Writing with Wikis: A Cautionary Tale of Technology in the Classroom
Allwardt, Debra E., Journal of Social Work Education
SOCIAL WORKERS USE writing skills widely in social work practice, from recording case notes to writing legal documentation, scholarly articles, and official reports. Yet, clear and concise writing is a challenge for social work students and practitioners (Beebe, 1993). But how does one teach these vital writing skills? Scholars have proposed that Web 2.0 applications, and specifically wikis, are promising tools for the facilitation of collaborative writing and may be effective tools for teaching writing skills (Engstrom & Jewett, 2005; Morgan & Smith, 2008; Parker & Chao, 2007).
This teaching note will detail a pilot study in which BSW students practiced scholarly writing skills in a research methodology course using a wiki. The literature at the time this project was conceptualized suggested that there was great potential for success when using wikis in collaborative writing assignments, although the scholarship primarily described potential uses of wikis in the classroom without evaluating outcomes. The results of this pilot study, in conjunction with more recent scholarship, indicate that further research is essential before instructors adopt assignments using wikis.
Wikis ale Web pages (or, more simply, writing spaces) that allow multiple users to modify, edit, and add content. They are an attractive teaching tool because no software or special Web skills are required. Wikis eliminate or mitigate negative group work issues such as coordinating group logistics and organizing multiple copies or editions of a manuscript (Sidell, 2007). The history function of many wikis enables instructors to see the writing process and evaluate the contributions of each user (Morgan & Smith, 2008). Thus, students can be graded based on actual contributions, thereby reducing students' fear of being grouped with so-called slackers, and the instructor's fear that one student will dominate the group process. Utilizing a wiki in a collaborative assignment enables the instructor to see problems and to respond with tailored additions to course content. Beyond classroom applications, wikis can be used in social work practice to collaborate on documents or projects within or between organizations. For example, social workers at several branch offices could collaborate on a project without incurring the travel expenses of face-to-face meetings and without the confusion of managing multiple copies of their document. Wikis can also be used by agencies and assorted groups to develop knowledge bases, such as community resource directories. Using this approach to information dissemination has the added benefit of allowing all stakeholders an equal opportunity to contribute content or access the information.
Wikis have been used in higher education for more than a decade. In the late 1990s, Guzdial, Rick, and Kehoe (2001) touted the potential of wikis for fostering student collaboration and creative teaching in the academic classroom. They briefly described collaborative writing projects in higher education, although they failed to include outcome or evaluation information; nonetheless, they deemed these endeavors a success. Subsequent articles explored educational uses of wikis (Ferris & Wilder, 2006; Jones, 2007) and offered suggestions for adopting wikis in the classroom (Lamb, 2004; Parker & Chao, 2007), but these authors stopped short of evaluating project outcomes.
Recent literature suggests the need to further examine the effectiveness of wikis before implementing them in the classroom. Indeed, Booth (2007) warns against adoption of new technologies without evaluative scholarship. Newer studies revealed negative experiences when using a wiki in a classroom setting. The primary issue identified is that few students participate when their contributions are not directly rewarded or mandated (Cart, Morrison, Cox, & Deacon, 2007; Cole, 2009; Ebner, Kickmeier-Rust, & Holzinger, 2008; Lundin, 2008). In one upper-level undergraduate course where participation in a wiki project was optional, students did not contribute at all (Cole, 2009). Student comments suggested that the wiki was difficult to use, lacked clear guidelines, and was too time-consuming for a nonmandated activity.
Wheeler, Yeomans, and Wheeler (2008) also observed that students in a teacher-training honors project contributed to the wiki during class time only. Even among studies using student volunteers or graduate students, participation was uneven (Gao & Wong, 2008; Hughes & Narayan, 2009). Evaluation of learning outcomes using wikis is limited, but one recent study suggests that there were no meaningful differences between work performed collaboratively using a wiki compared to work completed by individuals, although that study found other benefits when using a wiki, such as higher engagement with peers and increased class attendance (Neumann & Hood, 2009).
The Wiki Pilot Project
This study evaluated two approaches to teaching a collaborative writing assignment in a social work research methodology course taught in the fall semester of 2008. The purpose of the assignment was for students to understand the process of writing a literature review. One of the primary benefits of employing a wiki in the collaborative writing process is that students have constant access to all versions of their document, including the instructor's comments about specific contributions. As a result there is an opportunity to see the writing process in its entirety.
Groups of four to five students chose from a list of topics provided in class. The instructor then gave each student a peer-reviewed article that was relevant to her or his group's topic. Each group was to write a brief literature review collaboratively, based upon those articles. One section completed the assignment in the traditional (face-to-face) method (N=20), whereas the second section used wikis to collaborate online (N=16). Study participants were enrolled in a BSW program at a midsize public university in the Midwest. The composition of the sample was primarily made up of traditional age (20- to 23-year-old) female Caucasian students. Due to the small sample size and limited diversity, further description of participants is not discussed to protect student anonymity.
