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Using wikis to promote quality learning in teacher training

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A version of this paper first appeared publicly in Learning, Media and Technology Journal in March 2009.

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Using wikis to promote quality learning in teacher training

  1. 1. Learning, Media and Technology Vol. 34, No. 1, March 2009, 1-10 Using wikis to promote quality learning in teacher training Steve Wheelera and Dawn Wheelerb a Faculty of Education, University of Plymouth, Plymouth, UK; bSaltash.net Community School, Cornwall, UK This paper discusses writing as a social practice and speculates on how wikis might be used to promote higher quality academic writing and support collaborative learning. This study of undergraduate teacher trainees' online learning activities focuses on how shared spaces – wikis – might be used to communicate ideas and generate course specific content. The study also explored how students, through such activities, were able to improve their academic writing skills and engage more critically in learning. Data captured from student discussion boards and a post- module e-mail questionnaire (n=35) were used to map student perceptions of the usefulness of wikis in support of their academic studies. The data indicate that most students raised their skill level in writing directly to the publicly viewable wiki space, in sharp contrast to the more informal content they posted on the discussion boards. The scope of collaborative writing was limited due to students' reluctance to edit each others' work, but students appreciated the shared environment as a means of discussing their work and the content of the course. Students reported that their academic writing skills had improved through their formal participation in the wiki. Keywords: academic writing, collaborative writing, wikis, Web 2.0 The rise of the Social Web The emerging social dimensions of the Internet are exemplified in new and dynamic interactive tools such as blogs and wikis. Social networking is a popular pastime for many students, and increasingly, such activities are transgressing institutional boundaries such as the provision of virtual learning environments (Wheeler & Whitton, 2007). The World Wide Web is increasingly pervading all aspects of modern life, driving users to discover ever more sophisticated and ingenious uses, particularly for communication and social networking. The Web's second major incarnation – known by some as ‘Web 2.0’ (O’Reilly, 2004) – has justifiably been referred to as the 'social web'. Compared to its transmission heavy precursor, or ‘Web 1.0’, the social web has tools which are quick and easy to set up. Social web sites are also significantly more interactive, with functionality to support collaborative working, voting and other forms of group engagement that have pedagogical potential. Within the social web, content can be generated, edited and published by users, and control of content is subjected to open, democratic processes (Kamel Boulos & Wheeler, 2007). The growing challenge for many academics will be to discover how universities can harness the power of such informal tools within the formalised structures of the institution. The social web is very much at the vanguard of a significant shift in the ways the World Wide Web is being used across society, particularly within the entertainment, commerce and education sectors. Clearly, the social web has burgeoned in recent years and Web 2.0 tools have
  2. 2. S. Wheeler and D. Wheeler increased in popularity for two important reasons. They are free and they are interactive. Social web tools are generally offered free to all, and provide a means for dialogue with potentially very large audiences, through quick and easy publication and rapid feedback. Readers become writers, and users can become their own publishers, producers and directors in what has been dubbed the 'read-write' web (Kamel Boulos, Maramba & Wheeler, 2006). Teachers are continually searching for ways to create interactive learning environments in which collaboration can be supported (Jonassen et al, 1999). The social web tools do appear to provide an architecture that can be used to promote active engagement students find useful and satisfying (Horizon, 2007). Many new services and web 2.0 tools are already established, including social spaces such as MySpace, FaceBook and Bebo, photo sharing sites such as Flickr and Picasa, and video sharing sites such as YouTube, all of which enable subscribers to broadcast their ideas and creative aspirations to a potential worldwide audience. Blogging is increasingly popular as a means of publishing a regular diary online, where ‘star bloggers’ can daily command audiences numbering tens of thousands (Kamel Boulos et al, 2006). Web services such as Technorati and RSS feeds help Bloggers to promote their sites, whilst services such as Digg and del.icio.us offer social tagging and collaborative filtering options that allow users to alert their friends about new or favourite web sites and to vote for those they consider to be most useful within their own community of interest. It is imprudent to ignore the social web because it enables students to participate in new forms of literacy that contribute toward collective knowledge (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006). Such literacies undoubtedly have a significant role to play in the re-purposing of education (Kimber & Wyatt-Smith, 2006). Collaborative online writing Users of all ages are discovering that a growing range of social software is available at a globally networked level to support co-operation. Such tools enable them to create their own personal contact spaces, share ideas, photos, videos and documents with their friends and family, and at a more formal level, as a serious educational resource that facilitates discussion and collaboration. This paper was created by its two authors using Google Docs - a free collaborative authoring tool allowing shared, synchronous writing to be managed over the web. This is just one of a plethora of