As most of my readers know by now, I’m involved in a Web 2.0 grant with our department, Academic Technologies, which is a perfect fit, since I’ve always been fascinated with all of the new, interactive tools to enhance teaching and learning. I just returned from a conference in Phoenix, where I talked about how three faculty members at Boise State use wikis, their challenges, and what they learned from those experiences. In another two weeks, I’ll be going to the Educause Western Regional Conference to serve on a wiki panel, where we will discuss emergent roles in teaching and learning with wikis. If you’ve never used a wiki before, or if you don’t even know what a wiki is, don’t feel left out. According to a 2007 Harris Online Survey, only 16% of the online U.S. population had heard of wikis.
I tell people that wikis are websites that can be edited by multiple people and that wikis also can refer to the software that enables this collaboration. A wiki is great for collaboration, as it can be accessed and edited by the people you invite to your wiki. As scary as this sounds, your wiki is never in danger, because wikis have what is called “page history.” This means that if someone changes one of your pages and you don’t like it, just click on the history of that page and revert it back to the version you want. Usually only administrators have the right to delete pages, so you are totally safe in allowing others to work on your wiki. In fact, you WANT others to be involved, because that’s what wikis do best.
What about these emerging roles in teaching and learning that wikis enable? Wikis start off as a website with nothing on it, except maybe a basic navigation structure and design. You and your members need to and will create content. This might be a pretty daunting task at first, and students and teachers need to be able to work through this uncertainty and lack of structure.
As the wiki evolves and contains more content, it will be in a constant state of flux, needing to be reformatted, reorganized, and decisions being made. Again, this will require group agreement, group coordination, and a sense of trust among wiki participants. This open, democratic atmosphere that wikis generate may be something that students are not familiar with, and will require guidelines and conventions, modeling by the instructor, and some time for adjustment by all parties.
I’ve found a particularly useful wiki that provides very helpful examples of behaviors that strengthen a wiki and behaviors that may inhibit wiki success: http://wikipatterns.com
Take a look at this website and read about some of the examples. Some of them seem so commonsense, but offer more insights that might increase wiki participation. Inviting people, of course, can increase participation in a wiki, but also including a customized message about why you need that person to join your wiki can potentially increase the likelihood of that person joining. For instance, you may really need the expertise of that person in a class activity you are planning. By including this information in your invitation to that person, telling them why their participation is so important, you may increase the chances of that person joining. See what I mean?
When using a wiki for teaching and learning, group activities need to be planned for effective collaboration. You may want to include and assign individual roles, for instance, and also set up the groups yourself. You should include detailed instructions on how to edit and save wiki pages and how to navigate and use the wiki. You should include examples of collaborative activities and examples of wiki practice. You should detail course expectations and your instructional objectives should align with collaborative activities. (Problem-based learning is particularly effective with a wiki, since groups can brainstorm, plan, and create products using a wiki.)
Since wikis are open, democratic communities, you’ll need to balance student-directed activities with teacher-directed activities. You’ll need to be involved in the wiki through monitoring student work and then jump in when students need your help. This might be necessary if students get off track on their assignments or they simply need guidance. By encouraging self-direction while also being there for your students, you create a more effective environment for group learning. Students feel empowered and you do too, as you help them become better problem-solvers, critical thinkers, and productive collaborative members of the community.