Using persistent wikis as a pedagogical resource
Wikis have become valuable tools for collaborative projects. A characteristic of wikis that has not been fully exploited in their educational applications is the ability to build content across multiple courses, or over time periods longer than a single term. This kind of wiki creates course continuity, benefiting both students and instructors. By extending the life of collaborative previous work. This work can become a subject area resource benefiting the organization, the discipline, or the public, and instructors can use wikis to maintain a portfolio documenting student work.
Wikis have become a valuable technological tool for active learning (see, for example, http://educationalwikis.wikispaces.com/). A wiki is a community website written collaboratively by users which users can change continuously. Educational wikis have been used as collaborative tools for class and group projects, increasing student interaction, and integrating Web content and multimedia into course projects that were not possible with term papers and other kinds of projects.
A characteristic of wikis that has not yet been fully exploited in educational applications is the ability to build content incrementally and preserve it over time periods longer than a single term. Here, I will suggest ways to create a wiki which continues from term to term – from one iteration of a course to the next, or within a family of related courses. Some of the benefits of this kind of wiki for students and instructors include
Accelerated learning curve. I have found that one of the most common challenges facing students in completing a large-scale project is getting started. This is compounded when students are also adjusting to a new format and new technological tools. Examples of previously successful projects are helpful in this regard, and when a course- or discipline- specific wiki already exists, students can explore, update, and build on the work of previous students, rather than starting from a blank slate.
Content resource. The best student work deserves to live longer than a single term; unfortunately, this is the usual life span of most projects. By virtue of its Web existence, wiki content has the potential for a longer useful existence. With a little careful overseeing, instructors can create a subject resource to be shared with other students and instructors in the discipline, or with the public. My students have often been my greatest source of inspiration for teaching materials, and their project topics and the resources compiled for them have formed the seeds for future lessons, which I would have lacked the inspiration or time to create myself. By building upon the foundation laid by previous students, subsequent projects based on these topics can be more advanced than if they were starting from scratch.
Continuing benefits and contributions. Students learn a great deal through the process of completing research projects, and from feedback received from the instructor; but students rarely, if ever, will read the term papers of other students in their class. A benefit of wiki projects is that by presenting the product of their work in an engaging way, and connecting them all via a central online hub, students can be encouraged to explore and interact about their work. When this hub persists over time, students have even more chances to benefit from these resources. Students in the discipline may refer back to this wiki in their future studies, or be encouraged to remain as active contributors. I have found that students take greater pride in their work when they know it will be viewed not only by the instructor, but by peers, future students, and the public.
Evidence of student achievement. Wikis can also form an important component of instructors’ teaching portfolios. In addition to the static ` syllabi and evaluations, instructors can use wikis to present a dynamic representation of the kind of active learning occurring in their classrooms, and of the depth and breadth of student work in their courses.
Various software packages available for wiki implementation allow the flexibility for instructors to customize wikis for their course objectives while managing the technical functions necessary for long-term management, such as user administration, incremental snapshots, and backup. Wiki implementations and assignments can be customized to meet student learning goals and curricular needs.
Wiki projects address many of the learning and academic goals of traditional research projects, while helping to foster collaborations. Creating and using a persistent wiki can help students achieve additional learning goals, including
1. Critically evaluate, revise, and improve disciplinary content. Revision is a critical component of the research and writing process, but I have found that students often have difficulty recognizing areas for improvement in their own work. Revising content created by others, such as that which exists in a persistent wiki, allows students to practice the revision process, and causes them to view their own content with “fresh eyes”. The ability to revise the wiki is assessed in two phases: first, the identification of problem areas in a body of work, and then in making changes or additions that address the identified weaknesses.
2. Integrate, reorganize, or extend existing disciplinary content. This outcome focuses on form, rather than content; even factually correct information can be obscured when organized poorly. Students are challenged to improve the presentation of a wiki page only through moving or removing content, without adding any additional information.
3. Communicate advanced disciplinary content for consumption by a non-expert audience (e.g., less advanced students, the public). At higher levels of the curriculum, it is important for students working to become experts in their fields to learn to communicate and teach about their subjects to a wider audience. Students can be assigned to create their wiki projects with different audiences in mind, including the general public, or less advanced students. Their work can be concurrently evaluated by students, or by reviewers in the target audience.
Most students today are at least familiar with the concept of a wiki, but their experience may only include reading a wiki, and their comfort with editing them using wiki syntax may be highly variable.
Some of these prerequisites (e.g., ability to type papers) may be assumed across many courses. Familiarity with wikis can be assessed in a short survey at the beginning of the class, and through the first stages of the wiki assignment (see below).
Here is a description of the basic phases of a semester-long research project in wiki form. The content of the project is a review of major theories and evidence addressing a particular question in psychology or cognitive science, but the components of the project are similar, regardless of the topic.
Students’ first assignment is to create a “profile” page, which includes a short biographical statement and a description of their topical interests. The assignment also asks them to use basic wiki elements (e.g., lists, images, links, headings) in their profile.
Once groups have been formed and preliminary topics identified, students are asked to more comprehensively evaluate existing wiki content related to their topic (if available), identifying strengths and weaknesses, and opportunities for improvement.
The product of this assignment consists first of written feedback linked from the critiqued page(s), followed by the execution of changes to the existing wiki. It is helpful for grading purposes if the students link to their contributions from their profile page.
At this stage, groups can be encouraged to identify and link areas of overlap with the projects of other groups, or with already existing wiki content, as appropriate, in order to avoid duplication of effort and to focus on creating new content.
If a goal of the project is to communicate with a target audience outside of the course (SLO 3), the wiki can cross multiple concurrent courses by assigning students from the target audience to complete the feedback and revision process as well.
When the wiki is reused and built upon over time, students who take several courses with the same instructor or within the same department may have the opportunity to use the wiki again, or to refer back to it for information and see how subsequent students have elaborated on their work.
I try to strike a balance between assigning grades for project components based on individual and group marks, so that groups have an incentive to work well together, but students still feel a sense of individual ownership and responsibility over the work. Below, I illustrate one way in which the components can be broken down into individual and group grades.
Although wikis are ideally suited for collaborative projects, this format can also be used for individual projects in small classes, or when group projects are not preferred. The ability to interact, give and receive feedback, and link projects is still available for individually directed projects
A wiki is not as straightforward and self-contained as a paper. When individuals and groups link their content together and alter one another’s work, how should credit be assigned and disputes resolved?
When many individuals create and edit content on the wiki over an extended period of time, variations in style and structure inevitably occur, making the readability of the wiki for an external audience difficult.
The imposition of a structural template or style guide (which may be explicitly provided, or implicit from existing wiki pages) may help students organize their projects, so long as it does not interfere with the accomplishment of the project’s learning goals.
The benefit of a content-ful wiki that is updated by new groups of students is that old information is updated and built upon over time; the downside of such a wiki is that the work of previous students may be altered or removed.
Creative Commons (creativecommons.org) is a good resource for licensing options suitable to a wide range of academic projects.
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