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Investigation of how Wikis might be used to promote collaborative learning:

Introduction

In this increasingly convergent and digital world, young people are reportedly using new media with high engagement outside school, yet disengaged in those schools where technology access is low or restricted. Such an apparent disconnection is magnified when predictions of their futures are tied to requisites including technological expertise, adaptability to change, innovative capacities and complex problem-solving abilities. Such future oriented capacities challenge traditional views that basic literate and numerate proficiency is sufficient for academic success. They also raise questions about the sufficiency of digital engagement for developing higher order critical and creative skills. (See the digital learning framework across the Curriculum) Collectively, these future oriented capacities heighten educational imperatives for improving the quality of young people’s learning outcomes in this rapidly changing online world.

This study involves students from NZ Secondary School Junior classes. The objective is to explore how shared spaces – wikis – might be used to communicate ideas and generate course specific content and to study how students, through such activities, were able to engage more critically in learning. It features collaboration between food technology students from senior classes and the ICT students from the junior classes in the hope that it would lead to the development of viable communities of practice. Student collaboration in this pilot was in the form of (a) sharing text based narratives of perceived brief through the use of a wiki and (b) sharing of prototypes of intended designs and (c) forum evaluation of those prototypes.

A wiki is a web site that lets any visitor become a participant: anyone can create or edit the actual site contents without any special technical knowledge or tools As one of the components of Web 2.0, a wiki is a communication and collaboration tool that can be used to engage students in learning with others within an online learning environment. As a free and open technology, it is intensely simple, accessible and challenges the traditional notions of authorship, editing, and publishing. A wiki is continuously “under revision.” It is a living collaboration whose purpose is the sharing of the creative process and product by many. Wikis are used in the “real world” by people collaborating on projects or trying to share things online, such as family information and photos, technical information from users of a product, data from a research and development project, wine expertise, travel journals from abroad, club or specialty information, or projects like collaborative cookbooks. On this web-page, I will demonstrate how educators may create and use their own Wiki pages for the benefit of their students especially the contribution of Wikis to various learning paradigms, and suggests additional uses in teaching especially at NZ Secondary Schools.

Keywords

Wiki, Web 2.0, collaborative learning, information and communication technologies, computer-mediated communication, e-learning, pedagogy, education, constructivism

Background

Barn_Raising.jpgThe peer-based collaboration is known to promote motivation, social cohesion, development and cognitive elaboration (Slavin,1995) in the areas of student learning,understanding and achievement. These perspectives are based in learning theories and models such as Vygotsky’s (1978) social learning theory. Vygotsky’s social learning theory emphasises the importance of peer-based interaction and knowledge sharing in individuals’ construction of knowledge and understanding. Collaboration essentially involves the “mutual engagement of participants in a coordinated effort to solve a problem” (Scanlon, 2000 p. 190) because it can mean a coordinated attempt to solve and monitor a problem together, with perhaps some division of labour on aspects of the problem (p. 464-465). Since Wikis can be interactively edited by any number of people using simple online tools, they can promote collaborative writing and are gaining in popularity in educational settings. An incremental version of the website is stored each time an edit is saved, making it possible to ‘rollback’ the site to any previous version if subsequent edits need to be undone. What sets wikis apart from other ‘social’ writing and publishing tools (e.g. blogs, photo-sharing, podcasts) is that more than one person typically contributes to the authoring and publishing of specific content, and most wiki tools include a range of features to facilitate these multi-author interactions. These include email or RSS (Really Simple Syndication) notifications of page edits and the ability for authors to add comments to a page prior to or after editing its content. This combination of functionality and features has led to wikis being promoted as powerful collaborative learning tools and they are increasingly being used to support group-based collaborative learning tasks.

Stakeholders & Challenges

Brinkerhoff’s (2006) framework on technology adoption identifies the challenges faced by teachers. The findings revealed that teachers faced resource,institutional, informational and attitudinal problems. Another challenge is that the information sources available on the Internet are as rich, varied and potentially damaging and destructive as the world itself as could lead adult or child to the sublime or the obscene. With the daily escalation of Internet usage, issues of (a) information access, (b) source authentication and (c) global connectedness compound the challenge for educators in meeting 21st century learning needs.

