Collaborative learning task using wikis

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Using wikis for collaborative learning:


There are two issues to address in any kind of computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) activity. Did the students learn? Did the technology adequately support the students’ collaboration? The latter question can be referred to as the “collaborative” part of collaborative learning, and it is the overarching theme of this paper. Any computer-supported collaborative learning application combines a learning activity with a collaborative environment. The collaborative environment must enable students to create an online intersubjective space that adequately supports the students’ cooperation. Building online environments that meet this criterion is not a trivial task. Think of the intersubjective space in which the students operate as the “glue” that holds the collaborative learning activity together. It is what makes possible the functioning of the group. The space must be sufficiently rich so that students can carry out their joint learning task. How rich depends on how closely the students must work together. For some activities, tightly coupled activities, students must work within a joint problem space, which requires a detailed common understanding of the status of the problem. For other activities, loosely coupled activities, students must connect with one another to create some common ground but do not necessarily have to jointly focus on, or produce, a specific product. Online collaborative systems can be divided up into a time space matrix: whether the collaboration is collocated or not and whether it is synchronous or asynchronous (Ellis et al. 1991). Collaborative learning activities can fit into any of the four possibilities. Each one has different requirements for the “collaborative” part of collaborative learning. Non-collocated asynchronous activities are of special value because they enable students to work together outside the classroom. Students may still have the opportunity to talk face-to-face, but potentially much of their collaboration emerges online in a virtual space where they are never really fully co-present at the same time in the same place. Suppose students participated in several different online collaborative learning activities during a single semester. If both the activity and collaborative environment vary, the overhead of switching from one activity to another can be prohibitively high for non-tech savvy students. Applications developed for the same operating system, like Apple’s Mac OS X®, share a similar look and interaction style. This is what makes it easier for users to switch back and forth between different applications. Similarly, it would help if there existed a platform or toolkit that could be used to compose different learning environments that would share the same style of interaction. Ideally, the platform and the interaction style would support a variety and range of different learning activities. A standardized platform of this sort would also provide a basis for the aggregation of techniques, learning activities, and research. This paper makes the case that the basic wiki has several properties that make it an ideal framework for composing different time and place learning environments. Applications engineered within the style of wiki interactions can support a variety of learning activities ranging from tightly to loosely coupled collaborations. Wiki-based collaborative applications can also support metacognitive tasks, like reflection or self/co-explanation. Two case studies are reported on in more detail. In the first study, students are working online in a tightly coupled collaboration; in the second study, the students’ interactions are more loosely coupled. In tightly coupled learning activities, participants must jointly focus on key materials in a timely fashion as they collectively produce a product. The students must stay coordinated, especially on the key elements of their collaboration. Contributions lost in the interaction can potentially lead to degradation of performance. In loosely coupled collaborations, not every contribution must be recognized. Responses to contributions can be less timely. The sense of the common activity is less well defined and more distributed. The participants must be active, but their viewpoints require less convergence to maintain progress. The analysis of these two “radically” different kinds of collaborations focuses on characterizing, quantifying, and evaluating the “collaborative” part of the students’ collaboration. To support the argument of the paper, we present a wiki-based educational platform, the WikiDesignPlatform (WDP), developed in the GROUP lab at Brandeis University. The WDP provides a suite of transcription, analysis, awareness, navigation, and communication components that can be added to the basic wiki platform in order to produce more effective learning environments. New applications are custom-built by preformatting the structure of the wiki and adding components that further support, for example, coordination. The prefabricated wiki enriches the collaborative space making it easier for students to effectively and efficiently collaborate. The WDP has been used to develop collaborative learning environments for a variety and range of educational activities for five courses taught at Brandeis University; Alterman was the instructor in each of these courses and Larusson the teaching assistant.

Wikis are widely promoted as collaborative writing tools and are gaining in Popularity in educational settings. However, while wikis include features that are Designed to facilitate collaboration, it does not necessarily follow that their use will ensure or even encourage collaborative learning behaviour. The few empirical studies that have considered this issue report equivocal findings. We assessed students collaborative behaviour based on their contributions to a wiki-based shared writing task using a variety of text and time based metrics. We found little evidence of collaboration despite adopting a learning design that was intended to support it. While overall participation was high, a relatively small proportion of students did the bulk of the work and many students’ contributions were superficial. Students made little use of the wiki’s commenting feature – a critical tool for contextualising and coordinating their contributions for and with others, and the majority of contributions were made very late in the task, making the possibility of extensive collaboration unlikely. These findings are discussed in relation to factors that may lead to the more successful integration of innovative, technology based learning activities into broader undergraduate curricula.