collaborative tools that are available freely online. Wikis are one of the most useful tools available for collaborative online writing and teachers are discovering that they provide a dynamic new set of tools for students (Richardson, 2006). The name derives from the Hawaiian phrase 'Wiki wiki' meaning 'to hurry', and wikis are certainly quick and easy to set up and learn to use. It is perhaps one of the most flexible applications found on the social web, and can be used in a number of valid educational contexts. Wikis house a shared web space which all users have equal access to, and include toolbars to import images, create hyperlinks and modify text (Wheeler, Yeomans & Wheeler, 2008). Each page is typically accompanied by a discussion group, and all pages within the set have a 'track back' history utility which can be used to revert content to an earlier version if vandalism or serious error occurs (Richardson, 2006). The wiki has the potential to contribute significantly toward collaborative learning, but to date little research has been published regarding its effectiveness. Here we seek to outline some wiki utilities, describe their use in teacher education, and provide the reader with an initial evaluation of their use from a student perspective. To contextualise these aims, we begin with a discussion on writing as a social 2
  3. 3. S. Wheeler and D. Wheeler practice. Writing as a Social Practice The examination of Social Practice theory and its allied concept of 'New Literacies' has been a recurrent theme in the study of writing within digital social settings. The ongoing introduction of new technologies encourages changes in the nature and use of literacies within a social practice framework. Digital communications technologies have transformed the manner in which people communicate in what Crystal (2006) has called ‘Netspeak’. Collaborative writing also has a role to play in the defining of social practices and literacies. Street (1984) suggests that we identify with domains in which different types of communication take place. Subsequently, writing for an academic audience might be grounded within a shared electronic environment such as FaceBook, if the reader also identifies with, and subscribes to the same medium. The language used within that agreed domain becomes socially acceptable within its own boundaries, but might not be as appropriate outside of this context. Shortis (2007) believes that those who write within new technology mediated text environments formulate their contributions according to the expectations of others within the same social context. The grammar that is acceptable in say, an e-mail communication, may be socially unacceptable in a formal letter. Shortis also points out a further distinction - that electronic forms of text are composed on a computer screen or phone screen rather than on paper (Shortis, 2005) which make it harder to separate out verbal language from communication. Thurlow, Lengl and Tomic (2004, p 120) discuss speech communities as shared spaces where 'people organise themselves into communities around the way they speak'. The same could be said about writing and 'text communities'. We argue here that as with language, text does not need to be perfect in order for understanding to be gained. Complex issues are emerging from the multiple modes of text based communication available within the age of new media (Kress, 2003). Carrington (2005) argues that contemporary literacy is reflected in a number of ways by individuals who will become adept at shifting between text genres, adaptability that might be extended to the use of a range of new technologies and experiences. Mobile phone texting, e-mail and writing to social networking spaces are different text genres that each display subtly emerging protocols and rules, some of which can be at odds with conventional grammatical structure and language use. Yet such text genres can still contribute toward the development of knowledge and can act as a cohesive force within online learning communities in the same manner that culture acts as a type of ‘social glue’. For students, there is also the strong probability that larger audiences exist beyond that of the conventional essay audience of 'one'. When online pages are 'tagged' – appended with key words – they become highly visible to search engines, and web visitors will inevitably be attracted. As social beings we are naturally aware of our audience and take care to present our 'best side'. Goffman (1959) suggests that individuals tend to carefully manage their impression by presenting a 'front stage' version of themselves in public, which can greatly contrast with the self that is seen 'back stage'. It is highly likely that evidence of impression management might be present within the written postings of students on wikis, due to the potential for large 'hidden audiences' of casual web visitors. Such a phenomenon has already been observed in studies of students using blogs (Miller, 1995) and social networking sites (Wheeler et al, 2008). It is therefore possible that some students could be reluctant to participate if they perceive the need to adapt their writing styles, or open their ideas up to scrutiny from a hidden audience. 3
  4. 4. S. Wheeler and D. Wheeler Academic writing and Literacy skills for trainee teachers Academic writing can present a challenge for some students as it is cognitively demanding, and invokes a deep and powerful kind of learning (Northedge, 1990). All undergraduates are required to write at a level which meets academic standards, where essays are coherently argued with acceptable grammatical structure and accurate spelling. Students are also expected to demonstrate critical awareness of their subject, cohesive argument and a relevant focus in their writing. They are also required to support their arguments and reference accurately from the literature. Many students enter into higher education ill-equipped for such rigours, and some find the task of writing academically frustrating or confusing (Fairbairn & Winch, 1992). Furthermore, studies show that the majority of students who drop out from university study do so within