Tag Archives: collaboration

Assessing student contributions to a wiki

The article Towards a Process for K-12 Students as Content Producers by John Concilus has some great ideas. I really like the way he refers back to well-founded research from an earlier era (eg on process writing and writing for an authentic audience) while discussing the impact of new technology. John’s in-depth article raises lots of interesting issues and explores how tools such as a wiki can be used in student learning without lapsing into over-simplistic promotion of the tool.

One innovation he describes which raises some fascinating issues is the WikiDashboard, which provides a way to analyse individual contributions to a collaborative wiki. WikiDashboard shows a list of users who have contributed to a page and quantitative data about the amount each user has contributed and when they did so.


While this tool provides fascinating information on who has edited a wiki article, I have some strong reservations about its use as an assessment tool. My main concern is that it provides an easier way to quantify contributions but does not really provide any qualitative insights into the quality of these contributions. The danger here is related to the assessment dilemma – we tend to assess the things that are easy to measure, but these are often less important than the things which are harder to measure.

If we want to assess educational outcomes such as higher order thinking, analysis and critical thinking, we need to assess qualitative evidence. While the Wiki Dashboard is a great tool that can help an assessor find qualitative evidence, the data it provides is not in itself such evidence. It can help us find who wrote what content on a collaborative wiki, but we still need to assess each person’s contribution qualitatively and avoid any tendency to use its percentages in allocating grades.

How secure are your course materials online?

If you’re using an online service such as Google Docs to share your teaching materials or for students to publish their work, you’ll never want to see a news item like this:

Gurgle Docs Is History

Disgruntled employee pulls the plug

Earlier today, a Gurgle spokesperson expressed regret that the popular document sharing service is no longer available.

“Everyone kind of assumed we had a big server farm running Gurgle Docs, but actually it was all on an old iMac in someone’s office. When that employee was laid off recently, he formatted the hard disk on the way out.”

The spokesperson continued that while the company had no backup and no way of restoring users’ documents, he was sure that users did have backups of any important files.
(cont on page 3)

Tongue in cheek, of course, but there’s a serious issue here: how to ensure the security and continued availability of online resources. Whether they are resources developed by the teacher or the learner, if there is only one accessible copy the resource is not secure.

While the incident described in the spoof news item above is very unlikely, a number of things can go wrong with online services. Firstly, the service can withdraw or stop developing a feature, such as Google did with Notebook which is no longer available for new users. If you’re lucky (as with Notepad), the service provider will let you export your data. Another example is the withdrawal of an RSS feed service by Facebook.

A more serious problem is when a service fails for business or technical reasons – this happened recently when ma.gnolia had a serious technical failure and user data was lost. Even if you were lucky enough to retrieve all or some of your data, this would clearly be a major disruption to a teacher relying on the service for course delivery.
(See also http://mashable.com/2009/01/30/magnolia-data-loss/)

Some learner-contributed content (such as forum postings) tend to be reasonably transient, and their loss might not be a disaster. But imagine the problems caused by loss of access to data where learners are encouraged to create an e-portfolio directly in Google Docs. As I’ve suggested elsewhere in relation to YouTube’s Quick Capture, it’s much safer to create local files and upload them than to work directly in the online service.

When incorporating the use of online services into a course, I recommend that teachers:

  • Check the terms of service – who owns the copyright of contributed content? Can the service provider start changing for the service? Do they have the right to withdraw the service without notice? Do they have the right to delete any content without notice?
  • Advise learners on clear strategies for ensuring backups of all files, and on any limitations imposed by the terms of service.

Loss of data can cause irreparable damage to a student cohort. Online services can prove to be very valuable components to teaching and learning, but we do need to take a few sensible precautions to ensure security of content and ongoing access. Most of us have experienced loss of data through careless backup procedures: the loss of teacher-generated and learner-generated content for a whole course could be much more embarrassing!

Building a bilingual glossary in Moodle

The context

Glossary entryI worked with the management and teaching staff of a small provider to plan strategies for developing the organisation’s capability to incorporate a blended / flexible learning approach into its training and education. One key component was a short professional development programme for teaching staff, with the purpose of developing staff skills in using Moodle and incorporating its use into teaching and learning activities.

Initially, the staff had little experience with learning management systems and other online tools. There was also uncertainty about the appropriateness of incorporating online components into the existing face to face courses: staff shared a strongly-held belief in the organisation’s values and special character. In particular, there was a strong emphasis on establishing a sense of whanau in the relationships with and support for learners.

