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Using Wikis in Education

We're now starting the post-lunch session on the first day here at WikiSym 2007, and the first paper is by Andrea Forte and Amy Bruckman, who examine the use of wikis as a toolkit for collaborative learning. Andrea begins by noting tha there is a significant deficit in media literacy amongst high school students - they don't necessarily have sufficient skills to evaluate the information they're confronted with. She suggests constructionism as a pedagogic framework for building such literacies.

Constructionism has been articulated by Seymour Papert - he suggests that people learn particularly well when engaged in the construction of public artefacts: when others see what you know and have done, when you can take pride in the work, and when the work is persistent into the future. This connects very well with working with wikis, of course, but also goes beyond them - it builds on students working on personally meaningful goals, and harnesses learners as capable, curious, and tenacious active practitioners. Online, especially, there are constantly new opportunities to employ constructionist learning.

Part of this relies on providing learners with a set of materials to think with - a construction kit. The design of this kit is crucial, and the wiki can be considered as such a construction kit. Indeed, constructing text in the wiki can be a powerful learning experience (as a form of writing-to-learn), but the wiki environment must be designed and set up specifically to support writing activities. What Andrea and Amy did was to design an online science resource for high school students, using an extended installation of MediaWiki (including the extensions ReferenceTools, TeacherTools, and StudentView). In this environment, they encouraged a spirit of collaboration and constructive critique (in hopes that students publishing their work also enabled them to develop better skills in critiquing other people's work.

Andrea now demos the Science Online wiki, and especially the referencing extensions to MediaWiki which enable students to add properly formatted academic references (which, interestingly, also exist at the same level as a page - so reference sources take on an independent life in the system, and students can begin a shared discussion evaluating the relevance and quality of a reference).

Andrea and Amy examined the appropriation of this resource in the classroom, by both students and their teacher. Wiki activity was variable across the students (which is hardly surprising), ranging from 5 to 45 edits per week on average, for example. They did encounter problems around the question of collaboration at first; constructionistic predictions appeared to come true - the kind of engagement and learning which would be expected under this model did eventuate, but largely on an individual basis. A problem, on the other hand, was that students learned to deeply: they did more work (or felt they could have done more work) than is strictly needed for assessment. Additionally, students' ability to work collaboratively is clearly visible from the edit history of the wiki, but even that information remains difficult to translate into assessment of individual contributions as it's not presented in the most effective way for this purpose. Finally, the ability for students to share their work through the wiki was not necessarily taken up effectively by teachers - teachers suggested repeatedly that it would have been better to submit work to the teacher prior to publication, rather than to publish first and then assess the work.

There need to be better tools for visualising student contributions to help teachers assess student work, then. This could tie into existing practices (which would mean building wikis to support conventional teaching and assessment models, and could sublimate the potential of the medium); or alternatively could pursue more radical educational reforms instead.

Next up is my paper with Sal Humphreys, on our continuing experience with a Confluence wiki in my KCB202 New Media Technologies unit (which we also intend to publish publicly as the M/Cyclopedia of New Media. I'm recording the talk, and will add this to the Powerpoint soon - for now, the presentation and full paper are below:

Further on we go to Xavier de Pedro, whose interest is in contribution types to educational wikis, and whose project asked students to identify the type of contribution they were making to the collaborative space (new information, formatting, help to others, etc.). The idea is that this promotes the quality of observation and reflection by students, as they consider more directly the work they do. Contribution types were organisational aspects, improvements in markup, support requests, helping partners, new information, new hypotheses, synthesis of information, and others, and these types were rated according to their impact on the wiki development itself. Additionally, the size of contribution was also tracked. This enables a tracking of student participation by type and over time, which helps in tutoring students as teachers can identify the work they have done already and suggest further avenues for contribution.

Strengths of this method is that it offers an opportunity for student self-regulation, provides up-to-date quantitative data about student work, improves teacher intervention opportunities outside the classroom, facilitates personal tutorship early on and throughout the process, and allows the teacher to distribute their tutoring effort across the semester rather than fixing problems at the very last minute.

Weaknesses are that this information by itself doesn't show the quality of contributions (only quantity), can be inadequate if teachers use it only for policing purposes (instead, it provides data for ongoing tutoring and helps in detecting and addressing problems early enough), does not help students who refuse using wikis (or fail to understand the system itself), and takes a greater investment in time by teachers.

Finally, we're on to Marija Cubric, whose interest is in using wikis as a support tool for blended learning (a combination of online and offline learning activities). How can we plan, shape, and enforce wiki learning activities for such purpose? The initial motivation here was to explore the read/write Web, and build a classroom of the Web, and more recently has shifted to gaining more insight into students' motivations and progress, to identify areas of troublesome knowledge, to provide regular feedback and extend staff/student and student/student interaction to be available constantly. Collaborative literacies and capacities also extend students' employability and career options, of course.

Theoretical bases are ideas of constructivism, thories of social development of knowledge, conversational learning, and structured dialogue amongst learners and teachers, and such theories were explored in practice in two trials at the University of Hertfordshire Business School, using MediaWiki. Students were assessed on their contributions to the wiki, in terms of effort and quality as well as of the extent to which they were achieving connected writing, collaborative writing, and using images.

The process cycle in this project, then, can be described as follows: weekly tasks were published, student contributions were added, their contributions were reviewed, and feedback was provided in class. Students made a number of positive responses and reported that wikis also promoted their offline interactions, encouraged student reading and deep learning, and promoted their organisational skills. Marija also points out a need to extend MediaWiki further - enabling the importation of student records, managing groups and namespaces, filtering content by user, better discovery and repair of broken links all would be important aspects to address.

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