their first year (Benn, 1995; Bourner et al, 1991). One study reported that 37% of student attrition in the first year was attributable to 'academic' problems (Johnston, 1997). It was deemed important for this study therefore, that an investigation should be made into the possible disparities between formal and informal writing styles in web based environments. A study was therefore set up to determine the extent to which wikis could be used to support students’ writing skills. The research team was particularly interested in whether the social collaborative context would encourage higher quality writing. Method Four cohorts of education students comprising first (n=10), second year (n=10) and third year (n=9) undergraduates, and a small post graduate cohort (n=6), participated in this study (N=35). Ages ranged from 18 years to 35, with the majority in their early twenties. All students used wikis as an integral part of their studies for one complete term of 10 weekly teaching sessions within their initial teacher training programme and were invited to report on their experiences periodically through their respective online discussion groups. Data were gathered through the wiki discussion boards after prompts from the researchers, and subsequently through a post- module e-mail questionnaire. In any collaborative writing space the initial contributors often work at a disadvantage, as they have no other contributions to compare and contrast their own writing with. To ameliorate this problem the course tutors created a set of headings (writing framework) and accompanying questions within the root pages of the wiki spaces to prompt and scaffold initial student postings. Students found this useful as a starting point, and as they gained in confidence, gradually began to create their own pages, sub-headings and spaces within which to post their own content. Results and discussion: benefits and limitations We start our discussion by highlighting the benefits and limitations of wikis as collaborative online writing tools. One area of focus for the study was to determine how participants used the wiki to develop their writing skills. Students were asked: What particular kinds of writing skill do you think you have developed as a result of using this kind of web page? One student reported a heightened awareness of the importance of developing his critical and analytical skills: In terms of hand-writing and basic writing skills, the wiki has played no part in developing or extending my abilities, however for academic writing e.g. writing essays, it has showed me the importance of using a wide variety of sources and not basing fact or theory on one opinion that a website offers. I think I am now 4
  5. 5. S. Wheeler and D. Wheeler developing a healthy critical and analytical writing style thanks to the wiki. Looking at other people's opinions and findings has helped me to question what's in front of me and I have found myself researching certain areas further to see if all opinions are the same. So all of that put into one sentence is basically that the wiki has helped with academic writing skills. (2nd Year Male) Others reported that they were keenly aware of a 'hidden audience' of visitors to the wiki that could be tracked using the onboard hit counter. This was initially a somewhat disconcerting effect, as the students had no knowledge of who was visiting the site or when they were visiting, and the visitors left very little feedback in the comments boxes. Significantly, students considered their own student peer group to be the hidden audience that exerted the most considerable influence on their writing, and for whose benefit they managed their impressions the most. Several reported that they had adjusted their writing within the wiki to present themselves in a favourable light. Some of the discussion board postings resembled ‘streams of consciousness’ rather than considered compositions, and were more reminiscent of text messaging or ‘squeeze text’ (Carrington, 2005). In contrast, greater care was taken in the public wiki pages, with some concerned that they were seen to write content that would represent their thinking in the best possible light. As is evidenced within the following quotes taken from the discussion board, students’ writing within this domain was less formal, and riddled with spelling and punctuation errors. I consentrate more now on my spelling than ever before because anyone can see what you are writing so you have to take more care. (1st Year Female) … if anything it probably makes me write better. on the wiki you know that everyone can read your work so you make yourself as intelligent as possible. (2nd Year Female) … I know other people that I don't even know will be reading it. I will only write something that I'm sure about, and not things that I think might be wrong or questioned by other people. (1st Year Female) Several students realised at an early stage that writing to the wiki was a challenging exercise, for a number of reasons. A great deal of thought was required over sentence construction, spelling and grammar before students were confident enough to publicly post their writing. One student wrote: Writing on the wiki is a challenging activity which involves much thought about the length and structure of sentences as it is able to be read by anyone. (1st Year Male) One of the most useful utilities of the wiki was its capability to encourage students to deal with smaller, more manageable 'chunks' of study. Although one student argued that using the wiki did not appear to improve her writing, she admitted that it enabled her to reduce her confusion about the topic as a whole: Using the wiki has made writing much more focused on a part of a topic rather than gettin confused trying to tackle the topic as a whole- i found it particularly 5
