Faculty as Learners: Confessions of a Wiki Newbie

by Pamela L. Eddy, Associate Professor Higher Education, SOE

In signing up for the University Teaching Project this year, my objective was to work on creating modules for my course on community colleges in which technology figured a prominent part. I wanted to narrate my lecture PowerPoints to allow students access prior to class, thus freeing up class time for active learning instead. In addition, I wanted to work with using technology to support collaborative learning. In our teaching project team, our conversations in the fall revolved around the use of blogs, wikis, and discussion boards. Wikis intrigued me as a learning tool because I had never used one before and thought my course in the project would allow me the opportunity to learn more.

I had two new courses to prepare for spring 2010 and volunteered to try wikis in these classes as an experiment. The students would be the guinea pigs for this initial foray and we could evaluate the process together. This approach underscores the role of collaborative learning in that I was a co-learner of the process too. My students are all adult learners, ranging in age from 23 to 60. As such, adult learners typically want to tie in new learning with their previous experiences and are self-directed learners with high levels of intrinsic motivation. The groups had various backgrounds and comfort with technology. My experience taught me that assuming that younger students will like and use technology more than seasoned learners is a mistake.

To test the range of options for using wikis, I structured the use of the collaborative technology differently for my two classes. For one class, I used the wikis available on Blackboard and put together an assignment that required active learning on applying the theory we were learning to practice. The focus was on an internal audience because only our class had access to the site. An option does exist within Blackboard, however, to export the wiki at the conclusion of the course and put it on a personal website, thus making for a longer shelf life. For my second class, I opted to use the wiki space supported by the university (www.wmwikis.net). The class would create a wiki that would be made public at the conclusion of the class and serve as a resource for community college professionals. The site was private during the construction phase. The intended audience dictated the “home” for the class wiki. A side benefit of using two formats for the wikis is that I can enact Boyer’s Scholarship of Teaching (1990) and write on my experiences in teaching using these sites and analyze the impact on student learning.

My work with wikis this semester also supported my own research and collaboration. I write on faculty development and often have worked with collaborative research teams. One of my colleagues and I are currently working on an article about the development and sustainability of faculty collaborations. I set up a wiki site for our writing. Each of us can go to the site separately to update the paper or leave notes to one another; we always have a history of what we have changed. To supplement this form of collaborative writing, we often do Skype calls and pull up the article to read and edit together. This option cuts through the space/time continuum and uses technology to enhance collaboration. Without looking at a document comparison, I cannot even tell what I have written versus what my colleague has written. I suspect there is not a single sentence in the entire document that is uniquely attributable to one of us or the other. Modeling this type of collaborative writing for students is critical. My own experience with the tools and collaboration on the wiki site help inform my understanding of the student classroom experience.

In reflecting on my experiences this semester, several critical lessons learned were evident. A summary of these lessons include:

  • Some things work—some don’t. You need to create the space for failure and safety for you and the students to experiment
  • An initial in-class workshop on basic techniques helps, as does occasional time for the group members to meet
  • Conceptualizing the project as a learning process helps foster creativity—which was sometimes hard for learners used to having precise guidelines or frameworks
  • The purpose of the wiki drives the wiki home (Blackboard vs. wikispaces)
  • Wikis provide a good place to foster collaborative writing—using a wiki as a gimmick to “paste” technology on an assignment does not work
  • The faculty member needs to showcase and model how the writing and contributions to the wiki site push the collaboration forward
  • Some students are techies and others are not—the evaluation process at the end needs to account for all contributions, not just the person who could post it to the site

When someone asked about my experience, I readily responded “I’d do this again!” From a teaching perspective, I like the idea of the wiki being there for future classes to build upon and elaborate. From a researcher’s point of view, I love the ease of working with writing collaborators across the country. The wiki format helps to centralize the writing versus exchanges of Word documents using track changes. The true test for me on the benefits of the wiki was that technology was integral to the learning process and not merely a tool for presenting. The opportunity for the students to collaborate and extend their in-class learning outside the classroom provided a worthwhile outcome. In the end, the true measure of the effectiveness of the wiki technology is how it is used to improve learning. By all accounts, this experience was a success. My students and I found new ways to employ technology, we discovered a space for true collaborative learning to occur, and we moved learning beyond the walls of Jones Hall. I am looking forward to trying wikis again and would encourage you to test the waters too by using this form of technology!

Boyer, E. (1990). Scholarship reconsidered: Priorities of the professoriate. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

2 comments
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  1. The lessons learned are helpful. Not there yet but your experience was encouraging.

  2. I was one of the few students who experienced both wikis (in both classes). I enjoyed the experience and it allowed us (students) to use our creativity during the learning process. It was a great tool in the classroom.