The challenges we had in Kelston Project are more fundamental. Before we started the project using Wiki we had to make some basic decisions:
  1. How do students envision using the wiki?
  2. How will we explain it to parents and administration?
  3. Who will be able to see the wiki? (the public? members only?)
  4. Who will be able to edit the wiki? (the public? members only? vary by section?)
  5. Who will be able to join the wiki? (students only? parents? invited guests? the public?)
  6. What parts of the wiki will we “protect” (lock from changes)?
  7. Who will moderate the wiki for appropriateness, etc?
  8. Will the wiki have Individual or global memberships?

Then we had the real work to do - administrator approval: It was necessary to get the principal's approval because we were the first teachers using such a "new" web tool. There was already some news about social networking sites have administrators on edge. The school's 'Acceptable Use Policy' did not have any specific rules about using tools like wikis but the moment we raised the issue of using a web tool, the whole air around the discussion was one of defense against suspicion. Also there were unanswered questions such as -
  1. Is it permissible to post student work to web?
  2. What is the policy on posting student names (initials? pseudonyms?)
  3. What is the policy on posting pictures of students or class scenes?
  4. What is the policy on posting any information that might identify the wiki class?
  5. Can these policies be met through security settings, parent and student agreements?
  6. Does the school filtering prevent access to the wiki tools ? If so, will the senior management facilitate unblocking of the wiki's exact URL?

Then our next question was 'which wiki tool can students use with ease'. Two particularly well-run free wiki servers are Wikispaces & PBworks. Both of these online collaboration tools are well organized, educationally sound and open ended enough to be adapted to almost any classroom. The services encourage teams of students to create web sites that will add to the knowledge base of the Internet. In the process of creating these sites, the students develop their technology skills while learning a tremendous amount about the topic they are presenting. Participation in these collaborative online tools is a wonderful way for teacher and students to begin to publish work on the web.

Also important was the appearance. There are many free wiki tools on the web. Most fund their existence through advertising that appears on the wiki. This can be very distracting or even inappropriate for students who inevitably click on the enticing links. And it never fails that one of the links will go to something awful. Also our girls wanted to be able to find things easily within your wiki and possibly to adjust the overall look of the wiki especially of the options related to ad-free wikis.The team did simple customization options on each sample to adjust the appearance, such as uploading an image or choosing colors or "themes." Finally Wikispaces & PBworks have been shortlisted and they offer free, secure, advertising-free wiki space for classroom use, each with its own features.Both of these online collaboration tools are well organized, educationally sound and open ended enough to be adapted to almost any classroom

Another concern was to see where to find information on latest changes and page history? For security and fool-proof, we protected certain pages from changes (to LOCK pages). This prevents accidental erasures. We finally
set the entire wiki to private view (visible and editable only by members) because that was the ad-hoc policy of the school and also to be safe as it was a pilot project.
Then our next important stakeholders were parents and we needed to address their Safety Concerns. We found out that the best ways to get parents excited about our wiki project was to inform them and to include them. Prior to giving students access to the wiki, we sent home a letter and permission slip with all students (and give points for a signed permission slip). The letter should tell parents what the wiki is for and how well their student will be protected by the safety features we had in place. See the sample Wiki Warranty Document developed (Link at the bottom of the page). We also thought of involve parents by providing a parent page or area where they can comment or share experiences. Of course, we needed to provide them with log-in information and/or membership to be able to edit/add content. However, the parent pages have not yet implemented as the project is in an evolution.
The services encourage teams of students to create web sites that will add to the knowledge base of the Internet. In the process of creating these sites, the students develop their technology skills while learning a tremendous amount about the topic they are presenting. Participation in these collaborative online tools is a wonderful way for teacher and students to begin to publish work on the web.

