NWACC Award for Innovation in Instructional Technologies

2015

Threadz: Discussion Visualization - Jeff Healy, Instructional Technology Manager, and Matt Lewis, Project Lead, Eastern Washington University

Project Overview

Built as a Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) integration to Canvas (EWU?s Learning Management System), Threadz is a discussion visualization tool that adds graphs and statistics to Canvas discussions.

Online discussions provide valuable information about the dynamics of a course and its constituents. Much of this information is found within the content of the posts, but other elements are hidden within the social network connection and interactions between students and between students and instructors. Threadz is a tool that extracts this hidden information and puts it on display.

The visual representations created from social network connections and interactions between students and instructors in a discussion assist in identifying specific behaviors and characteristics within the course, such as: learner isolation, non-integrated groups, instructor-centric discussions, and key integration (power) users and groups. By identifying these behaviors and characteristics, the instructor can effect change in these interactions to help make the discussions and classroom discourse more accessible to all.

Threadz is a tool that is easy to install, works across all popular browsers, is capable of expanding to other LMS platforms, and adds real-time dynamic visualizations and enhanced analytics to a course. Using the D3 visualization library (http://www.d3js.org), Threadz integrates dynamic, on-screen visualizations with current data extracted from an LMS?s discussion forum. These visualizations are available to both students and teachers and can be used as a diagnostic tool in understanding the behavior within the social construct of a discussion.

Innovation

Learning analytics is the use of data to better understand student and faculty behavior related to their learning environment and optimizing those behaviors and environments to allow students to flourish. Surprisingly, there are few learning analytic tools available to instructors that provide real-time feedback and analytics about their courses or students. The goal with Threadz is to simplify the complicated analysis of interactions between instructors and students, which, in turn, allows them to maximize the communication within individual discussions as well as the course as a whole.

Heretofore, there has been a tremendous amount of untapped information available from learning management systems regarding student and teacher interactions and behaviors. The data found in an online discussion can identify connections between each individual in a course and how directly or indirectly that individual is integrated with their learning environment. Yet this data is often hidden from students and teachers.

By looking at the social network connections in a discussion, patterns emerge on the activities and behaviors of individuals and groups. An instructor can use these patterns to identify behaviors and characteristics within the course, such as: learner isolation, non-integrated groups, instructor-centric discussions, and key integration (power) users and groups.

Providing quick and easy access to the data is an important element to implementing a learning analytics tool. Threadz is added seamlessly into an LMS (as an LTI) and is able to authenticate each user?s access to the data. By processing the most current data from a discussion in real-time, Threadz adds dynamic visualizations and statistics directly into the LMS.

Student Impact

During the pilot stage of development, Threadz was made available to a limited number of instructors for their courses. While students were not directly able to interact with Threadz during this stage, their instructors were able to evaluate the discussions used in their courses. Threadz provides information about which students might be isolated within the group or which groups are dominating a discussion. Instructors used this information to determine when to intervene and interact with individuals or groups. Often, a forgotten element within discussions is the impact of instructor interaction - Threadz assists the instructor in understanding if they are too involved in leading the discussion or too hands off.

Threadz doesn?t provide answers about whether a discussion is good or bad; instead, it provides the information needed to assist the instructor with making data driven decisions about if their pedagogical goals for a discussion are being met and what might need to be altered to improve the educational environment for students.

Transferability

As an LTI, Threadz will be able to be added to most modern LMS platforms. Currently, the development of Threadz has centered around Canvas and its data constructs, but the tool has been developed in a way to allow for expansion to other platforms such as Moodle, Blackboard, or Sakai.

Since Threadz uses student data, it needs to be locally hosted by each institution. Threadz has been licensed by Eastern Washington University under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Installation instructions are provide about how to adapt the tool to other institutions.