Teach Smart with Technology: Using Wikis for Collaborative Learning

What are Wikis? Why use them as Assignments?

By Cecilia Lo

Wiki is a collection of web pages that can be viewed and modified collaboratively via the internet.  It is usually used for repository or reporting information and has versioning capabilities.  Since it is an online tool, collaborators can access and edit the information at any location at any time; they can also view changes in real-time.  A well-known example of wiki is the Wikipedia—a “self-organizing, self-correcting online encyclopedia anyone can edit” (Jimmy Wales, in “Why Does Wikipedia Work?”).  The fundamental tenant of wiki is the gathering of information from a community of participants with a shared interest as opposed to disseminating information by experts in a top-down model.

Instructors typically assign exercises involving the wikis to help students achieve pedagogical objectives such as:

  • Expand student literacy in the field through reading and summarizing relevant writings
  • Build research and writing skills
  • Develop critical thinking skills when they evaluate others’ contributions
  • Gain insight into the process of constructing of knowledge and the instability of knowledge
  • Create a learning community by providing a peer-learning experience; provide students an opportunity to learn how to work collaboratively—trusting each other, respect of each other, and making objective suggestions; give students an alternative way to participate in class
  • Promote “pride of authorship” and ownership in the team’s activities. Further, students can show off their work in a public wiki with friends and family, and if their wiki pages has high readership outside of the class, it also gives them certain bragging rights.
  • Learn how to write for and engage a public audience, and practice good digital citizenship. Students learn essential digital communication skills and the visual rhetoric of digital writing (e.g. how images and other media are used in relation to the text).
  • Help student recognize the real-world relevance of what they are learning through linking to internet resource, and through engaging with the larger public in the case of a public wiki.

Some Examples

Typical wiki assignments include:

  • Collaborative glossary
  • Collaborative class notes or textbook
  • Group projects—share resources, track meeting notes, agenda items, and work progress
  • Peer-review of student writing
  • e-portfolios to reflect on learning progress

Specific Examples

  • The Chicago School of Media Theory
    Wikipedia like entries of terms written by students
  • Powerpedia
    A collaborative resource created by students in Richard Westerman's Power, Identity, and Resistance Core Social Sciences course at the University of Chicago in 2010-11, and retained as a reference for future students in that course.
  • Being Christian in the Roman Empire: Midterm Site on UChicago Wiki (CNetID log-in required) | Final Site on Wikipedia
    Class wiki created by students in Brandon Cline's Being Christian in the Roman Empire course in 2012 spring quarter
  • Wikis in University Teaching and Learning (YouTube Video)
    Richard Buckland of University of New South Wales discusses what wiki is, how it works, how he has used it successfully (collaborative class notes, assignments) in a presentation for the Foundations of University Learning and Teaching (FULT) program. The video is almost an hour long, but is worth watching.
  • Brian Katz, "Technology Supporting Innovative Pedagogy," AMS Graduate Student Blog, May 25, 2011
    Katz describes asking his students to create WikiTextbook in the first part of the blog post.
  • "Wiki Brings a Class Together - Tim Paustian,"
    Paustian of University of Wisconsin—Madison uses wiki to help microbiology lab students work collaboratively on a class lab project and help them see how their individual work fit into the bigger class project.
  • "Wiki Improves Peer Editing - Erica Halverson"
    Halverson of University of Wisconsin—Madison assigned her education students to work on their instructional design group projects in a wiki so that students can get peer feedback from group members and from other groups.

Some Tips

As with any other assignments, the success of any assignment depends on having:

  • Clear and transparent learning goals and expectation: Students need to understand why they are doing the exercises, and what they will get out of them
  • Clear and detail instruction, especially expected behavior when they work in groups: It should be clear to the students how to do the assignment and how they can work effectively as a group. Consider assigning roles and other collaborative learning strategies.
  • Clear relevance: Students need to see how their work impact on their learning, discuss the work they do outside class meeting back into the classroom
  • Clear assessment rubrics: Students need to know what count as good work. Providing models often help.
  • Safe learning environment that makes participating, sharing, and collaborating mean something: Students need to feel safe to experiment on ideas and experience the effect of positive outcome of their work.

When your assignment involves using collaborative online tools such as wikis, consider:

  • Student's familiarity with the wiki & potential learning curve: Do not assume students are tech-savvy. Factor in the time/effort students need to learn the tool when you consider appropriate workload. It is often a good idea to scaffold the exercise and assign a very short and easy first exercise with the tool to help students get familiar with it.
  • Provide an example of what you consider good work.
  • Nurture continual participation by discussing their work in class.
  • Structure the initial content for easy access. Since the content in a wiki is created by a group, it is easy for the content to become disorganized and difficult to navigate. This can be addressed by providing an organizational structure before everyone starts contributing.
  • Privacy issues: If you choose to have students work in a public wiki, remember that student information is protected by FERPA—this is federal law. For questions regarding FERPA, see University Registrar's web page or email them at registrar@uchicago.edu or call 773.702.7891.

Wiki Tools at UChicago

If you are interesting in wiki tools, email ASTS at academictech@uchicago.edu.