Mediawikis for research, teaching and learning
Abstract: This paper describes the design of various scenarios implemented with Mediawiki software. After discussing four case studies, we present and discuss pedagogical and technical design guidelines. This contribution is part of a long-term research and development program to design, implement and evaluate the use of ICT to support integrated scenarios for research, teaching and learning. We argue that properly configured Mediawikis are suitable tools if content production and knowledge integration are at center stage.
Paper presented at EdMedia 2011. I will create an expanded version of this at some point. For the moment, it's cut and paste - Daniel K. Schneider 16:02, 7 June 2011 (CEST)
- Citation of the published version available at EditLib: Schneider, D.K., Benetos, K. & Ruchat, M. (2011). Mediawikis for research, teaching and learning. In T. Bastiaens & M. Ebner (Eds.), Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications 2011 (pp. 2084-2093). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.
- Slides of the talk at EdMedia '11.
Mediawiki, the technology developed for Wikipedia, has interesting affordances for supporting a range of teaching and other scholarly activities (Boyer, 1997). We argue that Mediawikis facilitate (1) the integration of diverse academic activities, (2) the combination of “learning management” with “knowledge management”, and (3) do so at a reasonable cost.
Our interest in Mediawiki-supported designs arose from informal studies carried out over the last 15 years aiming to provide academics and school teachers with flexible educational tools that also support other scholarly activities. Our field studies in the early 1990’s led to our project-oriented C3MS teaching model, which is a design that engages students in activities involving content-production, cooperation, and community building. C3MS stands for Community, Collaboration and Content Management System and refers to both a design (a conceptual system) and a kind of portalware for the creation of web portals that include a variety of tools such as a news engine, blogs, wikis, links managers, a shoutbox, forums, mini-databases, etc. At the very heart of a C3MS design is a produce-deposit-look-discuss loop, and pedagogical story-boarding with a C3MS follows a simple principle described in the TECFA Seed Catalog: The teacher creates a pedagogical scenario (activity) by defining different phases of the work process. Each phase contains at least an elementary activity, which should be supported by a tool (a portal or web 2.0 brick). Larger projects can contain several smaller scenarios. This strand of developmental research is still in progress (Class, 2009; Class & Schneider, 2011).
Since 2005, the main author’s interest has shifted to the question of how to integrate various lightweight teaching designs with knowledge building and dissemination. Work started on EdutechWiki, a project that we now view as an all-in-one solution to support whole scholarship (Schneider, 2008). Since we became familiar with the affordances (and problems) of the underlying technology, we also started extending Mediawiki technology to other field experiments in order to gain additional insights. Currently, we are still in an early design phase and haven’t collected any systematic data from users. Therefore, our focus here is on practical design issues and in particular on the following all important questions: What can we do with Mediawikis in education and other academic activities? How do we need to configure this software? As a conclusion, we present a short list of design conjectures that could be refined through further research and development.
Other research and development
Baumgartner et al. (2004) provide both a theoretical foundation for and technical overview of the use of various portalware (also called Content Management Systems) in education. Nowadays, the educational use of portalware and in particular of the Drupal system (Fitzgerald, 2008) is popular. Some educational workflow systems such as LAMS (Dalziel, 2006) and CeLS (Ronen et al., 2006) are based on the principle that good learning environments should offer a variety of tools to support a range of learning activities. However, educational workflow tools are more difficult to use, require careful scripting and do not necessarily fit the practice of designs emerging in classrooms (Dessus & Schneider, 2006). In addition, such environments do not easily support project-oriented designs such as project-based or inquiry learning. Also, they are closed by definition, in the sense that products created by learners and teachers are not “visible” to the outside world. More recent conceptual and technical frameworks such as personal learning environments (Attwell, 2007) and e-portfolios (Kalz, 2005) focus on the learner side of activities and on content integration. Technically speaking, these environments represent the exact opposite of our quest, but the two approaches are not conceptually incompatible.
