Using wikis to support small group work
School of English
Birmingham City University
This case study describes the innovative use of wikis to support small group activities in the School of English at Birmingham City University. The wikis are used in class time (on lap tops) so that students can access digital texts alongside more conventional offline media (worksheets, flip charts, oral discussion). The wiki is primarily used to summarise their small group discussions, giving greater value to small group interaction and building an online archive of class activities. Importantly, this project integrates e-learning with face-to-face teaching situations, providing connections between the learning that takes place in the class room with independent learning at home.
The HEFCE e-learning strategy proposes that online resources should foster integration between learning within and beyond the classroom. Indeed, the familiar term ‘blended learning’ is often used to describe the place of e-learning within the curriculum, a metaphor which similarly suggests high degrees of connection and flexibility. However, students often encounter e-learning activities individually and outside the classroom while learning in face-to-face contexts (seminars, tutorials) need not make reference to online contributions in any great depth. This case study explores one means of bridging the potential gap between face-to-face and e-learning with particular reference to enhancing the potential of small group discussions.
Working in a small group of between two and five individuals is a typical activity for many students in English Studies, even when seminar or workshop groups can consist of many more students. In a questionnaire circulated to staff in the School of English at Birmingham City University (11 returns) all staff reported using small group activities, with 70% using them for around a third of the teaching time. The benefits of small group work are underpinned by social constructivist principles, and at the start of 2007-08, focus groups from final year students on the module ‘Narrative Analysis’ recognised that working in groups was an important way of gaining ‘feedback and input’ from their peers. However, regardless of whether small group activities include discussion of texts or concepts, problem-solving activities or joint writing activities, gathering feedback in plenary sessions is not without its pitfalls. In the same student focus groups, a predictable pattern of plenary-style interaction across the students’ learning experience was described. Typically, individual reporters would take it in turns to summarise the outcome of their group activity, usually verbally, to the rest of the class who would listen, take notes and then ask questions. The students pointed out the obvious disadvantages of this practice: ‘no permanent record for the whole class, people don’t always take in what is said’ and ‘not everyone gets to speak, you don’t get to say everything’. Given the pedagogic value of small group work, there is clearly much that could be done to capture group discussions more effectively and enable students to make use of them after the face-to-face discussion itself has finished.
One means of addressing the ephemeral and partial quality of feedback in class is by use of collaborative software such as a wiki. The word ‘wiki’ derives from the Hawaiian meaning ‘quickly’, with perhaps the most well known example being Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia. Wiki pages can be read and edited by anyone, although access to do so can be controlled by password if required, and many open source packages are readily available. Wikis have been used successfully in many educational institutions as a means of facilitating online collaboration between students in the joint production of a final document or portfolio, usually where students did not need to physically meet (see for example Boulos, Maramba and Wheeler 2006). In this case, I wanted to bring wikis into the classroom so that students could produce summaries of the group work activities during their seminar time.
The use of a wiki alongside class discussion has been embedded in the module entitled ‘Narrative Analysis’, a final year class that blends both literary and linguistic approaches for teaching narrative theory. Typically, the module is taught as a workshop session, with a mini-lecture followed by a variety of small group tasks where students apply their knowledge to a range of texts. The kinds of texts students encounter include stories of many kinds (transcripts of conversations, short stories, film, and so on), and fully exploits the narratives freely available on the internet (hypertext, blogs, fanfiction and so on). Using a wiki in class time enabled me to link online resources so that the students could use them alongside more conventional forms of printed materials in their group activities, rather than waiting until they were outside class on their own to do so.
The students used laptops (one laptop between a group of four or five students), so that the dynamics of group discussion were minimally disrupted. Students usually took it in turns to be ‘notetaker’, while others contributed their opinions during the various groupwork activities. A summary of their discussions, as an image, diagram, list of bullet points or a summarising paragraph could be recorded and then projected for the whole group to see on the main screen during the plenary feedback at the end of the session.
Figure 1. Students using the wiki
to record class discussions
The means of summarising the group activities varied week by week, and included writing paragraphs, producing power point slides (the wiki software used in this case allows you to export wiki pages as PPT documents), presenting analysis in tables, producing mind maps, which were then photographed and added to the wiki. In this way, both verbal and visual styles of learning were accommodated, and students made more conscious of the different ways in which information might presented. The multimodal nature of the wiki appealed to students who began to use colour to code their analysis, or inserted images or video to supplement the text-based emphasis of the course. The following screenshots show examples of this.
