Blogs @ PSU platform does allow individuals to create protected blog spaces).
  • When examining blogging characteristics and cumulative GPA of student bloggers, we see a significant difference between students that are infrequent users of the blog platform compared to those that tend to be entry-dominant users (creating several entries across several blogs, and staying active in the blog platform). When we examine pure means of these groups, the infrequent users experience a .01 increase in GPA from the time they first entered the blog platform to their most recent activity, where entry-dominant bloggers experience a .06 increase in GPA.
  • Both these platforms can play an interesting role in elearning at PSU.  Some folks are using Wikispaces as an elearning platform, which is an interesting idea if faculty do not have a design team to help launch an elearning course.  Biology 110 appears to be fully built-out in Wikispaces (PSU authentication required).  In terms of open courseware initiatives, faculty are creating some incredibly powerful online materials in both Wikispaces and Blogs @ PSU that Penn State needs to begin thinking about how these resources might be leveraged to enhance the breadth and depth of education across the system.

Please let me know if the PDF of the slides does not open properly.  For some reason I experienced troubles opening the file, but other colleagues indicate it works fine.