Tag Archives: wiki in education

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.

Helping learners write and think with a wiki

A tool for thinking

In my professional development activities with teachers I often build in opportunities to learn using wikis. For many, it’s the first time they’ve edited a wiki so these activities provide useful exposure to the technology. But for me the key benefit is that wikis provide a tool for learners to organise their thinking as a key stage in writing, publishing and collaborating.

Read-write matrix screenIn an earlier post I’ve talked about the benefits of read-write learning in professional development.

See also the read-write matrix of web 2.0 tools for learning.

Since I like to focus on the cognitive benefits of wikis, I try to avoid spending too much time on how to use the wiki. I also like to keep participants focused on the thinking aspects of writing rather than the more mechanical aspects. In other words, I don’t spend time on the features which are more related to ‘making text pretty’, but I do spend time on features related to ‘organising thoughts’. In fact, I like to eliminate anything which gets in the way of the thinking process at this stage.

Features which support thinking

In practice, this means that once learners know how to go into edit mode, they need to find out how to create a link to a new page very quickly. And since unexpected new pages and links get in the way of the thinking process, I turn off CamelCase linking if possible and focus on using square brackets for links. That’s quick and easy to demonstrate and learners can be creating a multi-page wiki resource in just a few minutes.

If we’re using Mediawiki, headings are important since they provide structure to the page through the automatic table of contents. In other wiki software where a heading is primarily a formatting feature, I don’t spend time on this.

Lists (ordered and unordered) are also very useful for organising thoughts, so that’s something else which I tend to demonstrate reasonably early on.

Tables are another strategy for organising text – unfortunately the wiki markup for creating tables tends to be confusing for learners. Where the wiki software has a WYSIWYG editor inserting a table is fairly straightforward. But if you’re using Mediawiki then a tool such as Shawn Douglas’s Excel-to-Mediawiki converter might be useful.

Of course, once the writing process is further down the track, learners do want to ‘pretty up’ their text and that’s perfectly valid – that’s when ‘just in time’ learning has its place! In fact, learners mostly work the formatting stuff out for themselves anyway – if the wiki has a WYSIWYG editor the toolbar is very familiar. If they have to use wiki markup, I show them how to get to the editing help page and leave them to it.

Extending the read-write matrix

Read-write matrix of Web 20 tools for learningLimitations of the matrix

The read-write matrix provides a model for analysing the roles of learners in working with documents in a Web 2.0 context. The complexity of Web 2.0 tools, however, has prompted me to explore ways of extending the model to provide more detail, including different forms of contribution and collaboration. In addition, some readers have found the two-dimensional matrix difficult to interpret.

I’ve been wondering for some time how to show additional dimensions to the read-write matrix. This is necessary because it’s helpful to distinguish between different sorts of editing rights. For example, the blog reader cannot usually edit someone else’s blog posting but can normally add comments to it.

We can simplify the read-write matrix by considering only three user types:

  • self (the learner)
  • peers (fellow learners enrolled in the same course)
  • the world

We can now assign a value to each of these user types based on the ability to:

  • read the document
  • comment on the document
  • edit the document

Table 1: mapping the roles

We can now create a simple table for any given application of Web 2.0 tools:

Edit Comment Read
Self X X X
Peers X X
World X

We can use such a table to define clearly how we might want a specific wiki or blog activity set up for a learning activity, and we can use it to communicate to teachers and/or students how an activity is meant to work. A simple tick or cross in a cell shows that that user type has that role.

Table 2: the geek version

And for the more technically-minded, we can steal an idea from Unix’s chmod to provide a shorthand way of describing the characteristics of the activity:

Edit Comment Read
Self 4 2 1
Peers 4 2 1
World 4 2 1

We now have a shorthand way to describe the read-write roles within a learning activity using (say) a blog or wiki – add the values in each row that apply and show as a three-digit number. The roles shown in table 1 would be 731. (I’m not sure that this version will be popular, however!)

Where to from here?

We could easily extend either version to include the additional user types in the read-write matrix: the sub-group of peers and the wider group of a learning community. We could also add other types of contribution in addition to commenting and editing: eg annotation or bookmarking.

In addition, I envisage simple planning tools which incorporate something like table 1 to help communicate decisions around educational use of Web 2.0 tools to other teachers, technical support staff and learners. The table extends the read-write matrix by adding detail to the types of collaborative contribution, but also provides a simple means of communicating the analysis to others.

The read-write matrix of web 2.0 tools for learning

A few years ago, Scott Leslie published his matrix of some uses of blogs in education, which provides a very useful analysis of potential applications for teachers and learners.

For my professional development workshops, I wanted something similar but which was focused solely on learning applications. In addition, I wanted to reflect some of the additional options that learning management systems such as Moodle and Blackboard provide. In particular, wikis and blogs within an LMS tend to provide greater granularity and control of who can access learner-created documents.

To reflect these needs, I’ve developed the read-write matrix of web 2.0 tools for learning which maps various uses of blogs and wikis onto a similar two-dimensional matrix to Leslie’s. The matrix is intended to apply also to other Web 2.0 tools for writing, such as Google Docs.

The purpose of the read-write matrix

I’m hoping the matrix will be helpful to teachers in planning the educational use of Web 2.0 tools. Careful planning is needed because:

  • While blogs and wikis within learning management systems typically are less sophisticated functionally than stand-alone software tools, they provide more complex options for controlling who reads and who writes.
  • For varying combinations of read and write access, there are both risks and opportunities for learners and effective learning. It’s important to consider these and how they will be best managed.

Presentation: the read-write matrix


The presentation should be reasonably self-explanatory, or you may prefer to read about the matrix first.