Wikis for teaching

This week I’m celebrating my first academic publication about a project I did with a group of English language students in an academic preparation course using wikis for writing practice. After the initial excitement of being published, and showing off my name in print to my kids (who promptly asked what was for dinner) it’s given me reason to revisit what I learned about wikis for teaching. The three most important points can be summed up as 1) choose your wiki carefully, 2) spend some time creating productive relationships, and 3) instill new ways of thinking about authorship.

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Choose your wiki carefully. Just in case you’re not sure what a wiki is, it’s a webpage that can be edited by multiple users. Now that Web 2.0 has provided us with (mostly) easy to use tools, it’s relatively simple to get your students working on a webpage together. However, not all wiki applications are created equal. The platform that I used for the wiki writing in my study was our institution’s learning management system, Moodle. My reasoning, and from the research that I had read, was that by using a technological system that was already associated with our course would be the simplest method for students to access. Now, I don’t want to disparage Moodle, as an open-source free software developed under constructivist principles it has many positive qualities, but the wiki facility is not that easy to use (for students or teachers). During preparation for my study, I came up against a variety of issues such as grouping students for particular wiki pages, accessing comments tabs, and creating links between pages. None of it was simple or straightforward. (After this experience, I was turned off Moodle wikis, but am happy to stand corrected if someone has had a more positive experience of using them recently).

Since completing this study, I have discovered other wiki platforms that have far greater potential, are simpler to use (for students and teachers), and look better to boot! If you want to go all out and have a great looking and simple to use wiki for your class you could use Ning.com, however, though it used to be free, there is now a subscription fee. On the other hand, a free, just as functional (though maybe not quite as pretty) option is PBworks. The free version provides a great platform with most of the bells and whistles, such as comments and file uploads, with the most difficult thing being to remember to hit ‘SAVE’ when adding content to a page.

Creating productive relationships. Wikis are great for providing opportunities for students to engage in collaborative group work. However, don’t expect that effective group work will just happen by putting students together with the technology. In fact, as most teachers know, effective group work doesn’t just happen because you put students together. Relationships are important, and spending time on building respectful and cohesive relationships in a face to face context will make your student groups far more productive in their online group work.

There may always be the groups that don’t work productively together, and with these students I’ve found that having particular roles can be an effective way for them to get things done. For example, you might ask one of them to be the group leader to make sure that all aspects of the task are fulfilled. Someone else might have the role of editor to check the content. Of course, it can be argued that students working in this manner are working cooperatively, rather than collaboratively. And this is true- there might not be as much cognitive benefit from divvying up the workload, however, I would argue that it’s better to be learning team work skills than learning nothing at all.

New ways of thinking about authorship. As the fundamental concept of a wiki is for collaborative content creation, the idea of authorship needs to be given some consideration. Many people that have been educated in contexts where knowledge is assessed on what you as an individual write in exams or essays, can find writing in a wiki challenging when the goal is to write collaboratively. For example, what if I want to change something that someone else has written, do I change it? What will the other person think? These questions are worth discussing with your students before asking them to do something that may feel (to begin with) intuitively wrong. Having an opportunity to think about how they might approach the situation and voice concerns is really important in order to begin thinking about the benefits and possibilities of collaborative writing.

Wikis are definitely a useful tool for today’s classroom, and from a constructivist teaching point of view have great possibilities for creating opportunities for collaborative learning. Make sure to have a play around with a few different wiki platforms, the easier it is for you to use- the easier it will be for your students. Think carefully about the best way that relationships can facilitate productive learning. And finally, challenge yourself and your students to think differently about what it means to create content- two (or more) heads are better than one!

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