Students in both classes received orientation to their assignments during class time. Students meeting in groups face-to-face had one class period to discuss the logistics of meeting as a group. Those assigned to the wiki section attended one class period devoted to an introduction and explanation of the wiki. They then joined a wiki created by the instructor for their assigned group. Each wiki had four content pages: a page with links to the assigned articles, one with names of group members, space to draft the content of their assignment, and a discussion page to be used as they wished. The wikis also included a home page with a site map and instructions for editing the wiki. Permission to edit the wiki was password protected and limited to group members to avoid potential vandalism by outsiders.
Evaluation of the project was intended to occur through grading of the assignment, grading of subsequent literature reviews, responses to examination questions, and a pretest/posttest self-assessment that measured writing self-efficacy and familiarity with technology. In addition, a qualitative analysis of writing abilities on a subsequent literature review assignment was planned. The original intention of the pilot project was to repeat the experiment over several semesters to gain a larger sample size. However, due to the overwhelmingly negative response by students, the project was terminated after one semester. Instead of the planned evaluation, discussion groups were conducted to explore student responses to the wiki. Individual self-assessments of their contributions to the assignment were also analyzed. Responses to discussion group and self-assessment questions were examined by theme.
Despite constant encouragement and reminders by the instructor, the majority of students did not use the wiki until a few days before the assignment deadline. More specifically, over the 21-day period from commencement of the assignment until one class period before the due date, activity on the wiki ranged from as few as two submissions in one group to as many as 17 contributions by another group. A review of the contributions revealed that some submissions were not content-related, but instead were questions about the use of the wiki or messages asking students to work together outside of the wiki. Some students circumvented the wiki assignment by meeting face-to-face and then pasting their collaborative document into the wiki. In addition, students did not explore the site. When group members posted information on pages other than the main writing page, those were ignored. The students did not comment on contributions made by other group members. Given that many students had not yet contributed as the due date approached, the assignment due date was extended by one week. Even with the extension, additional activity only occurred within 48 hours of the revised due date. All groups in the section using a traditional face-to-face approach turned in their completed assignments on the initial due date.
Recognizing that students disliked the wiki intensely, a class period was set aside for small group discussion of the assignment. The instructor was not present so that students could critique the assignment without concerns of punitive recourse. Each group was instructed to choose a group facilitator and a recorder for each of the following questions: (a) What did you like about using the wiki, (b) What did you not like about using the wiki, and (c) How would you change this assignment? It should be noted that these discussions were convened to improve the instructor's teaching and to give students a voice in improving the course. The discussions were not originally intended as data collection for research purposes, although revisions to the IRB application were made so that any useful comments could be retained and reported. Therefore, readers must keep in mind that the information reported by students reflects the ideas they chose to report, but a trained facilitator was not present to moderate the discussion or tease out differences of views or opinions.
From their group discussions, three general themes emerged: time management issues, group coordination concerns, and assignment parameters.
Among discussion group participants, time management was the most problematic issue reported. Some students were frustrated that groups were inactive until just before the due date approached and that group members did not reply to their postings in a timely manner.
Typical comments included:
* People did it at the last minute.
* Harder to interact, slow response time if any.
* Out of site [sic], out of mind.
Students expressed frustration that the assignment was not broken down into tasks with short-term deadlines, suggesting that they did not know at what point they should post information or begin writing. They recommended mini-deadlines and grading based on the number of contributions. These changes, students believed, would keep them engaged in the project. They also suggested shortening the assignment timeline so they would be forced to contribute earlier. Conversely, when asked what they liked about the wiki, students from one group commented that they appreciated the extra time and the opportunity to work at their own pace.
Although wikis are intended to negate the need for group meetings, several students indicated a desire to work with their group face-to-face. Some students lamented that other group members were not on the site at the same time and recommended using a technology that would allow for simultaneous editing. Examples of discussion group comments include:
* Not on wiki at the same time.
* It was harder because everyone had to take turns.
* Not good communication.
Students expressed apprehension in not knowing how to deal with peers who did not participate or who used the site inappropriately, such as posting text of the paper in the comments section. When asked how these issues could be improved, all discussion groups suggested reserving class time so that they could discuss what each group member was working on, and how they should use the site. Comments repeatedly returned to the idea that they wanted to work on the paper at the same time and wanted to negotiate issues with peers face-to-face.
Finally, students criticized the assignment parameters. Comments indicated that the time allowed in class to become familiar with the wiki was insufficient, and they were confused by the structure of the wiki site. Responses included:
* Confusing site to use so [I] didn't know where to post.
* Too many options on site to put stuff; needs fewer page options.
* Complicated to get on site.
Based on the activity on the wiki, some students did not consider themselves to be authors of the wiki page. They avoided creating new content by sending their contributions to a peer to post, or by posting their contribution in the comments section at the bottom of the page in a blog format. Other comments indicated that students disliked editing their peers' work. A few students indicated that they did not have Internet access at home, and so they had to go to campus just to check activity on the wiki. Students who commented that it was complicated to get on the site had difficulty creating a username and password to access the wiki.
