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IF IT WERE THAT EASY: FIRST EXPERIENCES OF INTRODUCING A SOCIAL LEARNING PLATFORM IN AN UNDERGRADUATE CS COURSE

M. Meyer, T. Müller

Westphalian University of Applied Sciences (GERMANY)
Nowadays, students have different expectations as regards their preferred way of learning. A recent survey at our institution revealed that they prefer to learn in groups with their peers, independently from class schedules and outside university premises.

Although collaborative learning, the discussion of learning material and exercises, already takes place, e.g. through ad-hoc organized WhatsApp groups, it still lacks two important aspects:

- At first, not all students are included in such groups. Especially socially less integrated students may stay outside this social interaction and therefore have further disadvantages.
- On the other hand, difficulties in understanding individual topics that become obvious in such group chats, cannot be taken into account for the design of the upcoming class (selection of topics, focal points, in-depth examples).

In order to address both issues, we have set up a project to use the social learning platform Perusall developed by Eric Mazur and his group at Harvard University for which we also received a grant (“Fellowship for Innovations in Digital Education”) from our State Ministry for Culture and Science.

We have chosen the “Algorithms and Data Structures” course this semester which is particularly well suited as a pilot because: First, all learning material has already been prepared for a corresponding online course and, second, static reading materials (documents with text/graphics and possibly some animations) are sufficient to prepare for the respective classes. This scenario corresponds very well to the classical “reading assignments” use case supported by Perusall.

The overall goals of this approach are:
(1) to offer a platform to all students in class to work on the reading assignments online and 24/7 and to interact with their peers, comment, raise questions, answer those of others and give feedback about helpful comments from their peers, and
(2) to receive (automated) feedback from the students’ work on the reading assignments, especially about those aspects they struggle with most such that we can focus on these hard topics in class and e.g. prepare for different learning scenarios like peer instruction / flipped classroom etc. as seems appropriate, thus allowing for Just-in-Time teaching and making the best use of the precious contact time we have with our students in class.

However, when implementing this approach we had to cope with a number of issues ranging from minor technical ones as the LMS integration with Moodle, privacy issues (as regulations in EU/Germany are quite different from the US) to more serious challenges like motivation of students (incentives?) to really use the platform and get prepared for classes that do no longer cover all aspects but focus only on those the students struggled with most in their reading assignments.

Ultimately, it turned out that this approach needs a kind of a culture change towards an entirely different yet continuous learning process.