Writing with Wikis: A Cautionary Tale of Technology in the Classroom

By Allwardt, Debra E. | Journal of Social Work Education, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

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.

Literature Review

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). …

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