Praxis portal supports student learning, collaboration, and networking

(Republished from February 23 iNews article)

Rick Jaffe, IST–Data Services

For three years, the Global Poverty and Practice Minor has introduced Berkeley undergraduates to the study of poverty and inequality. Each summer, it has sent them around the world to put that learning into practice and, upon their return home, led them to reflect upon and synthesize their experiences. Now, the Minor — the fastest growing teaching program on campus — has launched an innovative web portal called Praxis to support the work of its students.

Praxis portal thumbnailPraxis offers students Facebook-like functionality with a scholarly bent. Introduced last semester as a component of two courses, the site already serves more than 150 registered users. In Professor Clare Talwalker’s class, The Ethics, Methods and Pragmatics of Global Practice, students preparing for their practice experience, i.e., their fieldwork with a non-governmental organization working to alleviate poverty, use the site to submit and share their assessments of weekly reading assignments. Returning students in Instructor Liz Cretti’s IAS 196 reflection course use it to shape research notes and observations, gathered during their practice experience, into capstone projects.

This is just the start. As program administrators, faculty, and students grow familiar with the technology, they expect to develop new ways to tailor Praxis to their advantage.

Praxis website

Praxis portal thumbnail 2On its homepage (see screenshot), Praxis displays news and information about the Global Poverty and Practice Minor intended to keep students and the public up to date. A grid of profile photos, a tag cloud, and a list of groups help users make their way quickly to their areas of interest. A Google map, a poster gallery, and a video from YouTube show off the scope of the students’ initiative.

Praxis profile thumbnailThe profile page offers an opportunity for academic presentation of self. It’s useful for discovering people with similar interests — or needed expertise. The type of profile information shared on the site conveys its academic orientation. Scholarly writings, photo galleries, digital bookshelves, and video clips all provide the page owner further avenues of self-expression. On the Praxis site, the scholar’s network is labeled with the term “Colleagues”, rather than “Friends”.

Praxis group thumbnailGroup tools are available to classes, projects, and ad-hoc sets of members alike. Groups may form among people addressing specific issues, working in particular geographic regions, or coming from different disciplines. One student created a group to share expertise in photojournalism, as he and his classmates prepared to document their field experiences. Groups can be created not only by administrators, but by any member of the site. This is one of the important ways in which Praxis has been geared to the needs of the students, and not just the program.

Evolution of Praxis

The Global Poverty and Practice Minor

The Global Poverty and Practice Minor is a program of the Blum Center for Developing Economies. Enrollment this semester numbers above 300 students, up from approximately 150 at the beginning of the 2008–09 school year. Its hallmarks echo those of the Center: a focus on real-world conditions; a methodology of inquiry, alert to the ethical implications of actions; hands-on, practical engagement with pressing issues; and a strong value placed on self-awareness and objective analysis.

By immersing students in the complex, seemingly intractable economic, political, social, and personal realities of poverty, the Minor prepares them to be responsible global citizens. Professor Ananya Roy, education director of the Blum Center, observes, “They understand they are not going to solve the problem of global poverty. But from here, we can create a global, universal commitment to tackling structures of power, disadvantage, and inequality.”

To bolster this pedagogical approach, program administrators wanted a web-based platform that students could turn to as they progressed through their studies. For Alexis Bucknam, the inspiration was part ePortfolio, part journal. Bucknam, the Center’s director of Student Programs, wanted tools to help students collaborate with classmates and colleagues, and a setting in which faculty, alumni, and professionals in the field could serve as mentors and resources.

Recognizing the rapid growth that the Minor was undergoing, Bucknam also sought additional ways to communicate with students, and later, to stay in touch with them as they moved onto graduate school and careers beyond Berkeley. Fundraising is important to the program’s sustainability, and both Bucknam and Program Coordinator Eva Wong saw the need to create a venue to showcase the Minor’s impact — from the immediate effects of the practice projects to the longer-term contributions made by the citizen-scholars it trains.

OKAPI collaboration

In late 2008, the Blum Center staff brought the idea to Noah Wittman, manager of OKAPI, the Open Knowledge and the Public Interest program. Co-sponsored by the campus’s Office of the Chief Information Officer and Information Services and Technology’s Data Services department, OKAPI specializes in developing new tools for expanding participation in and broadening the reach and impact of campus research and education activities.

OKAPI staff members Lizzy Ha and Rick Jaffe joined the project. Working closely with the Center, OKAPI charted out a low-budget approach to devising a solution. It recommended creating a prototype using the free, open-source software application called Elgg and pulling together a small set of students to serve as the focus of an abbreviated user-centered design process.

The students briefed OKAPI staff on their upcoming practice experiences. Based on these conversations, the students were tasked with using the first prototype:

  • employ the blog tool and the discussion forum to drum up commentary on what to expect in Guangzhou, China;
  • use the shared calendar to notify neighbors in Richmond, California about community events and to solicit their participation;
  • put the group tools into service to organize the summer’s public health initiative in Mumbai, India;
  • get an advisor to review a fellowship application via the wiki.

Students were also asked to provide profile information about the direction of their fieldwork and their academic interests. They were shown techniques for setting up their personal dashboard, the starting page from which they navigate deeper into the site.

Through a series of group and one-on-one discussions with students, faculty, and administrators, OKAPI staff gleaned insight into how the site might be used, what features it needed to provide, and how it should look and feel. They experimented with names, asking the students for suggestions. Throughout spring 2009 and into the summer, they auditioned name-candidates on the masthead of the prototype site. Finally, one stuck: Praxis.

What’s next for Praxis

As spring semester 2010 starts, Praxis is in place and ready for use. The next chapter of the site’s story will be told by how well it fits the activities of its various constituents. For Professor Clare Talwalker, the site offers opportunities for student-generated networking and communication. For Alexis Bucknam and Eva Wong, it promises new channels for administering the program, advising students, and managing the myriad details of overseas fieldwork. For the students themselves, the challenge is to turn their social networking skills to academic advantage. With success, they will shape Praxis into a true portfolio: a holder for the notes, plans, writings, and resources gathered during their time in the Minor, and a place to display their expertise and their accomplishments.

Visit Praxis site.

Republished from February 23 iNews article.

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