Computer-supported collaborative learning

Computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) is a pedagogical approach wherein learning takes place via social interaction using a computer or through the Internet. This kind of learning is characterized by the sharing and construction of knowledge among participants using technology as their primary means of communication or as a common resource. CSCL can be implemented in online and classroom learning environments and can take place synchronously or asynchronously. The study of computer-supported collaborative learning draws on a number of academic disciplines, including instructional technology, educational psychology, sociology, cognitive psychology, and social psychology. It is related to collaborative learning and computer supported cooperative work (CSCW).

Wiki-style of interaction for different time/different place student learning

The standard wiki has several properties that are particularly amenable to building support for online different time/different place collaborative learning activities (see Table 1). The wiki is Web 2.0 technology. It is social and collaborative and the majority of today’s student population is already familiar with technologies of this sort. The modest level of skills required to use Web 2.0 technologies makes it within the technical reach for both science and non-science students and teachers. Table 1 Wiki properties particularly amenable to constructing different time/place collaborative learning applications Property Motivation Web 2.0 technology Within reach for experts and non-tech savvy students and teachers. Document co-editing Easy to asynchronously collaboratively produce content. Automatic publication Easy for students and teachers to share/exchange/access material. Plasticity Easy to preformat for a variety & range of collaborative learning activities. Malleability Easy for users other than developer to adapt environment. Non-hierarchical control structure Student-centered and owned workspace. The wiki interaction (collaboration) style is primarily asynchronous. It is easy to co-edit documents as Web pages (wiki pages), which are automatically published online and thereby accessible to others at different times and places. There is a common syntax for articulation; for those who are less technically savvy, Web pages can be edited using WYSIWIG (What You See Is What You Get) text editors. Wikis are plastic: It is easy to preformat them to support both a variety and range of collaborative learning activities. This enables the teacher to use the wiki structure as a mediating organization for how the students interact and coordinate their collaboration. By integrating scaffoldings specific to a given learning activity, a wide range of learning paradigms can be implemented The malleability of wikis enables both teachers and students to do further adaptations to the environment so that it better aligns with the requirements of a particular class or the specifics of a given student or learning activity. The wiki control structure is mostly non-hierarchical: There is not a centralized authority that controls the changes and additions to content. Students feel as if they work within a student-owned and centered workspace. A platform that facilitates the construction of collaborative learning environments framed within the wiki’s style of interaction has several benefits. Each new application shares the same common form of interaction making it easier for teachers and students to switch tasks within the same course. Thus, students can spend less time learning how to use the technology and more time learning the course material. A common standard of constructing learning applications can also simplify the aggregation of proven methods, designs, scaffolds, and strategies within the educational communities. Having the platform employ a more component-based architecture turns domains, learning activities, and collaborative environments into reusable components. Other components integrated with the wiki can provide additional functionality that increases awareness, improves navigation, and makes it easier to coordinate and create common ground. In general, reusable components simplify the process of (re-)engineering different learning environments tailored to the needs of any particular course or activity.

The WikiDesignPlatform (WDP)

Wikis focus on enabling users to rapidly coauthor and share a collection of online free-form textual documents represented as Web pages or “wiki pages” .Wikis do not require any special software to use. Wiki pages are stored online, on the wiki, and are edited in an editor accessible through the standard Web browser. It is not necessary for the user to be familiar with complex HyperText Markup Language (HTML) tags in order to visually and structurally augment the wiki page content or “wikitext.” The wikitext can be modified using a much simplified markup language called wikisyntax or by using a simple point-and-click WYSIWYG editor. A wiki maintains a revision history for all its coauthored pages, making it easy for users to revert a given wiki page back to a prior state. On a standard wiki, all users have equal rights and control over the content and structure. There is no set division of labor. The community does not have a director that instructs “workers” on what to do. Members pick the role that best matches their abilities and preferences. The Wikipedia project is the most well-known example of wiki use. As of April 2009, the Wikipedia community has co-produced a total of 16,529,910 wiki pages, 2,851,000 of which are articles, in the English version of Wikipedia alone. These efforts go far beyond any attempts made by other encyclopedia projects. Wikipedia has incorporated some non-wiki-like regulatory frameworks mostly to prevent or revert vandalism. Some users rank as moderators who can, for example, temporarily prevent further edits to a particular page and ban certain users. The basic wiki environment is not sufficient in itself to support the variety and range of online learning activities that are beneficial to students beyond simple co-writing learning assignments. Despite its success outside education, it is not guaranteed that Wikipedia’s collaboration style will succeed in an educational context. If coupled with more educational-specific features, the basic wiki environment can support a larger variety of different time/different place collaborative learning activities The recent workshop at CSCL 2007 give testimony to the growing interest in exploiting wiki-based technology in education. As a class website, or a research lab workspace, wikis afford the quick dissemination and discussion of teaching material. Teachers can use wikis to share best practices and teaching materials. Favoring collaboration between geographically distant users makes wikis ideal for supporting many distance-learning programs .Wiki-mediated collaboration requires students to mutually negotiate and agree on how to proceed with their coauthorship, which has significant educational value . The more traditional educational uses of wikis include deploying them as a collaborative writing tool. Primary level students can construct a “choose your own adventure” book. Students studying English as a second language can collaboratively write, and peer-review, articles written in English. Students can use wikis to collectively summarize and reflect on their joint mathematical problem solving work. Students can use wikis to collectively prepare themselves for a field trip (e.g., to an art museum) and (with the right technological support) continue to build the wiki-based knowledge repository during the trip. Learning activities based on constructivistic principles can be converted into wiki-based activities, as can projects that invite students to discuss and “argue” about alternate views of the same material. Wikis can be a platform for students to participate in a knowledge community that coauthors encyclopedia-style articles on course topics.


