Posted by: Ellie Kutz | October 24, 2011

New Wikispaces Features Support Collaborative Learning

Collaborative learning activities where students work together in small groups or teams are a common feature of UMass Boston classes.  While some classroom time may be devoted to such activities, much of the work is often managed outside of the classroom, and increasingly online.  In the Gateway Seminar for the College of Science and Mathematics, for example, freshman students work in teams on topics such as HeLa cells, swine flu, or food production, using Wikispaces for their collaborative work (described at length in an earlier newsletter article).

Students create team pages in which they report on their collaborative research into each of these topics and then display those pages as they present their findings to the class. Students can add their contributions to their team’s page on a particular project—text, images, links, videos—from any location, can use the discussion space for each page to discuss their choices, and can make revisions, knowing that earlier versions will be kept in the page’s history (a feature that also allows team members and the instructor to see/assess their own and others’ contributions to the work).

What the new Wikispaces project feature adds is the possibility of making team pages private to team members (instead of available to the rest of the class) during the time that a team is working on them. Students could then be more tentative, exploratory, and experimental in what they create together, knowing that it wouldn’t be visible to the larger class until they were ready to go public.  At the same time, it allows instructors to create new projects and to put students into teams easily, either through random distribution or by selection.  Here’s an example I’ve made from my course wiki for Teaching English with Technology, where students work in teams to create weekly topic pages to generate online discussion.  After I click on the Projects link in the actions menu, I can create  a project and set different teams for it.  In this case, the project is called Weekly Topics (to design a topic page for the week), and I’ve created a team named for each week 2 through 7 (this was a summer course).

I can name the teams first and add the members later, moving the wiki members (the students in the course) into those teams.

Or I can choose to have students be randomly distributed into those teams.

While the feature is intended to support teamwork, it also allows new possibilities for individuals. By creating teams of one person each, instructors can set up a way for students to create private pages, visible only to themselves and their instructor, again with the possibility of making those pages public to classmates at a later date after a process of initial drafting, response and revision is completed.  Although many of us have found that students come to value having peer response for early drafts of their writing, private pages for students, where work won’t be seen by classmates, offer a significant pedagogical alternative that hasn’t been available in Wikispaces until now.

There is also a new comment feature in Wikispaces that will further support the work of peer response or instructor response to students’ posted writing and the ability of teams to comment on the pages being created through their collaborative work.  Working much like the comment feature in MSWord, it allows readers/writers of a page to insert a location-specific comment that will appear to the right of the main text.  Such comments are also searchable and they appear as well within the discussion space for the page.

Here I’ve inserted a comment, linked to a specific segment of text on the topic page that the Week 3 team created for our discussion of the role of technology in the teaching of reading and writing.

Both of these new features will be extremely useful in supporting the ways I’ve been using wikis in my teaching.

If you aren’t yet using a UMass Boston Wikispaces wiki for your teaching, you can request one at www.wikispaces.umb.edu.  You’ll find tutorials for using Wikispaces on the UMB Wiki-Users wiki. Or, for more assistance in planning ways to use a wiki in your teaching, contact me at eleanor.kutz@umb.edu, or for more technical assistance, contact Christian.deTorres@umb.edu or John.Mazzarella@umb.edu.

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