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Published September 12, 2010 | Electrical Engineering Technology

Using a Wiki for Student Projects

The teaching environment in industrial electronics has changed significantly in the last twenty-five years. It has become a world filled with software and computer intelligent systems exchange information on networks. Students are required to use design software to produce schematic and printed circuit boards (PCB Express) as well as supervisory and data management applications (INSTALCAL). Today, the Ethernet carries the Internet in industries, and robots communicate using WiFi. The recent implementation of a new program, which was a result of the Education Reform, was also a factor inspiring Michel Villeneuve to use the Profweb's Web Space to install a wiki. Michel enjoyed the challenge, and wasn't afraid to try new ideas!

One of the twelve student projects of the Course 243-506 AL submitted to Michel for correction in Fall 2009

The Wiki's Principal Attractions

Archiving unclassifiable documents!

In industrial electronics, there are a wide variety of student projects to keep track of, especially in courses involved with the preparation for the final comprehensive project such as 243-506-AL. The tasks that students perform in this project should be similar to the reality of working technicians: plan development, setting up and adjusting mechanical and electrical elements, programming PLCs (Programmable Logic Controllers) and regulators, troubleshooting power supplies, etc.

Topics must meet the program's requirements and provide a level of difficulty which corresponds to the abilities required by the student. A simple and natural solution is to draw upon earlier student assignments.

Given its variety (CAD drawings, Excel spreadsheets, drawings, diagrams, source programs, references in PDF format, etc.), collecting students' work has always been challenging. Despite initiatives put in place early in the program, results were often unsuccessful, and some essential modules were conspicuous by their absence.

Scheme for the project "Data Acquisition"

A simple and effective method to maintain the work over the years simply did not exist. Yet we needed such a database for students and teachers to draw upon.

The wiki site has responded to this need.

Encouraging Peer Instruction!

The main attraction of the wiki, we know, is to allow each member of a team to participate in the drafting of the content of the whole. This principle has interesting implications when considered in the context of school graduation.

Although the projects which are part of the preparation for the final comprehensive project and the work-study segment of the course are summative, they remain open to modification and correction. Fifth session graduating students are not yet experts in their field, and the challenges faced are not simple. In this sense, projects must be seen as evolutionary.

Feedback for these student projects would be of benefit! With the wiki, this becomes possible. A one-year long experiment may be improved upon the following year! This is an important feature of the scientific process.

Editing non-standard formats!

Another aspect of the archiving problem in industrial electronics that we had before the wiki came from the fact that elements of the technical report were often poorly suited to printing. We often work with programs that do not easily print hard copy. In particular, systems development for PLCs (Programmable Logic Controllers) that generate graphic code (Ladder, Grafcet) are difficult to reproduce.

Simple tools to use such as Snag-it require no programming and generate Flash files that insert into a wiki in the wink of an eye. You can add windows with scroll bars, context menus, links, movie clips and even sound.

A sample document with a non-standard format requiring a scroll bar.

Therefore, the motivation to use a wiki initially came from four requirements:

  1. to conserve student work in a more or less permanent fashion,
  2. to facilitate and encourage the publishing of student projects,
  3. to encourage the ongoing development of prodects in the future and
  4. to use formats suitable for online training.

Using the Wiki in Class

Last fall, We experimented with the idea of a private password-protected site. It is an option in Profweb's Web Space.

The organization of this project was very basic. The small group of twelve students in the fifth session worked with me in the lab. Given that the learning curve for using a wiki is so short, these students did not need training to learn wiki syntax. Students simply questioned me when they encountered technical difficulties.

Each student developed his project and documented it directly on a wiki page, dividing it into sections.

Problems Encountered

Problems with the wiki were encountered during the insertion of some file formats that required a drop down menu, including Flash documents. Profweb's technical support as well as that of our IT Representative ensured that the technology functioned as a tool and not a skill required for the course.

The Second Phase of the Project and Future Prospects for Development

This fall, the site will go public. As well, the collaborative work starts! All twelve projects from Fall 2009 will likely be taken by a student in the upcoming cohort and be improved. What will be measured will be the contribution in solving particular problems.

Comments left by Graduates are the Challenge!

In the future, third year students will reuse work done in first year, even their own! That's how I intend to develop the wiki in my classes! Some of our courses examine a problem more than once, with additional levels of difficulty. This is also part of my teaching strategy, to demonstrate the usefulness of learning achieved.

In this perspective, the wiki introduced a vision of progressive ongoing learning. The student can measure his progress. This strategy could support some program-based approaches, but this question raises the issue of training teachers in IT integration. For now, I see how beneficial this new paradigm is for students. The usefulness of a project and its relevance are measured and adjustments made through peer review.

Finally, I have introduced the wiki in conjunction with other colleagues. Even better, students can interact with others, possibly from one session to another.

Comment on the scope of the interest that the wiki has generated in industrial electronics. And feel free to join this new community of practice!

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