Teaching and Learning in a Net-Centric World

Online 3 Minute Thesis Contest at Athabasca

I’m intrigued by this “speed dating” approach for disseminating and promoting thesis research. A thesis is a LOT of work, and results are usually buried in 150+ page tomes – thus the need for new scholars to be able to present their work succinctly and efficiently.  The 3 minute thesis (originally developed at University of Queensland Australia) seemed like an ideal format for developing communications skills and confidence and be fun for both contestants and the audience.  Other 3 minute thesis contests have been held F2F, however, Athabasca graduate students are located around the globe (literally) and so we needed to use a distributed platform to host the event. Of course, the organization of the event also had to be easy and inexpensive so as to fit into my busy schedule and budget as well.

In this post I detail how this, to my knowledge, world’s first online 3 minute thesis contest worked, with a hope that it inspires similar contests.

At Athabasca University we have access to the Adobe Connect web conferencing system so it was a natural choice to use this tool set. Many of our students are familiar with Connect interface and as expected the system worked well. Given the strict time restrictions, I had to upload a free event timer plugin for Connect and developed a poll to be used for the participants to select a “People’s Choice” winner. I encouraged the participants to use a web cam, but this was optional given some of the bandwidth and technical challenges faced by some of our students.

I promoted the even using the Athabasca Landing – an ELGG based social networking system we have built at Athabasca. I provided links to  a few of the YouTube videos of  3 minute winners posted from other Universities. To minimize the work of scheduling, I opened a WIKI on the Landing and asked contestants to edit it by adding their name and the title of their dissertation. We followed the rules and judging criteria the rules posted by the University of Queensland. Each of the contestants is allowed a single slide, which I loaded into separate in Connect. For a prize we offered a conference registration at the annual Canadian Network for Innovation conference and a smaller merchandise ($200) award for the “peoples’ Choice” winner.

For judges I asked our Dean of Graduate Studies Pamela and my colleague George Siemens, with the only training for them being a review of the Queensland Criteria of:

  • Comprehension: Did the presentation help the audience understand the research?
  • Engagement: Did the oration make the audience want to know more?
  • Communication: Was the thesis topic and its significance communicated in language appropriate to an intelligent but non-specialist audience?

The evening of the big day, found about 8 contestants and 20 participants (I had hoped for more of grad students and faculty, but….). The presentations went really well, no technical problems and the audio and video were only web conference quality- but good enough.  Each session took about 8 minutes from start of one to start of the next  with a question or two at the end from the audience via voice or the chat window. At the conclusions I separated  the three judges into a break out room and we selected the winner, while the audience voted for their favourite. The 3 judges selected one plus three honourable mentions – one of which was also selected as the People’s Choice. Fortunately one of our judges took great notes and was able to provide encouraging but critical comments on each presentation.

Main Lesson Learned:

  • Don’t try to be the host, the web conference manager and a judge at the same time. – sharing these roles would have much saner!
  • Allowing for a short comment or a question from the participants seems to add value and humanize the process without extending the time too greatly

At the conclusion we talked about the suggestion from one participant that given the nature of distribution, time shifting requirements and the fundamental access requirements of distance education, we should allow recorded, asynchronous entries.  However, I think the consensus of the participants was that real time communication always has a place and that the tension as well as the immediacy makes for a more exciting contest. In addition recorded presentations will always favour those with greater technical and production skills and we are after demonstration of research dissemination skill. We also talked about the value of including other disciplines in the contest (ours were all MEd and EdD students). Obviously there is value in taking a 3 minute peek into other disciplines, but I think it is more relevant and perhaps has greater personal value for students to see examples of research work that they can emulate, benefit from and understand!

The web conference recording is rather long, and shows far too much bumbling by the host, but it is available for anyone who wishes to experience the event.

Next step is to recruit other open or online universities with distance education research programs and begin Athabasca’s domination of the 3 minute DE thesis world!

 

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