To wiki or not…
Telling colleagues you’re thinking about using a wiki for assessment might make you feel like you’ve got ‘street cred’ on campus but have you assessed the risks in using one yet? Matt had a look into it and this is what he found.
By Matthew Cowan
From time to time we find ourselves wondering how we can better engage our students in learning tasks and how we can better simulate ‘real world’ workplaces and their processes either in class and/or through our assessments. This is particularly salient at times of the year when the assignments start rolling in and they haven’t met our expectations. Assignments that appear authentic to our students go a long way to motivating them, and us, as they tend to intrinsically ‘mean’ something more than a didactic approach to imparting skills and knowledge. ‘Real’ assessment tasks add tangibility to the learning process because learners can make connections between what takes place in the classroom via practical applications of theory and what actually happens ‘out there’ in industry – our students see value in it. Importantly, such practice gives us a much clearer picture of where our students are ‘at’ in terms of uptake of knowledge and skills, sometimes referred to as ‘graduate attributes’. In addition, it helps us to reflect on and evaluate our own performances so things can be done better next time round. Therefore, it is unsurprising that educators want to add greater ‘tangibility’ to their assignments through the addition of more practical activities that involve teamwork, ones aligned with theory taught in lectures, and the development of a class or group wiki can, in theory, facilitate that.
Wikis are collaborative online tools that allow users to create and edit online documents or web pages (UNSW, 2011; Judd et al., 2010). Wikipedia, of course, is arguably the best known of all wikis and a random informal survey of the Learning Commons tells us that 100% of all students surveyed were familiar with Wikipedia and that around 50% admitted to having used it for assignments in some way. While this survey’s empirical grounding is weak, it may, nevertheless, be reasonable to assume from this that many of our students value Wikipedia and perceive it as a reliable starting point in their academic endeavours. With that in mind, the thought of including wiki development as part of assessment may at first appear a great idea, a motivator and a timesaver – it may even portray you as ‘cutting edge’ among your peers (and students) on campus, but research has found that pedagogically and logistically, the use of wikis as educational tools in facilitating collaborative learning could have you praying for early retirement if you haven’t taken the time to set them up properly.
There is a growing body of literature on the use of wikis as educational tools in higher education with much research suggesting that they engender learning through the collaborative construction of knowledge by way of open discussion, knowledge sharing, idea and opinion exchange and general active participation (Su & Beaumont, 2010). Others have argued that wikis are empowering and enhance learning (Augar et al. 2004, cited in Witney & Smallbone, 2011) and develop higher order thinking skills (Resta & Laferriere, 2007, cited in Witney & Smallbone, 2011). Wenger (2008, cited in Matthew & Felvegi, 2009) conjures images of some kind of online collaborative ‘utopia’ with talk of virtual inhabitants forming knowledge communities working and learning together in pursuit of doing something better. And, somewhat amusingly, Wheeler et al. (2008) imply that knowledge simply ‘emerges’ from content that is generated from users when placed on the pages of a wiki. How do we get one of those?! Indeed, anecdotal evidence from some corners on campus at RMITVN agrees with this view and supports lecturers here wanting to use wikis, albeit under controlled circumstances. But, they are quick to caution that a pedagogically sound framework must be in place long before the wiki assignment appears in the course guide of a student’s Blackboard shell. Meanwhile, there are others on campus who tend to disagree and argue that only under certain circumstances (courses with part-time students; cross-campus collaboration) can wikis achieve desirable outcomes among a cohort of students such as ours where upwards of 95% of students are from the same language background. Ultimately, however, a decision on whether to use a wiki for assessment or not involves answering the question of what exactly it is that you want your students to achieve.
Emerging from the literature and through discussions with lecturers at RMITVN on the pedagogical effectiveness of using wikis as a form of assessment, one concern that is consistently raised is one of collaboration and how it should be assessed. Given that wikis can provide the tools to facilitate the production of knowledge through a constructivist learning approach in a potentially dynamic and collaborative learning environment (Hazari, North & Moreland, n.d.), simply forming class groups and expecting students to collaborate online towards the development of a wiki page on a given topic will not work very well and could potentially lead to an assessment nightmare, and any assessment bungle is worth avoiding, right? This is also supported in the literature which tells us that despite all their potential capabilities, true collaboration through wikis does not work by itself (Cole, 2009 cited in Said, 2011). One extremely important consideration that must be addressed before plunging headlong into a wiki project is ascertaining whether it’s the ‘process’ of populating a wiki with content is what you wish to assess, which would then mean you would most likely be assessing collaboration, or whether it’s the ‘product’ that you wish to assess, in which case you would most likely be assessing the quality (and quantity) of the information gathered and knowledge produced. If it’s the former, herein is where potential troubles lie.
