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Encouraging Stories from Teaching Wikis

As I've mentioned here before, over the last couple of years I've been one of the directors of a large teaching and learning grant project at QUT, aimed at introducing blogs, wikis, and other more advanced online tools into the teaching environment. Our fundamental assumption in this project is that in a social software, Web 2.0 world, students crucially need to build the critical, creative, collaborative, and communicative capacities (or C4C, for short) to operate effectively, whether in their working or private lives, or in their wider role as citizens. Advanced social software tools in learning environments can help build such capacities, or (where they exist already, as is increasingly the case) further enhance them by providing a more systematic approach to their development.

We've had an exciting and mostly successful time of it, with some notable successes and a few interesting failures. The tools we've used here were mainly Drupal as a blog solution, and MediaWiki as a wiki system, with a recent trial of the proprietary Confluence enterprise wiki during the last semester. As we're wrapping up this project, we've now started to evaluate our work, especially also including some focus groups with the students working with these systems in their units. On Tuesday, we presented a report on our results to the QUT teaching and learning community, and I'm also posting this report here (there's also a project Website, as well as a project wiki - but the latter is only available behind the university firewall so far).

My unit in this project was KCB202 New Media Technologies, which trialled the Confluence wiki in semester two, 2006. Sal Humphreys and I wrote a paper for the International Symposium on Wikis in 2005 to document early teaching approaches in that unit, and I'm planning to write an update paper some time soon; by way of a brief overview, the 2006 version of the unit improved on the 2005 approach by utilising the advanced features of the Confluence system, providing stronger guidelines to students on the development of wiki entries, and focussing especially also on the collaborative aspects of students' work: rather than simply requiring students to work in teams, we also assessed their collaboration over time and within their teams.

One particularly interesting aspect for me that's emerged out of the student focus groups is the notable difference in responses between students in the MediaWiki and Confluence environments: while there remain some problems in the latter, those problems exist at a higher conceptual level than they do in the former group. This seems to indicate that it's important to remove basic functionality obstacles in order to support a deeper engagement with the technology and the learning environments it supports - and if this can be done successfully, there is a great opportunity to provide a set of very interesting challenges to our students. (See for example the difference in responses from KJB303 and KCB202 students in the report - the former using MediaWiki, the latter Confluence.)

The next steps from here lead in two directions for me. On the one hand, I'm continuing to refurbish KCB202 - in the coming year, we'll be looking at connecting our content and teaching approaches with those of KCB201 Virtual Cultures, which students usually take in the preceding semester; ultimately, the intention is to provide a team-taught, whole-of-year approach to new media through the two units which would see the use of both blogs and wikis at strategic points throughout the year. On a broader scale, with QUT's overall move to adopt Blackboard as a learning management system (LMS) from next year, at least for the medium term, we're now looking to move blogs and wikis further into the learning and teaching mainstream - out of the R&D sandbox and into the next two stages, which university strategy has poetically labelled the 'healthy hothouse' and the 'disciplined engine room'.

What's important here is that neither tool loses its unique identity in the process: wikis must remain highly flexible, spatially organised knowledge management environments which are organised around specific projects as focal points, while (and this is more difficult in the university context, which is traditionally organised around individual pieces of assessment in specific units/subjects/courses) blogs only make sense if they're temporally organised individual logs of postings, owned by the students themselves as personal and ideally reflective spaces which may be collated into groups or drawn into learning, teaching, and assessment processes at various stages along the student's educational pathway. With the increased focus on student- rather than teacher-centred learning, there's a great opportunity to make effective use of blogs and wikis, but LMS technologies don't necessarily support such approaches very well yet - clearly there's plenty more work to be done here.

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