Collaborative Learning in Higher Education: The Use of Wikis in Language Classes

Article excerpt


In this article, socioconstructivism and, more recently, connectivism are acknowledged as the learning theories that most influence our information and communication technology (ICT) pedagogical practice as e-learning course deliverers at Fernando Pessoa University.

Constructivism is based on basic principles such as: knowledge is not transmitted, but constructed actively by the student; learning is, simultaneously, an active and reflective process; the interpretation that students make of the new experience is influenced by their previous knowledge; the social interactions introduce multiple perspectives in the learning process; learning requires the understanding of the whole as well as of the parts, and these will have to be understood in the context of the whole. Consequently, learning must be centered on contexts and not on isolated facts.

If constructivist theory considers that learning is an active process of knowledge construction, as a result of the interaction of man with the environment, in this context, the tutor participates as a facilitator or stimulator of the learning process. The e-learning projects, which adopt this model, generally allow students to learn from a basic content that will have to be reconstructed in accordance with their previous luggage and rhythm. Students are stimulated to appeal to their own resources to carry out the proposed tasks. In this model, the hypertext resources, simulators and collaboration tools (chat, discussion, forums, whiteboard, wiki, etc.) are some of the main tools of computer science that can be used in distance education (Schlosser & Simonson, 2002).

However, the increasing complexity of knowledge, as well as the rise of educational networks gives origin to a social constructivist approach, which considers generic skills of collaboration, problem solving, and creating new knowledge as very important goals. Finally, connectivism, a new learning theory proposed by Siemens (2004), is characterized by the "amplification of learning, knowledge and understanding through the extension of a personal network."

In accordance with this theoretical background, in this article I shall focus on instructional practices that tend to replace learning models based on individual learning by those based on cooperation and aiming at acquiring basic social competences and, especially, communicative strategies, social abilities, negotiation, and leadership skills. Likewise, these experiences seem to prove a shift in the role of the teacher, changing from being a mere contents transmitter to a learning adviser who facilitates the access to information, its transformation into knowledge, and its practical application to new changing contexts (Garrison & Anderson, 2003; Moore & Anderson, 2003).

More specifically, I shall refer to two different occasions where the wiki, a Web 2.0 learning tool, was used in language classes: a class of intermediate Portuguese for college students whose mother tongue is Spanish, and a class of Portuguese communication techniques for Portuguese students. In the first class - nursing undergraduates - learners were divided into small groups and were instructed to create a glossary of health and medical terms. In the second class, a postgraduation course for nurses, students were asked to write branching stories, in which readers actively participate in the story plotline.


Nowadays, language instructors can benefit from the affinity of learners for social networking through a wide range of Internet tools to promote those skills in an educational setting in order to maximize student-student interactions outside the classroom.

As a Web 2.0 tool, wikis can be generally described as collaborative websites in which information can be rapidly added, modified, or deleted. Extrapolating this practice to the classroom, several positive pedagogical applications and benefits can be achieved: wikis can be used as writing practice exercises, allowing both individual work and group work. …