The literature on the use of wikis is now quite extensive and cannot be reviewed here. Most research focuses on specific issues such as acceptance and change management (e.g. Techanamurthy et al., 2010; Augar et al., 2004), collaborative learning (e.g. Ben-Zvi, 2007; Lowerison & Schmid, 2007), reflection (e.g. Chen et al., 2005), professional development and knowledge community building (e.g. Foley & Chang, 2008), course note sharing (Rosselet, 2007), writing-to-learn (e.g. Kidd et al., 2008; Fontaine, 2008), teaching materials preparation (Zhou & Gong, 2008) or open source content (e.g. Kehrwald et al., 2010). Relatively few studies examine the use of wikis as multi-purpose tools (e.g. Frydenberg, 2008; Parker & Chao, 2007) and none seem to address the question of how a wiki could be used to support integrated scholarship, including educational scenarios, learning management, content production, dissemination, and support for various research activities. Finally, to our knowledge, not many publications address the issue of how to configure MediaWikis for educational purposes (e.g. Höller & Reisinger, 2008).
Four Mediawiki case studies
We deployed Mediawikis in a variety of settings and have picked out four examples that are actively being used in technology-enhanced education programs as opposed to one-time “field experiments” or controlled experiments (e.g. Gavota et al., 2008).
(1) Edutechwiki (en)
EduTechWiki (en) is our most ambitious project and represents the best example of an all-in-one solution for a series of purposes. It was created in 2006 as a content support tool for courses financed by the Swiss Virtual Campus project and quickly became the main contributor’s pet project. As of today it serves as (a) a tool for taking notes and mapping out ideas, (b) a content management tool for writing tutorials, including study books, (c) a lesson planning/management system, (d) a writing-to-learn environment for our Master’s students and others, (e) a literature review tool, and (f) a technology resources tool. One single contributor accounts for about 90 percent of its contents.
With respect to formal education, we use this wiki for three purposes. Some of our TECFA Master’s students who prefer to write in English can write pieces in this wiki instead of the French version. The main pedagogical use of this wiki consists in preparing teaching materials and detailed weekly programs for courses taught in a local branch of Webster University. Some of these teaching materials are then also used in other contexts (e.g. our French Master’s classes or training courses). Finally, so far, two classes given by other institutions have organized writing-to-learn activities in the Wiki (Guth, 2007; Murphy, 2010).
EduTechWiki is a successful shared knowledge management tool for the main author. For example, we used the wiki to prepare drafts of two study books: an introduction to educational technology and an introduction to social science research. Wiki writing helps us to understand and link new concepts and new technologies. Teachers around the world assign some of the pages as starting points for literature reviews or even as instructional text. A Google search of syllabus edutechwiki and syllabus “edutech wiki” led to over 3000 hits. However, precise information is difficult to obtain since typical learning management systems are not open to inspection. Most entries have high search page rankings. According to Google WebMaster tools in April 2011, most pages are in the top ten range with respect to queries related to the page title or its contents. In other words, this wiki seems to play a role in knowledge diffusion and integration with respect to educational technology and related fields.
(2) Edutechwiki (fr)
EduTechWiki (fr) was initially planned as a clone of the English version. It now serves three main purposes: (a) a writing-to-learn environment for independent study classes, (b) an LMS (learning management system) for teaching blended technical classes, (c) a writing tool for classes managed through another environment (e.g. in the wiki, students present and analyze cases such as educational software, or work collaboratively on concepts). All the classes described below are part of a Master’s degree in educational technology and are taught in a blended mode.
Typically, in what could be called independent study classes, students have to write a few pieces about negotiated subjects. Teaching staff (either the teacher or the teaching assistant or both) then provide feedback on the discussion page. Most often, students are also required to comment on other students’ work and/or make changes to the text (we implement various collaborative learning scenarios, which we do not discuss here). The entire online interaction takes place through the discussion page associated with each piece.
The main author of this report decided about three years ago to use this wiki as the main tool for his courses on Internet technology. All four courses use a similar design. A central page outlines the program, course level outcomes and general rules. Topics are taught through exercises, typically nine mini-projects for a 6-ECTS course. All information needed is centralized in an exercise/topic page. Student support is available through the discussion page. In addition, students must contribute to the wiki, e.g. make changes in study materials prepared by the teacher. As in most European research universities, we don’t use a formal textbook. Teaching materials are prepared by the teacher in the wiki. Of course we also use other open content online materials or manuals when needed. All course pages are linked through an automatically generated menu bar. Student productions other than wiki contributions are not managed through the wiki for both security and information management reasons. We run our own traditional student web server where students can upload products and build a portfolio. Formal evaluations and grades (only) are posted through an LMS.
