What is Visible Effort?
Visible Effort is a theoretically-grounded knowledge management and learning feedback tool suite for wiki sites. It was created by Dr. Sorin Adam Matei, Associate Professor at Purdue University to measure group interactions and collaboration. It can be used for optimizing online group learning activities by measuring and visualizig the amount of equality and the emergence of social structure in groups that participate in Computer-Mediated Collaboration (CMC).
Building on social entropy theory, drawn from Shannon’s Mathematical Theory of Communication, VE captures levels of CMC unevenness and group structure and visualizes them on wiki Web pages through background colors, charts and tabular data (see chart to the right). Visual information is designed to provide learners entropic feedback on how balanced and equitable their collaboration is within their online group, while helping them to maintain it within optimal levels.
The ideas behind the site are described in the paper Visible Effort: A Social Entropy Methodology for Managing Computer-Mediated Collaborative Learning, by Sorin A. Matei, Robert Bruno, and Pamela Morris. The project was also inspired by the ideas introduced to the general public in "Decoding the Universe" by Charles Seife, which in part builds upon Shannon's communication theory. A preview for "Decoding the Universe" can be found at Google Books. Shannon's Mathematical Theory of Communication on Amazon.com
How does Visible Effort work?
The VE wiki continuously monitors and measures how well structured are the groups that collaborate on its pages. If needed, it can also be used to maintain collaborative work within certain levels of equity and evenness. Thus the tool serves a double purpose. On the one hand, it can be used as a monitoring tool, for understanding how collaboration is structured. On the other, it can be employed for adjusting collaboration along particular parameters desired by the instructor or site administrator. The wiki is built around the MediaWiki platform, through which content can be edited by any user, including non-registered ones, all changes are permanently stored, and access to information that was edited or added is instantaneous. In addition, all pages come with “talk” areas, which allow discussions and interactions about the editing process. This makes it well adapted for collaborative work, especially of a textual nature.
The fact that all contributions of all users are preserved, regardless of whether they were incorporated into the current version of the text or not facilitates an ongoing analytic process that can tell, for each point in time, how even or structured the process of collaboration is. This is accomplished by counting the number of words that each user has contributed to the document. This count may also include credit for images or other types of content, an option given to the administrator. There are two counts that may be utilized. The gross contribution uses the total number of words the user has contributed over the document’s entire life, whether those words have survived into the current version or not. The net contribution is the count only of contributed words making it to the current, or latest, version of the document. Once calculated, these values are stored by VE for each revision of the document, so that users can view the contribution scores for any past version of the document.
To process any particular revision for word counts, VE retrieves the wiki-markup pages for the current and the immediately preceding revision, converts them to plain text, and stores them in files. The UNIX utility is used to compare the files on a word-by-word basis. A value is calculated for each specific version and preserved in the wiki. Entropy values are then used to shape the page layout using easily comprehensible conventions. The goal is to provide “at-a-glance” information about the collaborative process. As collaboration becomes more (or less) even, background colors change and the graph indicates the size of the collaborative group and who has done the most work so far. In this way the cognitive friction involved in apprehending the project’s collaborative status is dramatically minimized. Key visual elements of the collaborative space (page) are formatted using visual cues that communicate the project status through a diversity of measures. The visual elements involved include text frames and background colors, textual highlights, interactive displays (charts, diagrams, and visual gauges), etc. Of these, the most important is the frame that surrounds the page, which changes colors/shades according to the entropy value of each page version that is displayed at a particular point in time -- the colors darken or condense as the level of entropy increases. This communicates, at a glance, to the instructors and to the users how even (or structured) the collaboration process currently is. When the color is the lightest, the collaborative effort should be assigned to only one member of the team, thus entropy is 0. When the color is the darkest, there is perfect equality (evenness/high entropy = 100).
In addition, there is a chart that visually reflects the distribution of effort for each collaborator as well as tabular information that reflects the number of words or characters contributed by each individual. The system allows electing to visualize or not visualize the entropy levels of each given page (it can be turned “off”), according to the manager or instructor’s preferred strategy. They can use the entropy level as a direct indicator for the students, who would be able to see how even or balanced the collaborative effort is. Or, they can hide the information from the students, who would work blindly. Managers or instructors would only send textual and verbal messages to participants about their level of contribution or, given the data provided by VE, they can alter or however improve the assignment while it is underway.