  6. 6. S. Wheeler and D. Wheeler useful when doin all the learning theories. With regard to actual 'writing skills' i wouldn’t say it's improved anything to be honest, i find myself writing in the same way I’d write a text or speak to friends on MSN. I dunno if this makes it look unprofessional or appear easier to read cos its more informal? (2nd Year Female) Some students experienced a more acute awareness of the need to provide accurate referencing to support the thoughts and ideas they posted to the wiki. Others discovered that a more formal approach to writing would be appropriate for their postings to the space, and adapted their style accordingly: my referencing has improved through using the wiki, as it had made me realise how important it is to state where you got your information from initially. (2nd Year Female) I have developed more consideration for others when writing, as you know that everyone will be reading what you write. you have to consider whether or not it will be relevant to them before you write it up (2nd Year Female) I believe the wiki has helped me to improve my formal writing skills and academic writing. I now realise that their is a great deal of research available to me to support my academic writing. I feel that my referencing skills have also been improved. (2nd Year Female) As with all technologically mediated communication tools, wikis have limitations, but in this study the constraints appear to be mostly perceptual. Some for example, avoided potential conflict with peers by steering clear of controversy in their writing, or carefully moderated their opinions to minimize the potential for conflict. Voicing personal opinion was, for most students secondary to the perceived need to comply with the unwritten rules of net etiquette when using the shared web pages. In recent use of wiki spaces, the authors have created activities which enable students to create their own ground rules or ‘wikiquette’ which define their subsequent actions on the wiki. Such activities encourage students to gain ownership over the content, process and ethos of learning online. Several students were of the opinion that the wiki restricted their writing style or constrained them from expressing themselves in a natural way: Using the wiki has restricted me putting a lot of personal opinion into the findings, so to avoid conflict with others over a differing opinion. (2nd Year Male) I personally feel that, for me, the wiki stops you from writing your opinions in full. I feel very wary knowing that anyone else can read them, so tend to keep my opinions to myself. I know that this will restrict my learning, but i don't feel confident enough to write my full opinions on the internet. (2nd Year Female) Two students however, voiced an alternative view, believing that freedom of speech was a key characteristic of wiki writing. They reported that they would take the risk of offending others as a trade off to expressing their full opinions: 6
  7. 7. S. Wheeler and D. Wheeler I feel fine putting down opinions! If you feel you may upset someone - try and put it tactfully! (2nd Year Male and a now a regular Blogger) When writing in the wiki, i am aware that anyone can look at it and i suppose this limits to an extent what il write but not greatly. Im still happy to write my own opinions and stuff its more the language im using that i find myself thinking about as this will differ for people i know. (2nd Year Female) Students quickly discovered that the wiki they were using lacked a spellchecker, and this proved to be both a strength and a weakness. Comments from two students revealed the extent of their dependency upon spellchecking: I have noticed how much I do rely on Microsoft word, when I word process. Wiki has no spelling or grammar functions, so I have to pay more attention to what I write. However, the problem is when you cross over from using Microsoft word to wiki. (1st Year Male) It's hard to get used to not depending on the spell checker to correct spelling mistakes. (1st Year Female) Some students reported that they used a wordprocessor to create and then spellcheck their contributions prior to copying and pasting them onto the public wiki pages. This is an example of the ad hoc strategies students tend to adopt when they are exposed to new experiences, or the need to adapt to new and unfamiliar technology. It was interesting to note that at least one student identified the use of automatic features on the computer as a potential problem. She considered that her over-reliance on the computer tended to exert a detrimental influence over her general writing skills: The wiki and using ICT as a whole has limited my writing skills and spelling, as i now depend more on the spell and grammar checker and my handwriting has got worse as i am using the computer more. (1st Year Female) Some students adopted the strategy of using a word-processor to create and edit their contributions, before checking for spelling and then finally copying and pasting their work directly to the wiki. One student also reported that she had revisited the wiki to view content after the module had ended and this had been instrumental in helping her to write her assignment. She used it to: …go back and look up what others had written and use that as a starting point for my essay (2nd Year Female) This is a pertinent example of students using the wiki as a reference repository, returning periodically to access information that has developed over a period through the combined efforts of the learning community. By contrast, another student considered that using the wiki as an source aid for his essay writing was invalid. This was in spite of the fact that an entire term’s 7