Other teachers in our unit use the wiki as a support tool for specific activities. For example, in a course on serious gaming, each student has to produce a description and evaluation of some serious games. Since we are an educational technology research unit, each teacher experiments with various other platforms. For example, we use traditional LMSs like Moodle or Dokeos, portalware like Drupal and Zikula, workflow systems like LAMS, plus a variety of web 2.0 online environments such as office suits (e.g. Google), Webtops (e.g. Netvibes) and social platforms (e.g. Mixxt or Ning). EdutechWiki in these courses is used primarily in the starting phase.
DeWiki is an environment to support a single semester project-oriented course in educational sociology. The class was taught in a blended mode, with about two face-to-face meetings/month. In each yearly edition, students engage in various writing activities that in the end lead to a common research paper.
The pedagogical model has four stages. (1) Preparation: The teacher defines a global course topic, provides some (adjustable) milestones and stipulates the student evaluation procedure. Student teams (5 to 7 members) are formed according to their interests, which they formulated on some wiki page. (2) Planning: Team members search for resources and start reading. Then, students write the initial project proposal, which includes goals, questions and some planning elements. The teacher gives feedback and students revise the project plan. (3) During the main phase of the project, each team works with the following pages: a single project/research plan page, and a paper page. They also have to contribute to other shared activities (see below). The teacher announces important activities such as literature reviews, initial fieldwork, methods, further fieldwork, etc. in class and on the front page of the wiki. Student contributions are discussed both in class and through wiki discussion pages. (4) Other activities: Students were also asked to work on a common bibliography and a glossary of terms. (5) Finalization: The final project is a single long wiki article page that should meet academic standards. Each group has to present its results to the class and then make some adjustments. Grades and the whole experience are discussed in a final meeting. Since the last study reform, student attendance for this class has dropped dramatically and recent editions only include a single group, but the design principle remains the same.
BioWiki is an environment used by two high-school biology teachers. The overall approach adopted is inquiry learning, where students appropriate various chapters of biology by asking pertinent questions and by basing their writing on valid sources. Students also engage in inter-group and inter-class activities, such as creating posters and giving presentations. Although teachers do use some classical direct instruction methods in the classroom, most activities are learner-driven and teachers act as coaches. Spatial constraints prevent a more detailed presentation here, and so we treat this study as a control case that addresses the question of whether motivated high-school teachers and learners can make creative use of MediaWiki technology. Since this project has been running for several years and other teachers have shown interest in the model, we can answer the question in the affirmative.
Overview of implemented Mediawiki support for scholarly activities
Table 1 provides an overview of the various purposes (both educational and other), contextual information, text genres produced/consumed and tools used. “Extra wiki tools” refers to various non-standard elements, which for the most part are based on extensions that must be installed.
|Purpose||Cases and wikis||Text genres||Extra Wiki Tools||Other tools|
|Writing-to-learn activities|| Two different blended courses repeated over 5 years at TECFA.
|Student-created overview/essays||Discussion pages and categories||LMS|
|Writing about cases|| 1 course repeated over 3 years at TECFA.
|Structured, somewhat standardized contents||Pages, discussion pages, categories for linking student productions||Web 2.0 tools (management)|
|Direct instruction||Six 8-week face-to-face courses at Webster.||Syllabus, weekly programs, tutorials, overview/link pages||Categories, category menus for navigation, code display||LMS (assignment management); no slides; textbooks|
|Mini-projects based instruction|| Four different blended courses over 5 years at TECFA.
|Syllabus, exercise programs, tutorials, overview/link pages, discussion||Category menus for navigation, wiki books (textbooks), code display||Student web server (student productions, project reports, portfolios); no slides; teacher web server for live demos.|
|Project-based learning|| A blended course over 5 years in the school of education
|Article, project plan, literature summaries, dictionary, discussion||Wiki books (for promoting student productions)||none|
|Inquiry learning|| Several courses led by two teachers, over several years in a high school.
|Student written « text book entries », lab reports.||None||Powerpoint and other classroom technology|
|Workshop support|| Several 1 or 2-day workshops in various locations.