Broadly speaking it’s fair to say that students don’t like group work although we often find ourselves in front of our students espousing the value of being able to contribute effectively, equitably and harmoniously within groups in the workplace. How many of us enjoyed group work ourselves at university and how good are we at it now? Moreover, our students may feel uneasy working with others who they may see as ‘competitors’ in their group and this could give rise to trust issues, particularly as wikis allow all group members to edit and delete posts. Conversely, a conscientious student may fall into a group with a ‘freerider’, someone who doesn’t contribute equitably, and that ‘freerider’ receives credit for group work (Witney & Smallbone, 2011). How often do we hear complaints from students about a ‘lazy’ team member? While anecdotal evidence has revealed that students generally look upon online assignments favourably, particularly if they are weighted at no more than 10% of their overall mark, this does not hold true if they are weighted at 40%, for example – the trust is just not there. Further, the literature tells us that in educational environments like ours here in Vietnam, where numbers such as test scores and GPAs hold great currency, it’s challenging for students to get their heads around why they have to depend on someone else to do their bit so they can earn a grade (Tharp, 2010). From the lecturers’ perspective, working out who did what and how valuable that contribution was to the learning outcome is reported as being an absolute nightmare if clear and explicit assessment objectives are not spelled out to students from the outset. In a research study on the use of wikis across the three RMIT campuses (Melbourne, Saigon & Hanoi), Fernando et al. (2011) report that if student groups are not explicitly informed that they are being assessed on how well they collaborate, they tend to ‘split up’ a topic, appoint group leaders who then distribute roles throughout the group so that then each member can go away and do their ‘bit’ before coming back together to ‘cut and paste’ the assignment together. Aside from the students missing the point of undertaking a collaborative task, this creates an assessment conundrum right there – what would you do? As an interesting side note to this study, the researchers found that the delegation of tasks took place across all three campuses and it remains unclear as to how group leaders were appointed, but anecdotal evidence suggests that leaders were chosen according to seniority (Fernando et al., 2011). In terms of assessment, it was found that assessing work based on a grasp of the theory, application of that theory, the provision of examples and final submission, was straightforward and easily assessed, but issues lay with assessing the collaboration aspect of the task accurately and fairly. Fernando et al. (2011) report that some wikis, such as the one often used at RMITVN, are not necessarily effective for ‘tracking’ collaboration as submissions and edits are not always tagged with the name of the student who actually edits, making assessment of an individual’s contribution to the group project overtly subjective. One senior lecturer in Saigon has stated that with wikis there can be no assurance of consistency when it comes to marking given the disparity among lecturers in how items are assessed sometimes. Moreover, there can be confusion among students as to whether commenting on a wiki is considered as collaboration or not. Again, this needs to be settled by making assessment guidelines clear at the beginning of the semester and students need to be informed of what differentiates a comment that will attract marks from a comment that is superficial and merely ‘window dressing’. Sifting through comments has also proven to be time consuming as it can take considerable time to get to the comment thread you are looking for, which means if it takes you time, then it will take your students time and they may not be as patient as you. One other reported flaw of the Blackboard wiki that we use here is that there is no automatic notification of comments from both teachers and students making the monitoring of comments inconsistent and often neglected.
Thankfully better approaches for setting up wiki projects have emerged out of trial and error and research. Our students want to know how they are going to be assessed, so it is crucial to manage the expectations of our students effectively, especially early on (UNSW, 2011). Advice coming out of RMITVN supports this and asserts that any wiki project must be underpinned by consistent explicit explanations of your expectations of students during the task, along with a clear assessment rubric outlining how both individuals and groups will be evaluated on the task. One technique that has been employed for assessing collaboration requires individuals to evidence collaboration at some level with all members in their group. In this case, contribution to a wiki was marked out of 15 with a maximum of 8 marks given for individual work of “some quality” but with no evidence of engagement or collaboration within the group. For somewhere between 8-15 marks to have been awarded, individual students needed to have shown that they had collaborated with others at “some level” (UNSW, 2011). What this means is that if a student can evidence that they have made a difference to their group by pushing their group’s overall grade up (e.g. Pass to Credit), then that student will be rewarded for that individual effort, with the group also benefitting overall for what that individual achieved. Sure, a ‘freerider’ may still get marks for simply being part of a group, but at least others in the group can feel confident of receiving extra marks for a significant individual contribution to the overall quality of the group’s work. One way that a degree course at RMITVN got around issues of equity was by putting in place a voluntary peer evaluation mechanism for groups who were concerned about the lack of output by a particular member or members. This proved to be effective as it provided another avenue for verifying student collaboration come assessment time.