I knew that the professional development programme for staff would need to provide participants with a strong sense of ownership and engagement. I especially didn’t want to appear as some external ‘expert’ attempting to impose a culturally inappropriate model on the organisation. So I was keen to ensure the blended learning activities (online and face to face) incorporated and valued the participants’ Maori language and culture.

The method

Prior to the first face to face session I set up a glossary of key terms and concepts relating to flexible and online learning. Although these were mostly in English, I included a few in the Maori language. During the first face to face session, I demonstrated how to use the glossary, including how to add comments and new entries.

Over the next few weeks participants added additional content as they chose, including:

  • translation into Maori of English glossary entries
  • explanations of how a term or concept related to their own students and their culture
  • comments and questions on others’ glossary entries
  • additional material in their own language which contextualised the English term – for example, one participant posted a traditional proverb to illustrate a particular term

Although the glossary never grew to include many entries, I was impressed by the depth of thinking and contextualising that took place in a short period of time.


  • Because the Moodle glossary can be configured to allow both comments and edits by participants, there is plenty of opportunity for collaborative development of shared knowledge
  • The collaborative development of a bilingual resource not only provided a body of shared knowledge but helped establish an environment where the participants’ language and culture was valued and there was a sense of ownership of the online resource
  • I’d recommend this as a useful blended learning approach in a range of contexts: whether bilingual or not, the collaborative glossary can be very effective in building engagement and collaboration

Collaborative learning: It’s how you use a wiki that counts

wiki matrixMary Bennet at eScholars says:

Wikis are excellent tools for collaboration. When wikis are used students learn to collect and share information as well as publish and negotiate.

I agree with the first statement, but the second appears to confuse the tool with how it is used. It seems to suggest that the learning identified will happen because a wiki is used. That’s not the case – it’s the collaborative activities the teacher sets up based around a wiki that will (if successful) enable students to learn to ‘collect and share information as well as publish and negotiate’.

Use of a wiki does not automatically lead to learning to collaborate. Likewise, not using a wiki does not prevent such learning from occurring: other tools such as Google Docs can be used in learning to collaborate. So it’s how the tool is used that leads to the desired learning.

As I’ve described elsewhere, wikis are useful for more than just collaboration: they are also a very useful tool for non-collaborative learning such as personal reflection. So the thoughtful application of the tool is crucial to achieving success. Those of us working in professional development in education have seen poorly-planned incorporation of wikis and other technology tools lead to disappointment and disillusionment.

The use of a wiki as a learning tool within a course is more complex than a straightforward collaboration between a small group of co-workers working on a shared project. So how the wiki is applied in the learning context requires more careful planning. If this were not so, learning design would cease to be a productive activity, and solving the technical issues of incorporating a wiki and training teachers and students in its use would be all that’s required. The limited uptake of tools such as wikis in education suggests this is not the case.

Assessing student collaboration using a wiki

wiki matrixIn Wiki experiences in the classroom, Megan Poore provides an interesting anecdotal summary of one teacher’s experience with using a wiki as a tool for student collaboration on an assessment task.

One problem experienced was that students didn’t really collaborate: they tended to work in isolation from each other even though they were instructed to work in pairs: The idea was to have students use the medium as it’s meant to be used: as a collaboration space for students to build their understanding of the topic. But the fact that students did their work separately from each other, in Word, annulled the value of the wiki as a collaborative tool.

Admittedly, we don’t know the full story behind this report. But I believe this issue sometimes arises because of an assumption that the wiki is by nature collaborative. In fact, collaboration is more of an affordance of wikis rather than an attribute. An affordance provides the potential and possibility for collaboration but it does not occur automatically.

Students will choose their own ways of learning whatever the chosen tool. So if how they complete an assessment task is important, we will need to set requirements around this. It is relatively easy to establish a requirement to use a wiki: we just need to specify that that is the format in which it is submitted. However, if we want to set a requirement for collaboration, we will need to include that in the assessment criteria. And since collaboration is part of the learning process, we will need to be clear on what evidence would be available so we could assess it.

I enjoy using wikis as a learning activity and I like to incorporate their use into assessment where appropriate. But assessing student collaboration using a wiki can be complex and requires some major rethinking of the assessment processes.