|A single program page with links to other wiki pages||None||Some slides|
|Note taking, knowledge integration and linking||EduTechwiki (en/fr) plus three other wikis not presented here||Overviews, links and references||Categories, various format extensions (e.g. dynamic graphs or code)||Only concerns two authors. However, the bulk of EduTechwiki entries belongs to this category|
|EduTech resource kit||Most TECFA courses, world. EduTechWiki.||All||All|
To begin with, we do not believe that there are any all-in-one solutions for technology-enhanced learning. Wikis in general and the Mediawiki in particular provide affordances for a variety of pedagogical models, some of which we implemented as shown in the table. In particular, we formulate the hypothesis that Mediawikis are suitable for a variety of project-oriented designs like project-based learning, theory courses using a writing-to-learn approach and inquiry learning. In addition, Mediawikis are interesting support tools for direct instruction and mini-project-based teaching models and we argue that they could achieve most of the functionality offered by an LMS and so-called “learning objects”. We also believe that MediaWikis could be suitable for implementing collaborative e-portfolios or sustaining knowledge communities in continuing education. However, we did not test that hypothesis and furthermore it should be recalled that Mediawiki syntax is not easy and must be taught.
Mediawikis are less suitable for highly structured workflow models, although it could be done through careful and detailed manual messaging and monitoring by teachers. The same could be said for what we call “project-methodology-based teaching” (the kind that is used in engineering schools). Finally, Mediawikis can be used as support tools in large group teaching; however we suggest restricting their role to the preparation of teaching materials plus a 90:9:1 model of voluntary student participation.
As can be seen from the summary table, all courses use other tools to some extent. In some instances the MediaWiki is the central tool and in others it has a supporting role. Some functionality of external tools could be easily integrated, e.g. reflective journals using a Wikilog. Wikis could also be used as a document repository by allowing users to upload certain kinds of files. However we believe that it is often better to use specialized tools, particularly in a setting like ours where we use many technologies. On a more conceptual level, we also argue that student projects other than wiki contributions should be managed by students themselves, i.e. in a personal learning environment or e-portfolio (Attwell, 2007; Kalz, 2005).
Problems and (some) solutions
Koh and Lim (2010) point out the necessity of what we could call “awareness tools and metrics”: “When students collaborate in a team, they want to know that they have been heard, what others are doing, when others are communicating, and how others see themselves, etc.” Similarly, educators are interested in finding out if students are collaborating, if they are on track with their project and which students are not participating, etc. We suggest using one of the following tools and strategies: Install the CollaborationDiagram extension as it can generate a graph that shows user edits for a range of pages or a whole category. To make this work, the teacher has to either tell students to add a category tag to each edited page or do it him/herself. Require students to link to each major contribution from their wiki homepage. In the first “hands on” session, teach students how to be notified by email of each page others have edited (My preferences>Watch list) and how to insert other pages in their so-called “watchlist”.
As other studies like Foley & Chang (2008) have reported, many students find wiki editing difficult and this for several reasons. One major difficulty is technical (learning the wiki syntax) and another concerns the “what and where” of inserting text. The former issue could be addressed by installing a WYSIWYG editor, which we actually tried out in one class. However, MediaWiki syntax is difficult to parse, extensions implement special-purpose XML tags and we use so-called “macros”; hence these editors do make mistakes and sometimes entries need to be cleaned up manually. Another strategy to help students with editing is to limit them to using only titles, paragraphs and lists for writing articles, like academic publications do.
Coping with information architecture issues (page titles, internal links, categories, etc.) is a much more challenging issue and highlights the biased nature of the discourse about so-called “digital natives”. As many authors have pointed out (Cole, 2009; Wecker, 2007; Selwyn, 2009) the younger generation has major difficulties with tasks related to information processing as opposed to conversation and exchange. The latter are traditions that go back thousands of years and this is why Facebook “works”. In all of our cases (including our own M.Sc students in educational technology), we found it very difficult to convey that a wiki is an organized space requiring an understanding of some hypertext principles. From observing our own students over several years, we formulate the hypothesis that it takes at least one year of constant exposure to wiki writing before students start to understand what a large wiki is and how to act accordingly. In our study with education students, we just let them do and then cleaned up a little bit now and then. As an example, in the last edition of our courses, one teacher intervened ten times on the articles page about formatting issues. In the dictionary category, which includes 85 short entries, the same teacher had to intervene on average more than once for each entry. In the high school case, teachers prepare pages in advance and then let the learners fill them in. In other words, one either has to make a long-term effort to help students understand hypertext and wiki writing or else use some scaffolding strategies such as creating pages and templates in advance.
