Friday, January 19, 2007

Grasping the nettle - collaborative work using Wikis

When I use a Wiki with my students (usually within Moodle), one basic tenet needs to be understood by them, and that is as follows:
“No one person’s word is more important than any other’s”

It is crucially important that all participants get used to this mantra. This is because, the very nature of Wikis means that all users edit text that has been written by another member or members of the group. It can take a lot of courage for a students to edit the work of another pupil (especially a bigger or supposedly cleverer pupil) – after all by making changes the editor is implying that the original was not as good as it can be.

Therefore this is the main area that a teacher should work at if she wishes to use a Wiki in her teaching. There is no good in letting pupils loose on a Wiki without preparing them in the art of editing each others’ work.

There are different strategies for doing this - one is to start a Wiki with some entries of your own. These entries should be blatantly erroneous – such as a factually incorrect description of the life of Henry VIII or the geography of Great Britain. Then the class should use those entries as a starting point and that all must edit one inaccurate statement within the Wiki and then add a sentence of their own. This allows the document to be built into a substantially different one to that which it was at the outset. Best of all this is a truly collaborative piece of work, one which the group can take pride in, and in so doing the group can learn how a Wiki works.

Wikis usually have two important tools which a teacher can call upon to help with assessing what pupils have done. Firstly, there is usually the facility to UNDO any contentious or malicious statements – in other words the Wiki can easily be returned to the state it was in before it was ‘abused’. Secondly, and this is a powerful tool in the right hands, there is usually a ‘history’ option which allows the teacher to see each iteration of the Wiki. By using this tool the teacher can ascertain exactly who has contributed to the Wiki and exactly what that contribution has been.

Here are three examples in which a Wiki has successfully been used within my classroom.

a) Writing an Acceptable Use Policy

Pupils were given a Wiki as part of an A Level ICT lesson in which educational use of ICT was the topic. Pupils were asked to construct their own Acceptable Use Policy for the school. To ensure they had somewhere to begin, the Wiki began with the following text:

“Pupils may consume as much food and drink as they like in the computer rooms. It is acceptable to leave bags lying around on the floor. Running around in the rooms is fun and is to be encouraged.”

These three statements were clearly wrong, and so pupils had to change what was initially written in order to make a sensible policy. This served two purposes: they got used to changing someone else’s erroneous entries and it showed the tenet stated above is true: “No one person’s word is more important than any other’s”.

b) Inventing a new sport

Following on from the ‘rule’ format of a) above, it was suggested to students that they invent a new sport. They were given 4 basic elements that were SET IN STONE, they were told to add any other rules as they saw fit. Not only was the final product a set of rigid rules, but the students piloted the use of their new sport amongst their friends. A hospitable PE department might allow this to be played within their lessons.

c) Song-writing

A group of 15 pupils were asked to write a song by giving them a title (The Bellringer) and the structure the song should follow. They then produced an outstanding 5-verse song – having decided on the theme and structure of the song themselves. This was constructed in a 24-hour period during a school holiday period. When asked the pupils said it was one of the most exciting educational tasks they had ever undertaken. One asked ‘why don’t we get to do something like this in school lessons?’

It was found that the best results from Wiki work were obtained when students used avatar names or pseudonyms. Under such guises they felt happier about editing their peers work, than they did when it could be identified who they were. When questioned about this, they felt the anonymity meant that quieter pupils felt less intimidated about editing the work of more aggressive or vocal pupils. In the same way it allowed less able students to edit the work of their more able peers where this may not happen in a more conventional lesson situation.
Why Wikis?

Some schools have shared areas on their hard drives where work can be edited by multiple users, so what is so special about Wikis? As mentioned earlier, the History tool mentioned earlier allows the teacher to see who has carried out particular edits within the Wiki, this is not possible within a saved file on a network. Furthermore if one person has a file open on a network then someone who tries to load the same file at the same time will receive a ‘read only’ error message. This is not the case with a Wiki as multiple users can edit the document at the same time depending upon the flexibility of the Wiki software being used.

I have mentioned the term Wiki at many lectures and conferences at which ICT specialists have been present. It comes as a great surprise to me that so few ICT ‘experts’ know what a Wiki is - this is usually established by blank looks when the word is mentioned or a show of hands. This would indicate that if ICT experts are unaware of Wikis, then few less ICT-literate teachers would be also unaware of the tool. Many people now know about Wikipedia, but do not realise how it works. Once the concept has been explained most people understand what makes a Wiki so different but few teachers with limited ICT skills would choose to use such a tool. In their seminal book ‘Working the Wiki Way’, Bo Leuf and Ward Cunningham describe “a perspective on the nature of wiki-style online communication”. The Wiki Way describes a willingness of users to accept that others may know better than they do and that as described in German as Gestalt, “something is so unified as a whole that it cannot be described merely as a sum of its parts”. In other words it is not just the finished product which is important as the contributions that individuals have made to get it there.

It is unfortunate that a caveat should be added as an end note, but anyone who wishes to use Wikis within their lessons has to realise that there are some drawbacks to the use of Wikis over conventional methods of collaborative work. Firstly, as has been well documented in news stories over the past year, it is possible for blatantly erroneous or fraudulent information to be added to Wikis. A study by nature magazine claimed to have found “factual errors: 162 in Wikipedia and 123 in Britannica” – the slight difference between the 2 does not disguise the fact that there are errors in the printed encyclopedia as much as in the Wiki version. It also goes without saying that any teacher who uses a Wiki in their lesson takes risks in doing so.

Ironically, the following quote from the Wikipedia website, on the page defining the word ‘WikiWiki’ serves as a salutary lesson to any teacher who wants to use Wikis within their lessons: “Because of recent vandalism or other disruption, editing of this article by unregistered or newly registered users is currently disabled".

A version of this post will appear in the next edition of 'Coming of Age' edited by Terry Freedman.

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