Imagine you are preparing to teach your second-year sociology class and you’re looking for a fresh way to get your students interacting with each other around a controversial theory of functionalism. Where would you look to find tips, strategies or fresh ideas? Perhaps a fellow instructor? The Learning Centre library? If only there were an easy-to-access, easy-to-search place to find all these resources, organized into a logical format.
That thinking was the impetus for a team at the University of New Brunswick’s Centre for Enhanced Teaching and Learning to create a student engagement wiki, which was launched in July 2010. “The SE wiki is designed for instructors who want to try new strategies for creating rich and meaningful learning experiences for their students,” notes Janice El-Bayoumi, who was the centre’s acting director at the time.
“We used a wiki so instructors could post, edit and comment. These are all critical aspects of the project,” says Dawn MacIsaac, the teaching and learning coordinator. Dr. MacIsaac notes that the wiki format is both a strength and a challenge: its strength is the ability to share user-generated comments and content; the challenge is that users unfamiliar with wikis have difficulty with the basic coding and find this a barrier to their participation.
A wiki is a website that allows multiple users to create, edit and organize a site’s content in a collaborative manner. It is only useful when it is populated with content and has active participation. The UNB team launched the wiki with about 150 items, to provide enough breadth and depth so that instructors would find it useful and would return and contribute. Many items were formal publications by authors inside and outside the university. Others were resources such as videos of teaching and learning presentations, online grading rubrics, and inventories of learning styles. After copyright details were worked out, articles were posted in PDF format to preserve the original article’s integrity. Although it’s not possible to edit them, the items each have an introductory wiki page that encourages people to use the edit button to contribute their thoughts.
A key design decision was how best to organize the materials in a logical and intuitive structure. The designers decided to use the five National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) benchmarks:
Active and collaborative learning
Enriching educational experiences
Level of academic challenge
Supportive campus environment
“Since UNB participates in the NSSE surveys, instructors are familiar with this organizational scheme,” Dr. MacIsaac explains. “The five bench-marks are rooted in well-documented teaching and learning principles, so this structure reinforces the importance of engaging students meaningfully.”
The alignment to the NSSE survey brings an interesting benefit: the designers can evaluate the wiki’s effectiveness by tracking activity levels in topics related to specific NSSE benchmarks and questions, and correlations with NSSE scores for those items can be examined.
The initiative was well received by faculty members like Ben Newling, a UNB physics professor. “I have found some excellent, useful articles on the SE wiki. I enjoyed, for example, articles on multitasking, learning styles, learning contracts and large classrooms. But the thing I enjoyed most was the sense of being a part of the teaching community at UNB engendered by reading the wiki.”
Site traffic is growing, but there is one drawback that may have kept participation low: the coding required to contribute is difficult for wiki newbies. To make things easier, the centre increased the range of “one-button” formatting and linking features through “wiki extensions.” Also, it conducted a focus group with instructors to demonstrate the steps for contributing, and asked for suggestions for improvement. Once instructors saw the steps involved, they were more comfortable with contributing.
Currently, only UNB faculty and staff can access the site. Longer term, the centre wants to give students access so they too can see what strategies are being used in their classes and comment on their effectiveness. Ultimately, staff at the Centre for Enhanced Teaching and Learning hope instructors will get in the habit of posting their teaching experiences to the SE wiki as soon as they try new ideas, so others can try them and comment.