Obsidian Class Vault Review

This semester, in addition to trying to run my classes in a HyFlex format as we came out of COVID lockdown, where students would have unprecedented flexibility to choose the mode of interaction they were most comfortable with, I tried using an Obsidian vault to house my reading content. Previously I had been using an Open Educational Resource (OER) ebook I had written; this semester I transferred that to a vault, divided it up into bite-sized pages, added questions for discussion to each, and made the whole thing available to my students in a private Dropbox folder.

Early last Monday morning, I loaded the last batch of “chapter” content into the class vault for my Modern World History this semester. The vault is now pretty much populated with all the content from my OER textbook, along with a few “extra credit” posts of link pages by my students. There are fourteen weekly folders which each have an average of ten pages of content. Each of the pages has links to additional information: names of people, places, things that the students should know something about. Many of these I’ve added pages for; others I’ve left “empty” so the students could add information themselves.

By looking at the graph, I (and the students) can see how the different pages connect to each other. In some cases, this is through a “next page” or “prior page” link that I put on the content pages to facilitate navigation. In many cases, however, this is because ideas such as “wheat”, “The Columbian Exchange”, or the “Ottoman Empire” appear in a number of places, and we can use the graph to visualize these connections. The big gray nodes are the most connected pages of content. The tan nodes are the students’ hashtags, which they use to mark their answers to Questions for Discussion as well as pages that they contribute to the vault. I can click on a student’s node to open a search window that will show me all their activity. This helps me get a sense of what they’re focusing on in the content, and also of course to grade them for participation and for answering questions.

Next semester, I think I’ll try this again in Modern World History. Since I’ll have the headstart of being able to copy and redeploy this vault, instead of needing to add each chapter in and format it, I’ll be able to devote more of my prep time to making additional reference pages and videos. As I’ve been thinking about the equivalence of modes that HyFlex offers, where I’m trying to make the students’ experience and learning outcome similar whether they attend in person, remotely on Zoom, or asynchronously online, I’ve been thinking of trying to emulate that with my course materials. If the stuff I’m telling them in lectures is also available in video, podcast, ebook, and in the interactive Obsidian vault, will there be more chances for students to find the format that engages them and works for their particular learning style? Or the combination of formats that help them reinforce their understanding and do the repetition work that will help them remember? I’m going to be learning more about retrieval and repetition this summer, so I’ll have a chance to try some of those theories out.

I will also begin much earlier in the semester, having the students add pages themselves. One of the things I thought was potentially quite powerful was the ability students had to be authors of information in the vault as well as just consumers of it. I think this could be transformative for History and Social Studies Ed. majors, but also very meaningful for general education students. The idea that knowledge (especially historical knowledge) is a joint construction created by a dialogue between the text, teacher, and student might help them become more active participants in their learning. Helping to add to the vault of information that is the class might be a useful way to reinforce this idea. We could start very early in the semester in small groups. Then move to pairs. By the end I could be asking students to add pages individually. Thirty students producing an average of five pages would be an additional hundred fifty pages of content. That could cover a lot of topics.

Is there an analogous activity I can have the students do, if they are unable to access the class vault? (will there be a mobile version by fall?) Maybe a website with additional wiki-style pages? I don’t necessarily feel that the students who can’t access Obsidian need to have an experience that tries to simulate Obsidian in an older technology. I think it’s different, so the students will have a different learning experience and that’s that. The outcomes can be equivalent without the experience being identical.

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