Reluctance to change contents is another issue, in particular with respect to contents authored by a teacher. In the technical mini-projects class where the wiki was used as the main support tool, these interventions were made mandatory and were sanctioned with a grade (10% of each exercise). Since according to the Swiss grading system, grades from 0 to 3.75 on a scale of 6 count as “fail”, non-participation has a significant impact. In earlier editions of these courses, when participation wasn’t explicitly graded, students did not participate. That finding is well known as the “90-9-1 rule” (or worse) and it is amply documented in the literature (e.g. Cole, 2009).
We did not encounter such problems in classes where wiki writing was the central activity, aside from the usual problems that one encounters with weaker students and underachievers. We could observe across all studies that students prefer adding materials as opposed to rewriting sections produced by others. However, no reluctance was shown with respect to correcting minor errors, such as spelling. In other words, wiki writing is well accepted if it is central in a design; however, true cooperative writing at the paragraph level remains an issue.
An often-heard fear about students’ wiki writing is that students’ misconceptions may be reinforced when they write in order to learn. That may be true to some extent, but in small class teaching, this becomes an advantage. The teacher is notified via email of each change and can have a look at the contribution. If, for example in a technical class, he detects a misconception, he can then fix the mistake and more importantly understand the student’s presuppositions and act upon them (Scordias et al., 2009). It should also be pointed out that students are strongly encouraged to use the forums to ask questions as well as to make their doubts and problems explicit. These forums are contextual or anchored, i.e. each exercise page is associated with a forum page that is being actively used by most of the students and very actively by some. We discovered that students do not use discussion pages associated with instructional text.
In the very different setting of project-oriented classes in education sciences, students quickly become lost in “forum space” and we had to explicitly restrict discussion to two pages. This problem correlates with their difficulty understanding the information architecture of a wiki. However, we believe the main reason for “being lost” may have to do with the absence of strong “scripting” in the learning design. It also confirms our hypothesis that an understanding of hypertext and wiki writing does not develop naturally and must be explicitly learnt. We also add that most educational uses of wikis that we have observed in schools or in the literature focus on cooperative or collaborative page editing, i.e. something that can also be done with online writing systems like Google Docs.
To wrap up our report on design experiments using MediaWikis in education, we begin by comparing this “strategy” with other similar design variants we tested in “real life” teaching settings.
Mediawikis vs. C3MS platforms vs. Web 2.0 strategies
As mentioned in the introduction, this study is related to a larger set of long-term design-based field studies that started in 2000 (Schneider et al., 2002). They aim to identify and to create conceptual and technological tools supporting both learning activities and integrated student productions.
Our first design experiments focused on Community, Content and Collaboration Management Systems (C3MS). In the early nineties, they were inaccurately named Content Management Systems (CMS) and are now known as web application frameworks or portalware. One study about “a blended socio-constructivist course with an activity-based, collaborative learning environment intended for trainers of conference interpreters” is well documented (Class, 2009; Class & Schneider, 2011); another study using our own courses is described in overview papers (e.g. Schneider & Synteta, 2005); the third one, using a portal for the initial training of primary school teachers using first TwikiWiki then Drupal, has not been documented. With respect to MediaWikis, findings indicate that C3MS (a) offer an exceptionally good environment for online interaction among learners, (b) convey a better feeling of presence and (c) are relatively easy to use. On the negative side, they offer little potential for integrating student productions (forums and documents are not hypertexts) and none for integrating the production of teaching materials with student activities. Maintenance turned out to be a problem. We initially used the PostNuke, a once popular environment that almost went out of existence, although its successor Zikula now seems to attract more module developers. All of the custom modules we developed are now dead, which is unacceptable in an educational context. Using an environment that remained under active development and upgradable such as Drupal would have been a better choice, but that couldn’t be predicted in 2000. So far (after six years), we haven’t encountered any major problems with Mediawikis.