KelstonProject

Food Technology Department of the College runs a training restaurant called ‘Starfish’ which provides café style lunches, two days a week, prepared and served by senior Food Technology students. The number of students and staff visiting the restaurant is dropping and the Food Technology teacher asks the students of CIM (Year 10) to find some method of informing both the college community and visitors to the college about the restaurant, in order to increase the number of diners. The Year 10 students are required to design and produce a menu and publicity document (advertisement) for 'Starfish' which will provide information about the restaurant and encourage people to eat there.

This is a simple assignment of producing either brochure or a pamphlet or a wall display or a poster or some sort of advertisement materials. In the process, the students are required to develop
  1. lunch menu showing: opening times and contact details
  2. a brief introduction to ‘Starfish’
While the students produce these documents they will perhaps be using a Microsoft Publisher, Paint or Adobe Photoshop or some other software of their choice and make the documents eye-catching and show effective use of design principles. In the process, there must be a tool through which all the stakeholders must be able to communicate independent of time. For example, the prototype designs must be evaluated against the brief. This could be best done by the students of Food Technology Department and the teachers there. Also important is the teacher feedback as well as the peer-review. As discussed above, parents also could be involved as well as the community. The students work could be tracked by the other stakeholders: school management team as well as the parents. More importantly commercial designers could be involved to comment on the prototypes.

To felicitate this communication between the stakeholders synchronously, Wikis have been thought of a viable means.

Why use Wikis

Socio-constructivist theory underpins the use of social software in education. The conventional principles of social constructivist learning such as effective learning being conversational in nature makes communication, dialogue and shared activities an important part of learning. This furthers the opportunities for inquiry based and collaborative learning. Similarly, learner centred pedagogies can also be supported with the use of social software because read-write-edit-publish ability of such software enable user/learners to easily generate content that reflects authentic learning, enables peer reviewing and activates scaffolding or mentoring by an educator/mentor.

Collaboration and cooperation encourages active participation among learners and enables a community of practice between educators/academics/practitioners. By sharing and publishing the content with the wider audience, learners become reflective practitioners and through feedback and reviews from peers learn to appropriate new ideas and build confidence in transforming their ideas into published work. This enables personal meaning making through learner self-direction.

Through the Nature of Technology strand, students develop an understanding of technology as a discipline and of how it differs from other disciplines. For example, the participant-students of this project can see Wiki as a technology itself and develop an understanding of how it works and its various possible applications across the wide spectrum of subjects. Students also learn to critique the impact of technology on societies and the environment and their own ability to use it and are able to explore how developments and outcomes are valued by different peoples in different times. As they do so, they come to appreciate the socially embedded nature of technology and become increasingly able to engage with current and historical issues and to explore future scenarios. Page 35 of the New Zealand Curriculum describes teaching as a process of inquiry.In this ongoing, cyclical process, teachers constantly ask themselves where their students are in their learning, how they can help them progress, and how their teaching impacts on the students’ learning

Quite a few other plausible uses have been noticed including one of the most striking which is Collaborating Online. Students showed how ‘agile’ they were in their use of technologies (Seale et al, 2008) by moving with ease between many different types of software used in the project showing lot of enthusiasm which otherwise was always elusive. The teacher-aides were made redundant. They were made redundant as helpers of learning and in fact, ironically, became learners of this new tool because they come from the generation of 'digital immigrants' The sending of files and images was also easy. Where collaboration on projects was required by more than a couple of students, they fluently used Wikis for project organization and tracking and even commenting. What impressed us - teachers - so much was the scalability. we could accommodate more people, if we think they are valuable to this project,

Finally, we as teachers had to develop some assessment rubric as to the effectiveness and efficiency of the Wiki developed. The following elements were considered for assessment: a collaborative effort (as seen in the history), visual appeal, organization of the content, hyperlinks to sources and original, intelligent wording.

Walk-through

With few exceptions, currently published research on the educational use of wikis does not include how the learning activities should be shaped, planned or enforced in a wiki. Here are some resources to guide teachers and students alike from any subject area to start off using the great collaborative Web tool. Following are the tutorials in setting up a Wiki briskly.

Bibliography

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