Technology in Pedagogy, No. 5, September 2011
Written by Kiruthika Ragupathi
Participatory learning with the use of wiki technology enables learners to contribute in varied ways to achieve both individual and shared learning goals. Learners can easily participate as a learning community to share, discuss their ideas/projects and comment on each other’s ideas/projects within a wiki platform.
The use of wikis promote peer-to-peer learning and encourage students to look over each other’s shoulders says Eric Thompson, an Associate Professor and chair of Graduate studies in the Department of Sociology at the National University of Singapore. In this session, he provided insights into harnessing the power of Wiki platforms for participatory learning – not only to make students more aware of both the potential and pit-falls of the medium, but also to facilitate and inspire active peer-to-peer learning and teacher-student interactions in a large classroom setting. He shared his experience with using wikis in the classroom and discussed on what worked for him and how it could work for others. He highlighted on how his students moved away from individual competition and transformed into participatory learners aggregating their ideas and experiences in a way that enhanced everyone’s learning.
What is a Wiki?
Moving from Discussion Forum to Wiki
A/P Thompson explained on how he relied heavily on discussion forum ten years ago, which was primarily of the Q & A type. He highlighted the differences between discussion forums and wikis as tabled below:
He also explained that though he could have used blogs, he decided to use wikis. Blogs, he clarified are restrictive in the sense that the author can only edit the articles and only allows other users to add in their views and ideas through comments.
Why Use Wiki?
A/P Thompson started using wiki as an attempt to come to terms with the power and prevalence of Wikipedia and taking inspiration from Mike Wesch’s “A Portal to Media Literacy”. Similar use of wiki platform in classes was relatively rare in those years! Students he said, generally have the tendency to take Wikipedia as an authoritative reference. Hence in 2007/2008 (Semester 2), he set up a group assignment which required the use of Wikis. As part of the assignment, students were required to find a page on Wikipedia relevant to Gender Studies and re-write it for the module, “SC6214: Gender Gender Culture and Society”.
Originally, his intention was to have the students revise Wikipedia Though the assignment proved technically challenging, it proved to be very successful and students clearly learned a lot about Wikipedia! (Student: “I didn’t know that just anyone could write entries.”; “Some of the information is really bad!”). Students also learned to think critically and were able to critically engage with the information that was available to them. This experiment was on a small scale with only 10 graduate students in the class. He pointed out that it might be difficult to scale-up for large undergraduate classes.
A/P Thompson informed participants on how he set up class Wikis for the modules using Wetpaint.com (a free educational wiki, when he started). Over the coming years, he set up three wikis and made a comparison of how he used it across these modules.
A/P Thompson elaborated that the use of wikis in his undergraduate classes proved incredibly useful. He felt the group projects allowed for good interaction compared to assigning individual projects. However, students were somewhat constrained by group structure as they were not “free” to contribute how and where they liked. The students used the wiki platform as “collective class notes” – for lectures, readings and films. He elaborated on how he follows an “open-ended pedagogy”, where lecture notes/slides and webcast of all his lectures were available to students. The students were then required to make a substantial contribution (at least a 500-words article) to the class and were not constrained to any particular format. The students could:
The open-ended wiki approach allowed for elaborate and more creative contributions, which brought in useful, relevant material far beyond that which the instructor could do alone. One problem that he encountered was that the number of contributions could be massive to read with a class of 150 students. Using the wiki makes it easy for him to review and compare contributions fairly rapidly compared to marking (grading) a stack of written assignments. In the recent years, he has also made it mandatory for students to make two contributions – one in the first half of the semester and the other in the second half.
As an example, he quoted the World cultures project – to look at one traditional culture and then compare it with 3 or more cultures – that his students were assigned to work on. The wiki platform allowed his students to easily produce these pages, include in images, videos and links to information. Importantly, all the information is available in a more public space and this openness of wikis motivates students to do well and take ownership of their work. A/P Thompson also guides students by posting a set of “exemplary models” from the previous batches to minimize the students’ learning curve. This lets students them know what the instructor expects to see on wikis before students start their assignments/projects.
Lesson 1: Architecture (how to set-up the Wiki)
It is always important to think about the architecture that would suit your style. But, whatever be the architecture it is important to provide enough guidance and support for students on what they could do. For A/P Thompson, his architecture was based on:
Lesson 2: Incentives!
It is known that students work for grades (if they just wanted to learn, they could sit in a library or surf the web). A/P Thompson provided students with a guideline on a “minimum” or “general” (average) expectation while he did not specify a “maximum” limit. This allows some students (20-25%) do a lot-more than expected while most (70%) stick to doing the necessary and as expected, there would be the 5% students who do almost nothing. He always made a point to credit students who contributed more in terms of both quantity and quality. He emphasized that in one of his modules when he did not make group interactions (critique and feedback) a very explicit requirement tied to grades, the result was that there was minimal Interaction on the Wiki.
Lesson 3: Opening up maximum discursive space
It is important to maximize the space allowed for students to contribute. In some modules, he made the Wiki participation more organized (students were assigned to groups; each group was responsible for writing up summary and commentary on particular readings) while in others he allowed for a more open-ended approach. The open-ended approach was more rewarding – both to the students and lecturer. He would also provide suggestions on the numerous ways possible to contribute. Though each student was expected to make at least two “substantial” contributions (e.g. about 500 words of text), the “open-ended” mode inspired much more participation and allowed them to be more creative
Evaluation (of students)
The structure of the Wetpaint Wiki made evaluation (relatively) easy. Each student (wiki member) had a page on the wiki listing all of their contributions – to pages and discussion threads. Contributions could be easily quantified (number of page and thread contributions; number of words, widgets, etc. contributed on pages). Contributions can also be evaluated qualitatively and was easy to find through hyperlinks.
Pedagogical Advantages that Wiki Offers
In conclusion, A/P Thompson ended by emphasizing that “Wiki is an excellent environment for group collaboration projects encouraging peer-to-peer learning, and it is vital to clearly define what you want your students to do, the purpose of the project, and its expected outcomes”. He highlighted the following features on why he is encouraged to using Wiki in his classes:
Q & A Session
Following the presentation by A/P Thompson, a lively discussion with a Q & A session followed. Listed below are some questions from the session.