  8. 8. S. Wheeler and D. Wheeler research in specific topic areas had been posted by all the students, and corrected or edited to ensure reliability and accuracy by other members of the cohort: I … think if I quoted from the WIKI it would not be deemed as a valid source. (2nd Year Male) Such perceived illegitimacy may of course be a legacy of students’ use of other public collaborative online spaces such as Wikipedia and Wiktionary, which have received criticism over their accuracy and validity as research and information sources. One student made her views clear about all wiki based sources: At the end of the day this is only someone’s opinion and should be taken with a grain of salt unless it is backed up. (2nd Year Female) Such comments serve to indicate that some of the students had developed discernment and critical awareness over which websites they could trust and which might be questionable. When applied to academic writing contexts, these skills are patently desirable. Other skills were more implicit within the wiki based learning process. Some students were reluctant to edit or add to the content posted by their peers (Wheeler et al, 2008). Others, however, had less reservations about altering their classmates’ work, and a series of heated exchanges ensued in the classroom as students justified their actions. This form of negotiation of meaning through text was also seen in retrospect as a valuable experience by the majority of the students. Ultimately, students learned that writing to a shared and open online space meant that individual ideas were subsumed into the collective ideas of the community of learners, and that the wiki challenged the notion of intellectual property. Conclusion This study focused on the use of the wiki as an online tool with the potential to support the practice of higher quality writing skills for undergraduate and postgraduate students through collaboration. As with all new technologies, a number of benefits and limitations were identified, some of which were perceptual in nature. Students welcomed the chance to air their views and ideas about their course work on a public forum, with very few expressing a reluctance to contribute. When they were reluctant, this was usually in the scope of their writing rather than the actual contributions they made. Some were cautious about offending their peers, and reported that they wrote in a restrained manner, or deliberately avoided writing content about contentious issues. A couple of the students created their own blogs as a direct result of their participation on the wiki during class time, and have used these to reflect regularly on their undergraduate studies and student life. Some 'impression management' was observed, which suggests that students were aware of an audience greater than that constituted by their own peers. Initially students were surprised by the number of outside visitors to the wiki, which they could view via the onboard hit counter. They were, however, less fastidious over their impression management within the more informal discussion pages, where the correction of spelling and grammatical errors appeared to assume less importance. Significantly, use of the wiki was observed to aid the development of a healthy critical awareness for many of the participants in the study, particularly in relation to the citing of 8
  9. 9. S. Wheeler and D. Wheeler information sources, and the nature of intellectual property. Moreover, students reported that they took greater care in the referencing of their work, and were more fastidious in checking the veracity of their sources. It remains to be seen whether such meticulous scrutiny of sources can be translated across to the writing of academic essays with future student cohorts and this will be an aim of future, extended research with a larger sample of students. Most students considered that they had raised their skill level in academic writing through use of the wiki, but their collaborative writing was limited due to their reluctance to edit each others' work. Never the less, students unanimously reported that they enjoyed using a shared environment to discuss their work and the course content. Some also reported that they used the wiki content to help them to plan and write their essays. Students contributed to the wiki mostly during classroom sessions, and reported that their academic writing skills had improved through participation in the formal wiki space. Although it was limited to a small sample of students, and based solely on self-reports, this study has clear implications for the use of wikis as tools to encourage quality academic writing skills. We are currently undertaking further studies with larger student groups and one of the aims will be to test relationships between the quality of students' academic writing and the quality of contributions they have made on the wiki. References Benn, R. (1995), Higher education: Non-standard students and withdrawals. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 19(3), 3-12. Bourner, T. et al (1991) Part-time students and their experience of higher education (Buckingham, Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press). Carrington, V. (2005) Txting: the end of civilization (again)? Cambridge Journal of Education, 35(2), 161-175. Crystal, D. (2006) Language and the Internet (Second Edition) (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press). Fairbairn, G. J. and Winch, C. (1992) Reading, Writing and Reasoning: A Guide for Students (Buckingham, Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press). Goffman, E. (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (New York, Doubleday). Horizon Report (2007) The Horizon Report 2007. Available online at: http://www.nmc.org/pdf/ 2007_Horizon_Report.pdf (accessed 20 March 2008). Johnston, V. (1997) Why do first year students fail to progress to their second year? An academic staff perspective. Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, September 11-14 1997: University of York. Jonassen, D. H., Peck, K. L. and Wilson, B. G. (1999) Learning with Technology: A Constructivist Perspective (Upper Saddle River, NJ, Merrill Prentice Hall). Kamel Boulos, M. N., Maramba, I. and Wheeler, S. (2006) Wikis, blogs and podcasts: a new generation of Web-based tools for virtual collaborative clinical practice and education. BMC Medical Education, 6(41). Kamel Boulos, M. N. and Wheeler, S. (2007) The emerging Web 2.0 social software: An enabling suite of sociable technologies in health and healthcare education. Health Information and Libraries Journal, 24(1), 2-23. Kimber, K. and Wyatt-Smith, C. (2006) Using and creating knowledge with new technologies: A case for students-as-designers Learning, Media and Technology, 31(1), 19-34. Kress, G. (2003) Literacy in the New Media Age (London, Routledge). Lankshear, C. and Knobel, M. (2006) New Literacies: Everyday Practices and Classroom 9
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