Use of social software in a Master’s degree in Structural Biology by distance learning

Dr Clare Sansom, School of Crystallography, Birkbeck College

Research team:

Dr Clare Sansom
Professor Christine Slingsby

TRA4 C Sansom (Final Report) [pdf, 197kb]


This project involved an evaluation of a number of so‐called “Web 2.0” software tools as learning aids in an Internet‐based, M.Sc. level course in Structural Molecular Biology taught by the School of Crystallography, Birkbeck College London. This course has been running since 2001; students study for two years on a part time basis, with the option to defer the second module. Student numbers are relatively low, with about 30 students on a total of three modules in each year. They come from diverse countries and backgrounds, and a few students each year are sponsored by their employers. Before 2008, all students came from developed countries, but we have been awarded a total of 14 scholarships for students from developing Commonwealth countries in the last two years.

This M.Sc. course was set up in the late 1990s using software that was then innovative but now appears dated: Web‐based applications to view molecular structure, and email discussion lists and a text‐based real‐time chat facility (“the MUD”1) for interaction between students and tutors. We aimed in this project to evaluate the use of a number of Web 2.0 based social software applications in the course. The work principally involved students taking the first year module, Principles of Protein Structure (PPS), during the 2007‐8 academic year. These included the first intake of six students from Commonwealth countries in Africa (3), the Indian subcontinent (2) and South America (1).

The tools chosen for evaluation were a blog, a wiki, shared bookmarking, Instant Messenger (as a proposed direct replacement for the MUD), and the “immersive virtual world”, Second Life. In addition, during the project lifetime a small group of students set up a Facebook group for the course, and this student‐led initiative was evaluated with the other tools. The students’ experience with social software was surveyed at the beginning of the project and also alongside the annual student survey as they finished the course. The first survey was also given to past students; students from both groups were selected to take part in more detailed telephone interviews and as members of a “focus group” to explore Second Life. Approximately 90% of current students completed the initial survey, and 50% the second.

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