Figure 2. Wiki page containing video clips
Figure 3. Wiki page using image and colour.
Two examples illustrate in detail the ways in which the wiki activities were interwoven with class and independent learning. Early in the module, the curriculum includes a class on Genette’s narrative categories of time and order. The students began this topic with a short period during which they were introduced to the key terminology and concepts (through pre-class reading, a mini-lecture interspersed with short analytical activities to check understanding). This was followed by a group task designed to take up to an hour where they used the narrative concepts of time, order and duration to interpret the structure and meaning of a short story, in this case, James Joyce’s Eveline. Students worked in groups of 4-6 on this task, writing up their discussion on a wiki page. After class they returned to their discussion pages, redrafting the analysis and adding links to the e-version of the short story available on Project Gutenberg and to relevant sections of Manfred Jahn’s Guide to Narratology. The following week’s class began with each group reading the analysis written by the other students, and using the commenting facility to provide constructive critique.
Figure 4. Discussion thread on a wiki commenting page
A later class covered a range of models used to analyse narrative voice, comparing structuralist, linguistic and feminist perspectives. Again, the learning process began with an initial period of conceptualisation (Kolb 1984), followed by a small group discussion activity. Students were asked to explore the connections between the three approaches to narration we had surveyed, illustrating their points with examples from a literary text of their choice (a range of sample excerpts had been provided as printed handouts) and presenting a visual summary of their conclusions. The mindmaps they created were photographed (see below) and then uploaded onto the wiki page for that week.
Figure 5. Photograph of student mindmap used on the wiki
Students then returned to the wiki after class time, and used the mindmap as the basis for creating a list of headings that could be developed into an essay plan or as the stimulus for a reflective paragraph.
Figure 6. Student writing reworking the mindmap into an essay plan
One of the advantages of preserving the class discussions in this way was that it enabled students to return to their work afterwards, whether that be in the time between classes or in our later class discussions. The editing work was particularly useful for encouraging writing skills, such as redrafting and planning essays. For example, transforming mindmaps into a skeleton essay plan, helped students to move from a spatial representation of knowledge to a linear organisation of headings or paragraph points. The commenting facility within wikis enabled students to benefit from peer review, reflecting on assessment criteria as they constructively evaluated the pages that other students had written. By the end of the module, the group wiki acted as a large portfolio of many different kinds of summaries created by the students which represented their group work over the course of a semester.
Outcomes and Evaluation
Students embraced the use of the wiki pages with great enthusiasm. Week by week they contributed to the wiki pages, not just within class but between sessions too. The result was that the learning process was strengthened, both within class, where discussions tended to be more focused and rigorous and extended to the student’s independent learning, which was built directly on these discussion topics. The permanent but editable record of the discussions enabled me to engage with more students and in greater depth than face-to-face interaction in the seminars alone allowed. Instead, I was able to check their understanding and to suggest strategies for improving their writing as the course progressed, not just in relation to a final assignment. More importantly, the wiki exploited the potential of peer support. Students learnt from each other’s discussion pages and comments at least as much, if not more than they did from me as the module tutor. Social constructivism was really put into practice where the knowledge that the group gained as a whole was jointly constructed through their contributions summarised on the wiki.
At the end of the module, I asked students to complete a survey evaluating their use of the wiki. The results of the survey showed that the wiki brought benefits to both their interpersonal skills and subject knowledge. Without exception, all of the students recognised that the wiki enhanced their group work. In particular they described a sense of increased social cohesion, ‘It has pulled us more together’and a more equitable distribution of work, ‘Everyone does their fair contribution’ which led to better understanding of the sometimes challenging technical concepts they were interrogating: ‘Wiki meant more group work, so topics became better understood’. Asked what benefits they felt they had most gained from using the wiki, the most frequent response was peer support, for example, ‘I was able to see what other people have done in more detail, as class discussions were restricted to time.’ Clearly, the students’ capacity to learn from each other was strengthened by a tool that enabled them to focus closely on a shared task face-to-face and to develop this with online collaborative work later.
