CENTER FOR TEACHING EXCELLENCE

CTE : Teaching and Learning News

Volume 18, Number 4     April & May 2009

Return to Index
Click here for printable version

To Wiki or Not to Wiki:
Using Online Collaborative Tools in Teaching Writing

by Jasmine Lellock  


Jasmine Lellock is a graduate student in the English Department at University of Maryland. She will be presenting her classroom research on "Using Wikis to Facilitate Collaborative Student Learning" at the upcoming Lilly East Conference on Teaching and Learning at University of Delaware this month.

Most educators agree that student collaboration and peer learning are valuable pedagogical strategies, yet such projects are often a source of frustration. Students have conflicting schedules and personalities. Tracking and assessing individual contributions presents another problem. Collaborative online technologies like wikis and blogs offer a way to overcome these issues.

Wikis are especially useful for writing instruction. A dynamic and comfortable forum in which students can communicate with each other, wikis offer opportunities for improving student writing through modeling, collaboration, and revision. Indeed, using wikis in writing instruction aligns with the stated outcomes of the First Year Writing program. For example, collaborative wiki projects can assist in teaching students how to "locate [their] argument in a broader conversation" and to "define, address, and appeal to [their] target audience." These tools can also enhance peer review skills, another student learning outcome that appears on the syllabi of many writing courses. Further, wikis help students think about writing as process, and they give students a sense of purpose. Because their work is semi-public, students feel more accountable for its quality. Finally, their collaborative nature encourages classroom community and develops their sense of civic engagement.

....[a] concern that students have with collaborative work is that their individual contributions will not be appropriately noticed or assessed...

Despite these and other obvious benefits, the potential of opensource, collaborative technologies to reshape writing pedagogies has not yet found its outlet in many writing classrooms. One reason for this notable absence is the fear that the technology is too difficult to learn or that it will require more time and effort than it is worth. Another common concern is how to deal with students’ anxiety about making their writing public and their concern with appropriate assessment of collaborative work. With planning and training, however, instructors and students can learn to navigate this rather straightforward tool and to identify strategies that complement their teaching style and meet their pedagogical goals.

Because their work is semi-public, students feel more accountable for its quality.

I first decided to explore wiki writing as part of my English 101 class. In conjunction with the First Year Writing Program’s emphasis on civic engagement, the course theme that I developed was "The Public I." To accommodate this theme, I wanted to find a way to demonstrate the ways in which writing could be a public process and product, as well as to encourage group learning. The wiki, then, was an ideal tool for me. In other 101 classes, I had taught rhetorical analysis in a series of journals. This time, I designed a collaborative essay project in which students taught each other the terms and strategies of rhetorical analysis and worked together to analyze a text.

Communicating via the wiki discussion feature, students began the project by selecting a pair of political speeches that their group wished to analyze and compare. Their second task was to post to the wiki individual responses to the speeches; thus, the initial invention stage of composition encouraged individual reflection. Because their first shared writing was in the form of a low-stakes task, this method also mitigated some of the stress of exposing their writing to the public eye. Another concern that students have with collaborative work is that their individual contributions will not be appropriately noticed or assessed; this assignment helped allay some of those anxieties.

The next step in the process was for students to prepare a group presentation in which they presented their initial observations to the class as a whole and then solicited ideas and feedback from their peers. After receiving input from their peers during the group presentations, students revised their individual responses to the speeches. Often, students complain that work on discussion boards or other electronic spaces is simply busy work that doesn’t relate to the issues of the class. This presentation helped to bring into the classroom the work that went on outside of class in the space of the wiki, demonstrating its centrality to class activities. As with the initial wiki posting, the group presentation also reinforced the value of writing as a process and as a collective learning endeavor.

The final stage was composing a collaborative essay, to be assigned a  collective grade according to the First

 Year Writing grading standards. Students drafted and revised their essays on the wiki, modifying their peers’ contributions and using the discussion feature to ask questions and post updates. More than any of the others, this task unearthed student anxieties. The major concern, to my surprise, was not fears about making their early, less-polished drafts public, but rather concerns about intellectual property and fair assessment. They were nervous about modifying the writing of their peers, so they wanted to divide and conquer—to assign a section to each group member—rather than to compose and revise collaboratively the essay as a whole. In class discussions about the process, students asked questions such as: "How will I earn credit for my writing?" and "What if my contributions are good, but the essay as a whole is not?"

They were nervous about modifying the writing of their peers, so they wanted to divide and conquer—to assign a section to each group member—rather than to compose and revise collaboratively the essay as a whole.

These lines of inquiry are of course valid concerns. I attempted to address these issues by reminding students that wikis record their own history, making it possible for me to view all prior drafts of the essay and discover exactly what each student contributed. I also commented regularly on their writing on the wiki, just as I might do with a series of drafts, in order to provide more direction and reassurance. The wiki provided a unique opportunity for me (and for them) to watch their progress and to learn about their process. As a result, I was able to provide more regular and focused feedback to students and to tailor my classroom instruction to their needs.

I have used this project for two classes, modifying it each time. When I next implement collaborative wiki writing, I hope to work through in greater depth the issue of assessment. Another area I wish to improve is helping students feel more comfortable revising the work of their peers. Despite student concerns about the collaborative nature of the assignment, however, the wiki essay is often the most successful one in each student’s portfolio. Further, students often identify the wiki project in their course evaluations as the most useful assignment. While implementing wikis in writing instruction requires some careful planning, in my experience, the pedagogical benefits outweigh its drawbacks.



Center For Teaching Excellence
University of Maryland
0405 Marie Mount Hall
College Park, MD 20742
(301) 405-9356
cte@umd.edu
http://www.cte.umd.edu

Teaching and Learning News
Dave Eubanks, Interim Director
Ann Smith,
Faculty Fellow
Anna Bedford,
Editor