Study detail

The following is the Study Detail document approved by SFU’s ethics board. I’ve lightly edited it to remove identification of the particular courses my subjects are taking.

Outline for Patterns of Virtual Margin usage in semester-long mixed mode courses research proposal


In the transition from paper based to web based communications we have lost the ability to write on, or annotate, the messages we exchange. Paper margins have long been used for this purpose as an aid in people’s remembering. Therefore it might be useful to add annotations to web-based discussions which are now heavily used in many distance and mixed-mode courses.
A “scratch” writing space removes the ‘publish it or lose it’ ultimatum. Thoughts can be returned to which allows a collection of work to be built up over a period of time prior to making them public.
Previous studies have looked at the Virtual Margin interface and its usage for one Knowledge Building exercise. This study will cover a whole semester and a whole class to see if students find additional uses for it, and if those uses change over time.
The core purpose of the virtual margin is to aid people’s remembering. The thinking is that it would be a useful learning tool.


My MA thesis research suggests that the Virtual Margin would be very useful in Knowledge Building, and in some surprising ways. This study will investigate how this potential plays out in two courses through a full semester.
Students will access the Knowledge Forum, KF, application via a proxy that mediates the student’s web browser and the KF server message exchanges. The proxy will add the Virtual Margin to the KF notes and views. The Virtual Margin will be part of the interface, it but can easily be ignored. It will be the students’ choice whether to use the virtual margin. What we want to see is what uses students make of it, and how do those uses change over the course of the semester. Our expectation is that if the Virtual Margin is not useful, students will tend to not use it. If it is useful, they will use it.
Whether it is useful to a particular person is likely dependent on their studying style, learning style and comfort with technology. Every book and journal has margins. Most people most of the time ignore them. But some people choose to use them for various purposes. I anticipate the same will be true for the Virtual Margin.


Masters students and PhD students in Fall 2009.


The students’ online discussion contributions, and their Virtual Margin annotations. Interviews with masters students concerning their annotations and use of the Virtual Margin.
Because I am one of the students in the PhD course, I will not view the annotations of the other class members prior to the end of the semester. One of the attributes of the Virtual Margin is the privacy of one’s annotations. By refraining from viewing my fellow classmates annotations until the semester is over, this privacy is preserved.
The data will be stored my supervisor’s office on a password protected server computer that will remain in this office at all times. The office will be kept locked unless my supervisor is present.
The data will be kept for two years, or six months after the defence of my dissertation, whichever is longer.


We don’t really know what to expect. We’re still at the point of finding out what happens when people try it. We’re not at the point where we think we can demonstrate that it aids learning. We’re trying to demonstrate usefulness, and what those uses are, what potential uses might be, and how it might be made more useful (if indeed it is).

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