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On my way to wiki

One professor's exploration of the wonderful world of wikis, and how they can help move students from passive knowledge recipients to active and collaborative learners.


My article on delivering energized lectures, as well as presentations on building functional and attractive web sites to support video streamed lectures, have been attempts to clarify how technology can play a role in enhancing the conditions for the first stages of student engagement – getting and keeping their attention.

Of course, energizing classroom lectures and/or delivering them to students anywhere, anytime is only the first step to encouraging learning. What the students “do” with the knowledge after they have seen and heard it really makes the difference in terms of their comprehension. Moreover, I believe that whatever they do to deepen their understanding is far more effective when done with their peers. My commitment to move students from passive knowledge recipients to active and collaborative learners, however, has always been constrained by class size and time.

In my small, three-hour seminars there is time to encourage deeper levels of active learning through facilitated discussion, student presentation and debate and, where appropriate, experiential learning exercises. Moreover, within the class, students work in small groups and their work often results in a creative explosion of flip chart notes describing their processes and outcomes.

In my large classes it’s harder to create the conditions for this sort of participatory learning in 50-minute tutorials. The limits of time and class size push my teaching assistants towards the more traditional forms of engagement – requiring students to present a reading and asking questions in order to stimulate discussion. Often they fall back on “re-lecturing” the material.

To improve this situation, I believe we needed to add something to our teaching tool kit that would engage our students in ways permitted by small seminars without taking up precious face time. It would also have to be easy to use and manage.

The “something” I discovered is one of the newer web-based social networking tools – the wiki. I had heard about this application several years ago, but like many academics my first reaction to it was colored by my negative impressions of Wikipedia. This changed, however, when I was asked to review and comment on the University of Manitoba’s, Learning Technologies Center, “Handbook of Emerging Technologies for Learning”.

This site turns out to be a rich resource for anyone in search of information about new learning technologies. Through the use of crisply written text, attractive graphics and links to supporting research, the authors lead the visitor through the contemporary learning theories and research that establish the context for the various modes of technology-enhanced teaching that have recently emerged. They then move from general descriptions of the “social software” tools that have been created as part of the transformation in web programming in the past 10 years, to detailed description of the tools themselves.

Having read the general description, I wanted to know more about wikis. I found them defined simply as web pages that can be edited by anyone (or at least anyone registered with a site), and in summary, this is how they work. Wikis:

  1. Are intended for collaboration – groups can build a project by putting their work (text and graphics) on a common page, where it can be reviewed and commented on by their peers.
  2. Use easy-to-learn markup language so text and objects will be properly located on a page being built or changed.
  3. Allow not only content to be easily changed but also to be restored having been changed previously.
  4. Record all edits and changes, permitting an easy review of who did what, when and at what level of complexity.
  5. Can permit participants to discuss content on line without changing whatever is on a page.

In addition, there were links to examples of the uses of wikis for collaborative learning across a variety of disciplines at the University of Manitoba, including textbooks created by students in one of the courses.

The description and examples indicated that a wiki page might be the answer to my needs but I needed to hear some realistic and practical talk from other users on some obvious questions: Is it hard to learn or to get the students to participate, and is it hard to manage and mark their outcomes and processes? For this I found two valuable resources:

  1. The University of Delaware site “Wiki’s in Higher Education” created by their instructional designer Mathieu Plourdes, who, in a summary table describing the work of wiki users, links each of their names to the mp3 file of an interview where they tell their own stories and answer the FAQs of new users.
  2. A videostreamed presentation by psychology Professor Ron Sheese, on a page of York University’s Center for Support of Teaching. He explains in detail how he built the “Psychology 1010N Inquiry Project” wiki by dividing his large class into small work groups, encouraging them to pose their own questions, and then answer them in the role of researchers preparing an annotated bibliography for a professional writer. He also gives advice on how to simplify the marking process and provides a humorous anecdote about how group “process struggles” manifest themselves on the page, making it easier for him to evaluate their final product.

By now I had read about wikis and heard others talk about them but, like my students, I needed to ground my understanding in “doing”. I needed “hands-on” experience. With the guidance of Cheryl Dickie, a York educational development specialist, I went into a page of Wikipedia that I thought needed a minor revision. When I clicked “edit” the page appeared in its text form and with some minimal use of markup language, I changed the page and hit save. The updated page was returned to the wiki server where it replaced the current page.

That did it. I’m now on my way to wikis in both of my large blended learning courses. I now have wiki-based assignments where students can learn collaboratively without sacrificing either precious tutorial time or trees for flip chart paper.

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  1. Ingo Peters / March 23, 2012 at 11:23

    Congratulations on finding a nice solution to make collaboration with your students easier! It’s great when technology can be made to fit our work processes, instead of the other way around.

    The easier you can make it for your students to participate, the more interactivity you will achieve. Wikis are a great start because it’s so easy to contribute comments or content.

    But there are other mechanisms that work well too. There’s a reason that the “LIKE” mechanism in Facebook is so popular: all it takes is one quick click for one person to tell another person he/she approves of their contribution.

    Very simple. Very powerful.


    Ingo Peters

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