Interestingly, when students discussed what they did like about the assignment, positive comments were nearly identical to the negative comments. Students mentioned that the project was well-organized, it was more convenient (than a face-to-face assignment), they did not have to wait for peer contributions to participate, and they were able to fix errors made by peers in order to improve the final document. Due to the absence of a formal facilitator, the contradictory feedback regarding the dislikes and likes were not explored in-depth. It is possible that students could not identify things they liked and simply recalled the positive aspects of the wiki that the instructor presented to them earlier in the semester.
In addition to feedback from the discussion groups, students in both sections were asked to write a short summary about their individual contribution to the assignment. Students in the face-to-face section commented on their role within the group, often noting who did not pull her/his weight and identifying one person who did the lion's share of the work. Conversely, students from the section using the wiki reported that group members contributed equally.
Students in the face-to-face section seemed to grasp the concepts of integrating sources and following APA style, as assessed from their completed assignment. However, in every group using the wiki, some students neither cited sources nor attempted to integrate their information with contributions from other students.
Additional comments arose after completion of the assignment. The course evaluations at the end of the semester provided candid feedback. Although students rated the course very highly, they wrote in the comments section that the wiki should not be used again. Notably, three students wrote the words "NO MORE WIKI" in capital letters. Another student wrote, "Never, ever use [wiki name] again!" Students informally shared that they did not worry about non-participation because low performance on this assignment would not seriously influence their final grade. Several months after the term ended, one student mentioned having difficulty with technology. The instructor asked her how posting information on the wiki was different from posting information on Facebook or MySpace, which use essentially the same tasks of editing and saving. She replied, "But we want to do that...."
Because of problems with or aversion to the wiki assignment, my students neither experienced the literature review as an unfolding process nor received meaningful peer critiques of their writing contributions. Although the wiki was intended to facilitate collaborative writing and help the students understand the process of writing a literature review, the technology seemed to overshadow student learning.
Student comments support previous research that although the Web 2.0 generation may use these applications in their personal lives, they do not necessarily want to use them in the classroom (Carr et al., 2007; Cole, 2009; Ebner et al., 2008; Lundin, 2008; Wheeler et al., 2008). Using innovative approaches will not necessarily make students more eager to do coursework. Their comments regarding time management issues and suggestions for mandatory participation highlight the importance of structuring Web-based projects so that regular participation and collaborative learning occur. Given the nature of the social work profession, one must also consider the possibility that some social work students simply prefer to work with people face-to-face.
Students also desired greater guidance with the technology. Not all students will grasp technological concepts quickly. Some students may need repeated instructions or one-on-one training. One way to increase technological proficiency is to have the students build the wiki site in class. This assures instructors that students have some familiarity with the technology before the project commences. This approach also allows students to practice skills and ask questions with the instructor present. Educators in departments that emphasize technology-assisted instruction and require students to use Web 2.0 applications routinely may find this step to be unnecessary.
Significant limitations of this pilot project include the small sample size, the scope of the project, and the limitations of the data collected. Feedback elicited during the discussion groups must be considered cautiously because of the lack of a trained facilitator. Because the wiki was tested in one assignment and with one classroom, readers cannot assume that the wiki is a failed technology. Scholarship at the time this study was conceptualized indicated that nonparticipation was an issue for some instructors, but more recent scholarship has supported the finding that assignments using wikis must be better structured to enforce participation (Carr et al., 2007; Cole, 2009; Ebner et al., 2008; Lundin, 2008). Future research is necessary to evaluate the quality of end products using wikis in the classroom. Even then, getting students to participate and explore the potential benefits of a technology-based approach simply illustrates that such an assignment can be done, not that it is equal or superior to other methods. Thus, future studies must demonstrate that learning objectives achieved are equal or superior to more traditional teaching methods.
It is clear that one of the major impediments in evaluating wikis as effective teaching tools is the lack of student participation. Ultimately, the success of wikis in the classroom depends on the instructor's ability to manage, motivate, monitor, and, alas, mandate. If students do not participate, there is no end product or artifact to evaluate. I want to stress that if educators believe that Web 2.0 tools are appropriate and effective, they should not abandon these tools because of students' resistance or aversion. Administrative issues, such as mandating participation or ensuring proficiency with the technology, are more problematic than most first-wave adopters of wikis anticipated. These problems still raise the question "Does a wiki produce a superior end product?" This cannot be determined without meaningful student participation and evaluation of project outcomes.
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Debra E. Allwardt is assistant professor at Western Illinois University.
Please address correspondence to Debra E. Allwardt, Western Illinois University, Department of Social Work, Horrabin Hall 8F, 1 University Circle, Macomb, IL 61455; e-mail: D-Allwardt@wiu.edu.
Debra E. Allwardt
Western Illinois University
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Writing with Wikis: A Cautionary Tale of Technology in the Classroom. Contributors: Allwardt, Debra E. - Author. Journal title: Journal of Social Work Education. Volume: 47. Issue: 3 Publication date: Fall 2011. Page number: 597+. © 1999 Council On Social Work Education. COPYRIGHT 2011 Gale Group.
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