When web 2.0 environments became popular, we started using a webtop (Pageflakes) and a social platform (Ning). The former lost its momentum and “disappeared” for about a month, and the second one became commercial. In both cases, teachers had to switch environments, which is costly. Cloud computing can’t be trusted for long-term projects, since high-level exchange formats for contents do not exist. In addition, such environments are poor production environments and a series of additional tools had to be used, e.g. Google docs as a document repository and a wiki for hypertext writing. We also used blogs (each student had his own) and ran into serious integration and monitoring problems.
Having highlighted the importance of paying attention to affordances and maintenance issues, we would like to summarize this short discussion as follows: Use Mediawikis if content production and integration (in various ways) is at center stage. Use portalware to implement more conversational designs (Laurillard, 2002). Finally, use web 2.0 software if you can’t count on computer services’ or your own technical support. Our own informal observations have indicated that web 2.0 is suitable for project-oriented teaching on the condition that one uses several tools in combination and is willing to “loose” contents over time.
Last, but not least, we would like to insist that there are other solutions for teaching strategies besides the ones we have covered here. For example, none of the designs and systems discussed could implement formal educational workflows like LAMS (Dalziel, 2006), a system that we use for example in a methodology class. Learning design systems like LAMS could be used to implement some project-oriented designs, but since it was made for linear workflows with branches, we believe that this kind of system is not very suitable for “circular” iterative designs.
Important guidelines for configuring MediaWikis in education
Based on our case study presentation, the short discussion and other observations, we can formulate a few design conjectures that are of interest to both practitioners and researchers. The first list concerns rather technical and general principles:
- Information Architecture (IA): Larger all-in-one wikis like EduTechwiki do need clear editorial rules with respect to information architecture. The category (tagging) system must evolve into a somewhat controlled and hierarchical structure in order to facilitate navigation by category browsing. A global category menu could be included in the sidebar and on the home page. More local navigation menus should be inserted on each important “landing page” (e.g. main course pages). The only alternative to IA engineering is to create specific wikis for each class and/or each research collaborator.
- Discussion: The discussion pages should be modified with an extension to act more like a threaded forum page. Although students can break this structure (underneath it remains a simple wiki page), formatting can be easily fixed. In addition, both students and teachers must learn how to request email notification that is linked to changed contents.
- Technical support: Typical university or school teachers cannot configure or use a Mediawiki without some help. We found that it can take years before a totally non-technical teacher feels at ease with a Mediawiki. Consider using another technology if you cannot provide either initial support for learning design or technical support for installing and configuring appropriate extensions.
- Special contents: Depending on the content, special purpose extensions for creating non-textual contents must be installed. Examples are computer codes, mathematical formulae or certain multi-media formats. In addition, users must be trained to use these. We found that students are willing to type in some extra code since they benefit from nice formatting in return. By default, a Mediawiki accepts a smaller range of typical picture, audio and video formats. This can be extended to other file formats like Word or PDF. Finally, there are many extensions for integrating potentially dangerous contents like Flash movies, web widgets, RSS feeds, but we don’t have much experience with this.
- Wiki books: When a wiki includes teaching materials, PDF and PediaPress Print Book support should be installed, since many users prefer reading print. In addition, this extension is also a very good motivator for “writing-to-learn” courses and may motivate students to pay attention to structure if they know that their productions will be printed as a “book”.
- Monitoring tools: Besides using the notification tool already mentioned, we recommend additional tools. Firstly, it is good practice to require each student to maintain a portfolio of wiki contributions, either on his/her wiki home page or on other platforms. Finding user contributions through the wiki’s standard tool is very cumbersome. We also recommend the recent Collaboration diagram extension that can display user edits for a page, a list of pages or a whole category. Finally the PageBy extension allows the user to insert a tag that summarizes and dates his contributions.
- Course pages and privacy issues: If desired, pages can be authored in so-called “namespaces”. These contents can then require special access rights for reading and writing. The only caveat is that titles look uglier, e.g. Instead of STIC exercice 1, we would have STIC:STIC exercice 1. Of course, a wiki can be made totally private, but this would violate our various “open” policies.