The students’ contributions to the wiki also led them to become much more reflective in their learning. For example, students stated that the wiki gave them ‘A chance to review my own and other’s ideas from our class work that we tend to forget sometimes’ also encouraging a personally reflective stance, ‘It makes me go away after class and still think about the topic we did because I was using the wiki to type my ideas up’. This was coupled with the opportunity for students to practice using the narratological concepts and to see how other students tackled the same problems but in different ways, ‘I have gained better understanding of the models covered in class and know how to apply these to texts.’ In summary, the wiki both consolidated the students’ knowledge of their subject but also amplified the beneficial group dynamics resulting in an overall deeper engagement with their learning. One student put it this way: ‘the wiki has encouraged us to engage with each topic wholly instead of just leaving it until we came to do our assignments in December.’
The ability to access the wiki online had additional benefits. Students appreciated that they could access their discussions at any point, and as often as they wanted to, ‘Work saved and always accessible to refresh knowledge on a certain area’. This promoted a more holistic learning experience. For example, within later classes, students could return to their work on earlier topics and formulate a comparative analysis or later critique. The ability to embed the wiki within the university VLE and to link other online resources directly to the wiki pages impacted the students use of e-learning provision more generally. When asked how the wiki had changed their use of resources for the module, 89% of students reported an improved or more frequent use of the VLE. More significantly, students began to customise online resources for the benefit of the group as a whole. Examples of this included linking to useful online articles, or to example texts available in archives such as Project Gutenberg. In the case of online resources that might be rather unwieldy to manage as a whole (for example, Manfred Jahn’s Guide to Narratology), students selected particular information and used this as a form of online annotation to supplement their work.
In summary, the overall impact of using the wiki to bridge group discussion in class with independent work outside class is perhaps best described as a form of amplification. The student’s evaluation suggested that this was true at many levels, including their engagement and sense of ownership of the module: ‘The wiki made us be more hard working and responsible for the module’. Likewise, the level of detail and the depth of the discussions was increased, ‘it has allowed us to work in groups and as a whole class which gives us more information and detail’. The links between conceptualising and applying knowledge were strengthened, particularly through reflection, ‘the wiki helped to keep ideas in my mind’.
This case study has described how wikis might be used in teaching narrative theory. However, wikis might be used to support discussions and joint work about any number of topics in English studies, whether they be literary or linguistic (or both) in nature. The scale of using wikis in the way I have described here has yet to be established. Certainly it seems plausible that even larger group contexts where students are required to work in smaller subgroups and then feedback to a plenary session would benefit from this kind of activity. However, it is worth noting that students felt that they should have had more laptops to use, with more than four students per machine being too many.
Of course, wikis can be used for many other purposes other than summarising group work. For example, they can be a platform to create e-portfolios (which might be individual or collaborative), or could be used to build a resource for a wider section of the academic community (Dence 2006). The decision as to whether or not to make the wiki publically available on the internet is also worth consideration here. There is some evidence to suggest that wiki contributions improve when open to an audience beyond that of the class peers. No doubt the specific purpose for using a wiki will determine such decisions. In this case, the wiki contributions were not assessed, but students felt strongly that in the future this kind of formative work should be included in their grade for the module. The ability to view earlier revisions of wiki pages is a useful means of tracking individual student contributions, but clearly assessments using wiki technology should be carefully structured and designed. Based on the experience of these students, even when contributions to a wiki were not assessed, they still have the potential to build effective bridges between group discussion and individual learning, face-to-face and e-learning provision and to foster a deep engagement between students and their subject matter.
Boulos, M., Maramba, I. and Wheeler, S. (2006) Wikis, blogs and podcasts: A new generation of Web-based tools for virtual collaborative clinical practice and education. BMC Medical Education 6:41, available online at http://www.biomedcentral.com/1472-6920/6/41 (accessed 28 November 2007)
Dence, R. (2006) Early experience of wiki initiatives – fostering collaboration through the use of informal repositories. Presented at Online Educa Berlin: 12th International Conference on Technology Supported Learning and Training 29 November – 1st December 2006.
Kolb, D. A. (1984) Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. London: Prentice Hall.