Just follow the crumbs (journey into incredible open educational content architecture)

On those many occasions when petty discouragements threaten to send me into a tailspin of recrimination and despair, I turn to a remedy that nearly always sets me right. I merely have to glance at the “Recent Changes” index on the UBC Wiki to be surprised and heartened by how people at our university are exploiting MediaWiki for their own ends.

Yesterday I came across the following entry in the index:

http://wiki.ubc.ca/Science:Math_Exam_Resources/ Courses/MATH101/April_2011/Question_1_(f)/Solution_1

That is one long URL chain… clicking it displays a solution to a first year math problem that confirms I’ve forgotten everything I supposedly learned in a calculus class that I somehow passed twenty years ago:

I see via the navigational breadcrumbs at the top of the entry that this solution is linked to Question 1 (f), clicking that I see:

The question is posted, along with a hint and a solution cleverly hidden in expandable boxes that can quickly reveal them. On the right hand sidebar (not visible in the screenshot) is a box indicating that the question, hint and solution have been reviewed and approved, as well as an index to other questions, exams and courses. Looking at the MediaWiki source for this entry, you can see that almost no content has been specifically created for this entry. Almost all of it has been transcluded and inserted from other content bits on the wiki via templates.

I climb the next rung on the breadcrumb ladder, to see that this question is part of the page MATH101/April 2011:

Where I can see that among other things there is a PDF of the original exam, and list of wiki pages with questions/hints/solutions that is dynamically generated below. The dynamic list is generated by precise construction of the wiki URL, and this whole page structure is highly dependent on MediaWiki templates… So the tool that both creates the proper page URL and also pre-inserts the necessary templates is useful, and probably necessary:

The next step up the ladder takes us to the Math Exam portal page for Math 101, which suggests that there will eventually be a set of these resources dating back to exams in 2005!

Finally, we can land at the Math Exam Resources home page, with resources for seven courses at present. We also see that resources will soon be collected and navigable by topic tags (!), as well as a pending section on study guides and tips.

Not only are all these resources eminently reusable and remixable to users of MediaWiki, they are embeddable in any decent HTML content management system, and can be assembled into all manner of nicely-formatted PDF’s (and given the level of granularity, highly customizable ones at that) with the Book Creator (sample here).

Now, the Math department at UBC features some true power users, so this represents a degree of complexity and sophistication that is unlikely to be replicated elsewhere. But it speaks to the power of the platform, and the open model, that this group is able to construct something this layered and powerful. Although I believe our amazing Wiki Gardener Will Engle has been consulting the Math group and answering queries, it’s been the users driving this innovation. And there are other, less elaborate approaches being developed by users in different disciplines… though one of the cool things we have noticed is that it seems that users are learning how to get the most out of the platform by observing, mimicking and adapting each other’s work.

Seeing how flexible and powerful MediaWiki can be, and reading the many posts by the likes of Tony Hirst on how data on this platform can be manipulated and remixed, I also wonder if there are untapped dimensions of MediaWiki as an open data engine…

6 thoughts on “Just follow the crumbs (journey into incredible open educational content architecture)

  1. Thanks for pointing this out. It’s quite amazing what happens around us without any kind of fanfare.

  2. Nice write up about a very amazing project. As the wiki gardener mentioned above, I just want underscore Brian’s comment that this project is being entirely driven, developed, and managed by individuals in the UBC Math Department and I’ve had almost nothing to do with it. It’s a completely user driving; however, as Brian mentions above, one of the great things about having an institution wide wiki is that users learn “how to get the most out of the platform by observing, mimicking and adapting each other’s work”. I’m enjoying watching the project grow (and I think it’s about to start scaling up) and looking at how some of the elegant architecture can be applied to other projects in the same platform. One of the things I really like about the title “wiki gardener” is that it encapsulates how wikis are usually user driven (bottom up growth) rather than admin controlled (top down).

  3. Thanks for putting this up Brian.
    Zack captured an important aspect of this” “without fanfare” – the thing that amazes me the most is how many people are using UBC Wiki, blogs or CMS and how many real-life practical needs have been addressed on daily basis: DIY, ticketing support, clinic – all without fanfare.
    If we were taking the typical, business analysis or project-plan-required approach, we wouldn’t be able to even write the rational for all the project plansnot to mention do them.
    Thanks for a bit of fanfare, though. Well deserved by the guys on the front line and the end users of the system.

  4. Glad to hear people like this project! Being behind most of the architecture of this project I can confirm that a lot of it was built by observation and mimicking. We have now almost 20 graduate students from the UBC math department working on this and we hope to start advertising this resource to undergrads by the end of the month!

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