Design and usage of a private margin on public online discussions: Experiences from semester-long mixed-mode courses

Date created: 
Learning Management Systems
Self-Regulated Learning
Digital Annotations
Interface Design

In the transition from paper-based to web-based document sharing and commentary systems, the ability for readers to respond directly to what they are reading in a private, context-preserving, easy to use manner has been lost. While paper margins have been used for centuries for commenting and developing ideas, web-based systems have emphasized public contributions. This study examined if the loss of an affordance for private annotations could be significant to postsecondary learners. This question was addressed by adding a private “Virtual Margin” to an existing web-based forum used by two classes of Education graduate students, and examining their usage of it over the duration of a complete semester. The Virtual Margin was introduced to students at the start of the semester, but they were not instructed on how to use it to support their work, or given any grade incentive to encourage their use of it. Quantitative traces of students’ activity and detailed qualitative coding of their annotations indicate that several students in each class used the Virtual Margin as an integral part of how they participated in the web-based forum over the full duration of the semester. Some students clearly invested substantial time and effort in their Virtual Margin annotations, even though they knew there would be no reward for, or acknowledgement of, their work from anyone else. Three of the most common uses of the Virtual Margin were to privately record opinions on other students’ notes, to create summaries of them, and create private drafts of notes to post publicly at a later time. Less common uses included reminders for themselves and diary-like personal reflections – which for one student involved a very large investment of effort. Some expected uses, such as self-monitoring, goal-setting and other self-regulatory behaviors, were observed to a much lesser extent.The results of this study suggest that a private, context-preserving virtual margin with a flexible and easy-to-use writing area has some potential to aid students in their learning and public forum contributions. Though a minority of students might use this feature, it is simple to implement and may contribute to time-on-task and student learning.

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This thesis may be printed or downloaded for non-commercial research and scholarly purposes. Copyright remains with the author.
Senior supervisor: 
Kevin O'Neill
Education: Faculty of Education
Thesis type: 
(Thesis) Ph.D.