Much of the previous work on wikis in education has focused on “if” students learn after collaborating vis-à-vis a wiki rather than exploring the actual “collaborative” part of the wiki-mediated activity. The evaluation of the basic wiki as a platform for engineering applications to support a variety and range of different time and place online collaborative learning activities requires a systematic study of the space of possible collaborations. The WikiDesignPlatform (WDP) has been used to build several different learning applications. Different WDP-based applications have been used within a single course to support different learning activities. This demonstrates that applications framed within the wiki’s style of interaction have a relatively low learning overhead. The wide variety of learning activities demonstrates the plasticity of wikis. Each of these activities varies the requirements for how closely the students must work together and require different coordination, communication, and awareness capabilities. At one extreme, students must work closely together in a joint problem space; at the other extreme, the students’ collaboration is more loosely coupled. In either case, the intersubjective space constructed using the WDP was effective as supporting the collaborative part of the online student work. The WDP provides a suite of awareness, navigational, communicative, and analysis components and scaffolds. These components can be layered on top of, or coupled with, the WDP’s core application: a customized MoinMoin wiki. The WDP’s collection of components helps in composing wiki-based learning applications that provide support tailored to the specific collaborative needs of a given learning activity. Because the core of each application is the wiki, each application shares the same style of interaction. Presented next is a discussion of the key components of the WDP platform. These components enable individual applications to be tailored to fit the goals of the learning activity. They also enable teachers (and researchers) to monitor and evaluate the students’ online work. “Picking and choosing” the right components for a given learning activity is what creates an online intersubjective space that allows students to productively collaborate.

Preformatting the structure of the wiki

For a particular learning activity, the preformatted organization of the wiki has a dual function. It supports coordination and scaffolds the learning activity. In education, scaffolding refers to the support, “devices,” and/or “strategies” offered that guide students in carrying out their learning activity so as to maximize the educational “profit”. Scaffolding enables a novice/learner to tackle complex and difficult problems, which without assistance would be beyond the individual’s abilities. Without the right scaffolding, student collaborations are likely to be ineffective. Incorporating scaffolding organizes the learning material into a meaningful structure embedded in the students’ workspace. It helps the students develop mental models and/or representations of the target concepts, topics, and/or methods. Scaffolding also enables students to “assess” their progress and identify project and problem requirements, which in turn focuses their work on the most critical issues. Scaffolding can be offered as worked examples, learning agents, visual aids, and reference sources. It can be a help system, provide guided tours or hints on how to proceed with a particular task. Scaffolding can structure, define, or confine the students’ work to emphasize on a specific important technique or method, for example, how to construct arguments and produce claims. Scaffolding can also entail the application performing some less critical parts of an assignment, for example, arithmetic functions, enabling students to focus on (conceptually) solving the problem).

Scaffolding a wiki with project-related material creates a representational structure that guides and organizes the students’ interactions, concentrated on the key aspects of their collaboration. The scaffolding functions as a coordinating representation, which helps the students coordinate and share a common view of their cooperative activity. The WDP provides no special “scaffolding toolkit” beyond the fact that wikis are easy to prefabricate. However, collecting modifiable scaffoldings that can be reused on the same platform in conjunction with components that support, for example, communication or awareness benefits students and teachers alike. Students can engage in a variety of educational tasks within a common framework; the alternative, requiring students to learn a new interaction style for each new activity introduces a significant overhead that can interfere with their learning. Teachers and researchers have a common parlance for exchanging proven ideas and developing new techniques. A platform of this sort provides teachers with a repository of ready-made scaffolds, components, and learning activities that can be more easily “borrowed” and adapted to the specifics of a particular student, course, or project. One of the studies presented in this paper explores scaffolding designed to support students engaged in a collaborative design project in a Human-Computer Interaction