However, Fernando et al. (2011) remain cautious when discussing the viability of using wikis on campuses where students can more easily collaborate face to face, particularly on campuses with comparatively small student populations that don’t have too many other commitments outside of family, such as part-time work. They argue that nothing tops face to face collaboration and that the students know this too so there is no reason to attempt to force them to collaborate online when they can simply meet up over coffee on campus. Said (2011), supports this by reporting that wikis provide a useful repository for recording decisions, but that they need to be supported by some form of face to face dialogue. In light of this, it appears that if students can find an alternative way to collaborate, they will – think Google Apps – and this has implications for what and how you plan to assess your wiki. Lecturers warn against making a wiki a task that students are forced to do and that it may be more feasible to promote wikis as a voluntary tool that is not assessed. Another alternative might be to take a blended learning approach to an assignment where you identify an aspect of it, say knowledge management, which might be suited to a particular tool that a wiki offers and then exploit that. This suggests that your approach to using a wiki should not be based around a sole focus on creating a wiki from the ground up, but rather an approach that requires the wiki to ‘work for you’ at a particular stage of an assignment, that is, a repository for information gathered by the group. In this way, if you still wish to assess collaboration, collaboration may become more quantifiable simply by calculating how much quality information is submitted and how often a student contributes to the group’s wiki page.
As briefly mentioned earlier, wikis have been found to be substantially effective here at RMITVN in cases where classes have a number of part-time students. For part-time students, Fernando et al. (2011) found that wikis created a sense of community and they noticed a heightened sense of engagement with the course among these students, but it remains unclear as to whether the wikis themselves fostered these qualities or rather that it was simply due to part-time students being more intrinsically motivated and more experienced with this type of learning, as MBA students often are. One not so surprising finding from the above research, but nevertheless significant, is the quality of collaboration that emerged out of developing wikis across RMIT campuses (Melbourne, Hanoi, and Saigon). The work produced is reported to have been much richer in content with greater diversity in the information gathered in comparison to the control group consisting of only Saigon students. The researchers found that RMITVN students greatly benefitted from their collaboration with cross-campus students, particularly with those from Melbourne due to the nature of its multicultural student population. Another important contributor to the success of this particular project was the choice of topic for the wiki. According to Fernando et al. (2011), the topic is a real driver behind the success or failure of a wiki project – some topics are simply more suited to wikis than others. This evidence further highlights the importance of making certain that the use of a wiki actually suits the nature of your topic rather than using a wiki at all costs for the wrong reasons on the wrong topic – as one lecturer has said, the decision on the use of a wiki should depend on the “wikiness” of the topic. However, before you start toying with the idea of cross-campus (and on-campus) collaboration, there remain logistical issues that can, ironically, kill a collaborative wiki project and this time not because of student involvement, but rather with cross-campus colleagues. The logistics of enrolling students on and across campuses has been described as “messy” and time consuming, particularly when adding students to groups, which lecturers themselves are often required to do. In fact, one senior lecturer at Saigon has stated that the time and effort was so disproportionate to the 10% mark offered for their assignment, that their program will not be using wikis next semester. When working across campuses, colleagues need to keep each other regularly informed and be in agreement on decisions made concerning the wiki project and this in itself can be challenging to accomplish. There may also be technical glitches that need negotiating and both students and lecturers need to be able to troubleshoot when things go awry and know who to contact if problems can’t be solved. Moreover, colleagues working across campuses need to establish a point of contact that all communications pass through so issues can be quickly brought to attention and promptly addressed.
Wikis have the potential to create valuable and authentic learning experiences. They can take relatively little time to set up with experienced help, create a sense of collegiality and motivate both students and lecturers. They can also give our students the opportunity to engage with other students internationally who are enrolled in the same courses, which has been proven to enrich the learning experiences and knowledge of our students here in Vietnam, as indicated by the research done so far by Fernando et al (2011). However, the approach to online group work should, in essence, be no different from more ‘traditional’ face to face approaches – the task must be appropriate for the outcomes you desire and our students need to know how they are going to be rewarded. While online assessment tasks may be seen by some as an attempt to dodge ‘real’ teaching, wiki assignments are actually a lot of hard work behind the scenes. Therefore, how much time you are prepared to put into a project that is potentially worth only 10% of an overall mark must be given serious consideration – do you have the time and patience for this? But in terms of educational value, our students can benefit greatly if the project is well set up from the beginning with clear and realistic guidelines for everybody to follow.
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