Posted by: Ellie Kutz | March 1, 2010

Wikispaces as a Tool for Teaching and Learning

 I love wikis. Anyone who has heard me talk about them knows that this is true. I’ve used them in my courses, for committees, for my professional organization SIG, and for work with teachers in far-flung places.  But I’m not the only wiki fan.

 Wikis have been growing in popularity for use in teaching at all levels because a) they offer an easy way to create an online presence through what is really a simple-to-use website and b) they are interactive, allowing all members (e.g. students as well faculty) to create pages, post content, add links, and upload files, as well as to participate in discussion of what’s been posted.  

The best-known wiki, Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.com ) demonstrates these characteristics.  It makes an enormous amount of information available online and anyone can request membership and contribute to that information.   While Wikipedia is sometimes disparaged because students too often turn to it as their only source of information, it does offer a model of a collective and collaborative, knowledge-sharing enterprise, that can be used effectively in courses. (And at least in my own field of Discourse Studies, some of the most respected experts have engaged in contributing to and refining relevant content.)   

 But wikis have many other uses. UMass/Boston acquired its own private label wiki platform, through Wikispaces, late last spring, and faculty began using wikis in their courses (and for collaborations within and beyond the university, and for repositories of departmental information, committee work, and faculty council) in Fall 2009.  To date, almost 300 wikis have been created and actively edited, and over 2500 user accounts for faculty, students, and staff, have been created.   Wikispaces sites are now being used for collaborative team projects in the new Science Gateway Seminars and for course materials and posting of student work in the English and General Education Education formerly served by a purpose-built interactive website.  (See related articles.)  Links to examples of such wikis can be found at http://umbwiki-users.wikispaces.umb.edu.

 Wikispaces vs. Blackboard

My faculty colleagues often ask me to compare Wikispaces to Blackboard as a teaching tool.  Both provide an online presence for courses, allowing faculty to post course materials where they’ll be available from any computer.  Both have discussion functions (but Blackboard’s threaded discussion tool allows a more fine-grained display of discussion post topics and subtopics and of running discussion text and comments). Blackboard course sites are accessible only to registered students, while wikis can be restricted so that only members can read or post to them. Blackboard has a built-in (although clunky) grade book, and the wiki does not. Blackboard is the medium for all online courses, so for faculty who are planning to offer their courses online, now or in the future, the time spent putting materials into Blackboard and beginning to learn its features is likely to be a wise investment. 

However, Blackboard has two significant limitations from my own pedagogical perspective.  One is that, once the semester ends, course materials are no longer available to students, whereas course wikis can remain active indefinitely, so that students can continue to access course resources and whatever they themselves have posted.  A second is that, while students can engage in discussions and chats, take assessments, and submit assignments through a Blackboard site, it’s not set up for easy collaboration and creation, and they can do little to contribute to the overall appearance or content. With a wiki, student members can contribute in all of the same ways as the faculty organizer:  they can create pages, edit content, upload documents and images, and work individually or in teams to make the course site, or some portions of the course site, their own.  They can contribute to a shared resource collection, they can share their own work, they can work collaboratively to create and revise pages that reflect their shared inquiry into relevant topics, and  they can use the pages they’ve created for individual or group presentations.  In the process, they can develop a familiarity with the authoring of online texts that can help them to engage more critically with other material that they find online. 

Wikis vs. blogs

A blog or weblog is another tool that allows for easy online posting in conjunction with a course.  Blogs and wikis differ, however, in how they deal with authorship and in how posts are structured.  Blogs are typically individually-authored, with other participants commenting on primary posts by a single author.  I use blogs in my courses when I want students to keep individual reading or writing journals, where they will be the sole authors.  While this format can be altered, it’s not easy to work around the default structure.

In addition, blog posts appear in reverse chronological order, and allow little variation in overall structure.  This newsletter, for example, has been created using a WordPress blog. but it requires careful coordination to have posted articles appear as one coherent issue rather a stream of posts. 

UMass Boston has been piloting a blog service (http://blogs.umb.edu/ ) and we hope to have a stable version available for campus use soon.

Are Wikis the Magic Bullet?

For me, the wiki has become the core platform for the work I do in my English courses and beyond.  If I’m teaching an online course, I have to teach within a Blackboard course site, but I supplement it with a course wiki that allows students to share links to resources they discover and access these resources in their future work, to build collaborative pages to reflect their developing understandings of the literature they read, and to create individual research pages where they can easily upload sound files for the conversational data they collect and analyze and discuss the data that others have collected.  For face-to-face courses, the material that students have posted can provide a jumping-off point for discussion or presentation. For committees, like the Provost’s Faculty Development Committee, which I chaired last spring, I appreciate the fact that all participants can post and share resources, drafts, and subcommittee reports, and that we can access these electronically at meetings rather then passing around great piles of paper.

However, as much as I love wikis, I recognize some concerns and limitations. In an  Educause Review article, Brian Lamb discusses number of these, from technical issues  to intellectual property concerns.  Nevertheless, he concludes that  “wikis and other emergent technologies are filling a gaping void in existing practice.”  Wikis have done that for me.  Perhaps they will for you.

Lamb, B. (2004). Wide open spaces:  Wikis, ready or not. EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 39, no. 5 (September/October 2004): 36–48. <http://www.educause.edu/EDUCAUSE+Review/EDUCAUSEReviewMagazineVolume39/WideOpenSpacesWikisReadyorNot/157925>

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