The 15-minute Experiment

One tool I have used with students for several years is a wiki. I have personally used wikis for group work, class websites and digital portfolios. However, I have had a hard time coming up with a good activities for my students that really demonstrate the affordances of a wiki (group editing, version history, comments and discussion, etc.) beyond the ability to just create a web page. In fact, my experiences were always similar to Melissa Cole, who had a lot of great ideas for using a wiki in her class but struggled to get buy-in from her class. I have had the same problem in the past, where I would set up a semester-long collaborative project for students to build a collective knowledge base. These projects always started out strong before interest fizzled after a few weeks.

One interesting piece from Cole’s article was the brief taxonomy of wiki usage, taken from Tonkin (2005):

  1. Single-user. This allows individual students to write and edit their own thoughts and is useful for revision and monitoring changes in understanding over time.
  2. Lab book. This enables students to peer review notes kept online by adding, for example, commentary or annotations to existing lecture notes or seminar discussions.
  3. Collaborative writing. This can be used by a team for joint research such as a group project, essay or presentation.
  4. Creating a topical knowledge repository for a module cohort. Through collaborative entries students create course content that supplements and extends delivered material.

I don’t think this list is exhaustive, but it got me to thinking. How could I show my students the power of collective knowledge without giving them a project that would drag on forever, while harnessing knowledge each student currently possessed?

Well, I came up with the following idea:

Imagine you were each asked to speak to a group of students new to UNT about tips for being successful in their first semester. In other words, what do you wish you had known as an incoming student? Chances are you could come up with several good tips. But what would happen if three or four of you collaborated on the same talk? You would probably be able to come up with an even better list of suggestions for incoming students. What you will do in the next 15 minutes is collectively tap into your knowledge and experience and provide incoming students with a knowledge base that might be helpful to their transition to UNT (assuming they take your advice).

The result was this wiki, which I created using WikiSpaces. The end result is not totally impressive, and you can see that some of the students took this opportunity to be kind of silly (which I can relate to … I was always that kid in the class). But what was interesting was the reaction from many of the students when we debriefed about this activity. For most of them, they got it. They were able to see in a  short amount of time that many people can collectively put their heads together and create something useful (e.g., Wikipedia, though that experiment has taken many years to create).

On the technical side, there was quite a lot of work I had to do beforehand to make this experiment truly 15 minutes. Here is the rundown:

  1. Set up the wiki
  2. I took advantage of the free teacher upgrade, which allowed me to add users in bulk. This takes about a day to do, since wikispaces wants to verify your .edu or k12 e-mail address.
  3. Created a CSV file with a username and password for each of my students.
  4. Uploaded the file and created the student accounts.
  5. Distributed the usernames and passwords to my class (via Moodle)

I demonstrated this process to the class as well, in case they wanted to try it themselves. I think this is an activity I will include in the future, and I may even have my students edit or add to the existing entries in addition to creating their own. I may have to find a new topic before long if this one becomes saturated, but I think there are still several topics that haven’t been addressed.

So, how do you use wikis in your teaching?