To Wiki or not to Wiki

What is this Wiki business all about? Good question…
A wiki is a collaborative website, essentially a webpage that can be edited by multiple users from anywhere in the world, even at the same time. Here is a relatively short and very well designed video that explains in plain English.

So now you know what a Wiki is here is your choice, is it or could it be a useful tool to use in the classroom, virtual or not?

Over the past two weeks I have been co-editing a Wiki site for Virtual Icebreakers. We looked at a number of traditional icebreaker (get to know you) activities and had to convert them so that they would work in an online classroom.  Whilst this was an interesting and intellectual task to put yourself in the position of teaching a virtual class and how a traditional activity could work it was pretty easy.  It was especially easy because could create your own page in the wiki for your own icebreaker and didn’t have to worry about anybody else.  The difficult part came working on the wiki as a whole, deciding on the layout, wondering who was doing what, wondering if it was “fair”.  I tried putting myself in my students shoes and “Fairness” was the issue which kept popping up for me, how could our Professor measure how much each of us had contributed, how much time we had spent, or even whether someone may have maliciously changed our content to make it look worse.

Isn’t this sad?…

I thought so, my gut reaction as a student was to get competitive, wonder who was beating me or whether what the other person was doing would look or sound better.  I was worried about other students being just as competitive even to the point of interfering with my work.  I couldn’t have been more wrong… but I do think competition and the desire to “win” the learning game could still be an issue with collaborative projects like Wikis. But hang on isn’t it always a potential issue with collaborative / group tasks? Unless you are allowed to self select your team then there is always the potential of someone not “pulling their weight”.  However I would argue this is where the real learning takes place, dealing with people, managing tasks, organising and planning so that the group doesn’t suffer as a result of the slack team member.  Often called soft skills they are now recognised as some of the most necessary in the global business world of management.
But what does the research say? Well surprisingly there is not a lot out there but one recent paper from Hagit Meishar-Tal* and Paul Gorsky, Wikis: what students do and do not do when writing collaboratively (Open Learning, Vol. 25, No. 1, February 2010, 25–35) actually found:

“In accord with previous research, students most frequently add content to a wiki rather than delete existing text; and contrary to previous research, students modify existing texts to a greater extent than previously reported.”

It was also interesting to note that the personalities of the contributors could almost predict the way they would collaborate.  Whilst Gorsky and Meishar-Tal speculate on this it was definitely something I viewed empirically.  Personally I am quite dominant and opinionated and as a result was not hesitant in making changes or deleting aspects of the wiki which I felt did not fit the task at hand.  I also would estimate that I was one of a few “big” editors, not necessarily “content contributors” but a mover and editor of themes and layout – a stylist.  In Gorksy and Meishar-Tal’s words:

The findings also showed that a minority of students (about 10%) were extremely dominant. The dominant students were ‘specialists’ who created near ‘monopolies’ on certain kinds of editorial actions: one ‘mover’, two ‘deleters’, one ‘stylist’ as well as one student who served as ‘formatter’ and ‘linker’. These roles and behaviours were assumed without any direct instruction, apparently quite spontaneously. Such findings are consistent with previous ones that investigated participant behaviour in Wikipedia, online communities and OUI course forums. The founder of Wikipedia reported that 2.5% of all users contribute 80% of all content. Furthermore, 50% of the content is generated by only 1% of the contributors (cited in Tapscott & Williams, 2007).

In my opinion this could not be more accurate.  Our group did not receive direct instruction on roles, nor on layout.  We initially started discussing within the wiki until I created a Google Group and shifted it into a forum linked to the site.  People then posted ideas and suggestions but in a group of 20+ people working Internationally over the web you couldn’t exactly wait for consensus. After 2 or 3 others had commented on the idea it was left up to the originator to decide what to do and most of the time they did.

Putting my teachers hat on now I’d be interested to see how I could implement it in my Mathematics classroom.  I have already implemented a Glossary wiki (funnily enough after I’d started this project but before I’d read the research paper!) in the format of a Google Doc but there are other questions I need to get answers to before rolling it out.  I’m interested in the personal, reflective feedback from all the learners in the process. How did everyone feel about it? And how much of their views are biased by their personality or learning style? Is it right to make people feel uncomfortable whilst they learn by forcing them to work collaboratively? What checks and balances can the teacher give to reassure those students who are worried that their great work will be lost amongst others more mediocre contributions?… Ah the joys of collaboration and education.

What would you do, Wiki or not Wiki?

PS – here’s the wiki in question.

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