Tag Archives: wiki

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.

Web 2.0 tools: new territory for many learners

World map by Abraham Ortelius (1570)

For some time I have been incorporating the use of blogs and wikis into professional development for teachers as a tool for writing and thinking. This has ranged from one off workshops on topics such as read-write learning to Masters-level papers in education technology. Consistently I have found that participants have little experience in using Web 2.0 tools for writing.

In general, teachers are very familiar with using the web in a Web 1.0 mode – to access research and other resources. They are much less familiar with using it in a Web 2.0 mode – to write and publish. This appears to be consistent with recent research into other target groups: Luckin states that use of wiki technology is limited mainly to use of Wikipedia. (Luckin et al, 2008, page 5) and Kennedy states that The net generation are not big users of Web 2.0 technologies (Kennedy et al 2007).

Within the ‘write-and-publish’ mode of Web 2.0, there are some big differences in complexity. For example, maintaining a social presence (eg using Facebook) can be a simple matter of filling out an onscreen form. Writing and publishing with a wiki, however, is a far more demanding task both technically and cognitively. Educators need to bear in mind that even those learners who seem very comfortable on the web can struggle with the task of creating a wiki.

In an earlier posting I suggested that educators need better models for the use of Web 2.0 tools. I now believe that the models we need should be based on much clearer distinctions between the specific technologies that are often lumped together under the term ‘Web 2.0’

References and links

Kennedy, G et al (2007). The net generation are not big users of Web 2.0 technologies: Preliminary findings. In ICT: Providing choices for learners and learning. Proceedings ascilite Singapore 2007.

Luckin, R et al. Learners’ use of Web 2.0 technologies in and out of school in Key Stages 3 and 4. Becta, 2008.

Millea, J. The Net Generation are not big users of Web2.0 technologies.

Wikis: more than just collaboration

Definitions of wikis, especially in education, often state that wikis are ‘collaborative’. Most wiki software does support collaboration, but not all applications of wikis need to be collaborative. In fact, collaborative features can be detrimental if we want to publish our own writing and not have it changed or deleted… the reflective thinker may not want to be disturbed!

For example, I maintain a Mediawiki site for my own articles and other resources that I don’t want changed. It used to be an open wiki, but dealing with the spam became too time-consuming. So now the wiki is only open to be read by visitors, not for writing. I no longer feel the need to apologise for this – I don’t let others browse the documents on my hard disk, but I do let others browse (but not edit) the writing on my wiki. And there are plenty of other channels for collaboration out there.

Some wiki purists might say that using a wiki solely for your own writing, without allowing for input of others, is against the wiki philosophy. But I’d argue we should be able to use the tools in ways that best meet our needs, and the best tools provide flexibility in how we use them. And most of us have the need to write in different read-write modes: sometimes it’s private, sometimes it’s public, and sometimes it’s collaborative. The best wiki tools should let us easily write and manage documents in a range of read-write modes.

Ideally, Mediawiki would allow me to easily manage the read-write mode of any article and its associated discussion page. Unfortunately, it’s not that straightforward – permissions are set in the Mediaiwiki configuration file and the documentation warns against relying on the plugins available for finer-grained managing of permissions. So it hasn’t been feasible for me to effectively manage the read-write mode of individual pages on my main wiki.

Recently I’ve been trying out PMWiki, which makes much better allowance for controlling access to the wiki site and to individual pages within it. Any page can have a password for reading and a password for writing, and these can be set relatively simply. That means you have fine-grained control over the read-write mode of any specific page.

That’s just what I need – and I believe that’s what learners need too. Not all learning happens collaboratively: successful learners need to be reflective as well as collaborative. Effective Web 2.0 tools provide for personal reflection as well as more social approaches to learning.

Photo by Matan: Copy of Rodin’s ‘Thinker’ at Columbia University

Wikis, learning and faulty knowledge

Information and knowledge in a vocational education setting often has a significance beyond that in more academic courses: in fact, the life and well-being of the students and members of the public may depend on its accuracy. Consider the following scenario:

CC: photo Robert LawtonJan is a nursing lecturer in a department which has recently begun to incorporate a ‘community of practice’ approach, including the use of a wiki for students and staff to collaboratively build publicly-accessible knowledge resources. She logs in one Monday morning and sees that a student has added to the page on clinical practice, including information which is contrary to accepted practice and could put patients’ health at risk.

Jan is appalled: What if another student read that information over the weekend and put it into practice? What if a practising nurse has read it and is about to complain to Jan’s head of department? Jan immediately deletes the incorrect information, then wonders whether she has done the right thing.

How should Jan have reacted? In fact, if Jan’s department had been through a thorough planning process, the risk of faulty information being contributed as well strategies for dealing with it would have been identified prior to implementing the collaborative activity. So Jan would have known exactly how to react.

Some e-learning specialists feel that Web 2.0 tools like wikis have no place at all in vocational education because the risks of ‘faulty knowledge’ are potentially so great. I don’t happen to believe that, but I do believe we need to identify the risks when we are planning, along with what we will do when ‘faulty knowledge’ is contributed. And we need to share this with students beforehand, so that they too understand the risks and how these will be handled.

If we do identify that there is a risk of ‘faulty knowledge’ being contributed, we need to also identify how we will:

  • Monitor the wiki (ie how will we know incorrect information exists?)
  • Deal with the published incorrect information (eg is it deleted, corrected or annotated?)
  • Correct the students’ faulty knowledge (ie that underlies the incorrect information)
  • Maintain a democratic and motivating collaborative environment while retaining the right to intervene
  • Communicate the risks and how we’ll deal with them to students

I believe the potential benefits of exposing ‘faulty knowledge’ outweigh the risks – but we do need a well thought-out plan for dealing with incorrect and potentially dangerous information.

Photo by Robert Lawton