- Fighting spam and vandalism: Spam and other forms of vandalism are big issues and there are two solutions: Make login creation difficult and restrict writing to registered users. In the case of EduTechWiki, we installed a strong captcha system for both login creation and page editing. Since typing a captcha for each edit is very annoying, known users (like students, teachers, and friendly contributors) are assigned to another user category that does not require typing a captcha for editing.
- Getting contributors from the “outside”: Initially, EduTechwiki was planned for contributors from all over the world who would intervene with substantial writing. Statistics over the last six years show that this happened only three times. This led us to rethink what an all-in-one wiki is: We now consider Edutechiki (en) as a personal teaching and research environment enhanced with contributions from students, colleagues and many others from cyberspace. As the example of larger wikis (e.g. Wikiversity) shows, it is almost impossible to entice academics to participate in an environment that is not their own.
- Virtual presence. Mediawikis are not very suitable for conveying a feeling of presence. Extensions for adding shoutboxes or other IM tools, lists of connected users, etc. don’t seem very stable and depend on third party services. To reduce the impression of a “dead” place, we suggest changing the contents of the main page or other relevant “landing pages” regularly. We recommend using the Wikilog extension, a blogging system that is fully integrated with the wiki. This same extension could also be used for learning journals, but it could also be argued that learning journals should be part of a personal learning environment (PLE) or an e-portfolio.
The following design rules address some pedagogical issues, grouped according to teaching models
- Writing-to-learn and case writing: Organizing wiki writing with isolated articles worked in all contexts. Some teachers found it useful to provide students with some simple templates (e.g. five titles) in order to scaffold writing with an initial structure. Having the same students create links to other work or other wiki contents turns out to be more difficult and (if desired) it must be enforced.
- Direct instruction: Using the wiki for direct instruction - including preparation of teaching materials, weekly programs with resources and activity descriptions - turned out to be a positive experience, since contents can be produced incrementally, changed in real time, and students can help. With respect to navigation structure, we suggest inserting a direct link to the course page on the home page, creating a page for each week or lesson, and inserting a menu with all relevant pages in each week’s page. Also these pages should be used in the classroom, so that students get used to reading a wiki page.
- Mini-projects-based instruction: In such teaching models (like our technical Internet courses), learning activities consist of mini-projects that include all elements to be learnt. Besides using principles of direct instruction, it is important to create a “forum and wiki participation” culture. While it is fairly easy to have students participate in the anchored help forums, it is more difficult to extend their participation to larger issues, and other wiki pages can only be obtained through both positive and negative incentives.
- Project-oriented designs: Project-oriented designs were implemented with specific course wikis used over several years. The category system was structured with respect to typical student productions, e.g. literature reviews, dictionary, data, articles. Each of the automatically generated category pages could then serve as landing pages linked through menus and teacher instructions displayed on the home page. In addition, we also devised manual “menu pages” to create the illusion of dedicated “spaces”. The wiki homepage has an important function and is used to orchestrate current activities. Its discussion page could be used as a general forum.
In conclusion, we argue that all our design experiments are on a successful track. Improvements can and shall be made. So far, we haven’t collected any formal data, but TECFA students who participated in five yearly qualitative course evaluation sessions have judged all their experiences with EduTechWiki as positive. At Webster, we have received good course evaluations, but don’t know if this is a meaningful indicator. Two important design issues remain open: A wiki is a fairly dead place and more Facebook-like features may have to be added in order to convey a feeling of presence. Student wiki writing across the whole wiki remains problematic: it takes a long time before learners understand both the more technical IA issues and the benefits of spontaneous writing, and so far, we cannot offer a good solution other than “scripting” writing activities and assigning grades as reinforcement. Finally, we do not argue that Mediawikis or wikis per se offer unique affordances in the sense of a strong media hypothesis; we simply believe that we are “on track” with respect to our goals.
- EduTechWiki (English version): http://edutechwiki.unige.ch/en
- EduTechWiki (French version): http://edutechwiki.unige.ch/fr
- DeWiki: http://edutechwiki.unige.ch/dewiki
- BioRousso: http://edutechwiki.unige.ch/biorousso
- List of discussed MediaWiki extensions: http://edutechwiki.unige.ch/en/Mediawiki
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