Finding a common thread

BGU and MIT researchers are improving education via students’ online posts.

Student with laptop sitting on top of the earth globe (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Student with laptop sitting on top of the earth globe
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a method to improve higher education, analyzing students’ online forum posts to predict reading material questions and thus enabling teachers to intervene.
Dr. Ya’akov “Kobi” Gal of BGU’s Department of Information Systems Engineering, head of the Human Computer Decision-Making Lab, and his student team had already developed an algorithm that is equipped to make sense of how we can use open-ended educational environments such as virtual laboratories for statistics and chemistry.
Their new collaboration with MIT is based on a web-based collaborative annotation tool called Nota Bene, developed by MIT professor David Karger. NB is an in-place collaborative document annotation website targeting students reading lecture notes and draft textbooks. Serving as a discussion forum in the document margins, NB lets users ask and answer questions about their reading material as they are reading; it is currently in use by thousands of students in dozens of courses worldwide.
During the 2015 summer months two students from Gal’s lab, Orel Elimelech and Avi Segal, visited and worked with Karger at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT, mapping out the ways students interacted on the forum. Thread length, the researchers found, can be used as a metric for determining student confusion on a given topic.
“There were 128,000 single comments – that means it’s likely those students did not get the answer they were looking for,” Gal surmised. “There were hundreds of thousands of comments in the forum, but no one was looking at how the students were using them. By analyzing posts from previous courses, we can improve the education process. We are identifying the threads that will generate confusion ahead of time and making this information available to instructors.”
The project is part of the BGU-MIT International Science and Technology Initiative Seed Fund, launched in 2014, which enables the faculty and scientists at the two universities to embark on research endeavors.
American Associates BGU plays a vital role in sustaining David Ben-Gurion’s vision. It is headquartered in Manhattan and has nine regional offices in the US.