20 July 2007

Critique of the Literature on Wikis

Dear Folks,
Here I would like to offer a critique of the literature on using wikis in education – noting that there is not much available yet. This is attributable to wikis being first-generation tools not yet fully suited to the purpose of education, since they were designed initially for personal non-academic use as social applications. I have delayed this critique for some days now with some anguish over whether or not I have become too decrepit and cynical during the past 120 days. Don’t answer that : this is a blog ! not a wiki ;-)

A wiki is a certain kind of blog. While a blog has serial entries according to date much like a diary, a wiki can be built up both horizontally in breadth and vertically in depth, while being fairly time independent. Since pages can be added for increasing breadth, and more hypertext links and details can be added to any pre-existing page for increasing the depth, wikis are therefore considered to be synchronous collaborative tools, and potentially effective as such in education. Wikis are considered to be synchronous collaborative tools since they are continually being updated by users. For more details on their educational potential, see Schwartz, Clark, Cossarin, & Rudolph, (2004) and Boulos, Maramba, & Wheeler (2006). .

It is noteworthy that wikis are not yet part and parcel of university learning management systems such as Blackboard and WebCT. Rather, they are standalone applications to build an open knowledge database accessed through any browser on the internet. Wikis are interlinked with each other so that the MIT wiki has pages by Cornell University as well as links to password-protected copyrighted library sites. A good up-to-date academic paper on the topic of Social Applications for e-learning is by Dalsgaard (2006). In this paper he presents a host of different social applications including wikis. None are gone into to any great depth, but this is a good overview paper, and provides the interested reader with a good list of relevant literature references. Dalsgaard argues that learning management systems (LMSs) are not designed for student-student(s) group learning tasks. When LMSs are for example used for student-student interactions through text-messaging chat-rooms, they are slow and cumbersome. As a result, I believe LMS do not achieve the potential of providing virtual spaces for learning (chat rooms are 99% unused), Such LMS virtual spaces can help with certain discussions for deciding a schedule or negotiating a syllabus. Indeed at WestGa, the virtual classroom on WebCT was used successfully by a group of students synchronously and collaboratively – and this was to arrange a shared schedule and proposing with counter-proposing preferred ways forward and methods for the [our] group learning task.

Dalsgaard does pose a very good question when he asks whether LMSs will incorporate social software tools such as wikis in the near future for such purposes as arranging a schedule and learning methods. However, I disagree with Dalsgaard when he writes that students should solve their problems individually or at least direct their own learning and problem solving activities. This is what tutors are for. Although he cites Vygosky and social constructivism here, there are limits to Vygotsky’s theory in that some tasks are so complex that group members cannot verbalize and communicate their individual context to others fully, so that distributed knowledge is always far greater than the knowledge communicated (see my Posting on Navigation Negotiation on 10 April 2007, for details here). Wikis can only represent those fractions of the context that have been contributed.

Moreover, since a key feature of wikis is the anonymity and the sharedness of the content presented, then the resulting text is so blended as to disallow any kind of individual social presence to be portrayed through the wiki. Their use is therefore limited in online education.

Another general paper on social applications is by Anderson (2005), and he focuses on educational social applications. He presents in particular his vision for using social apps to enable self-paced continuous-enrolment open-access online courses. This is moving way beyond MIT putting their course syllabuses online, and adopts the concept of re-usable learning objects applied to whole courses. Anderson gives a confusing picture of social presence citing some seminal work on tutor presence online, but then talks of his own model and vision in which a student can click an icon to indicate they are online or not available, much like WebCT Virtual Classroom and like Google Talk, Skype and other popular chat Social Apps. Personally, I don’t relate clicking an icon to show my hand is raised as constructing and projecting online social presence. My own concept of social presence was formulated from the frequency, personal rapport and deep enthusiasm of Fred Lockwood as an online tutor, a few years ago. From that experience, I do not rate a ‘hand-raising’ icon as social presence. Anderson mis-cites Paulsen 1993/2003. Paulsen proposed new definitions for ‘cooperative’ learning activities as non-compulsory and of short duration, while ‘collaborative’ learning activities were compulsory and of long duration. I am surprised Anderson bothers to use ink on that. Paulsen could easily buy a dictionary to find out the meanings of ‘cooperative’ and ‘collaborative’, and Paulsen’s proposals have long ago been superseded by correct definitions, and he should stick with words like ‘compulsory’ and ‘duration’ to give his views. Here a wiki would be ideally suitable !!

Anderson in his next paragraph writes, ‘Humans and other social animals tend to flock to activities in which others are engaged’. This would imply he is referring to a voluntary activity. Education at the primary and secondary level is compulsory. So I think he is suggesting that if we can make students’ learning more visible to others then we can draw in more students to the course. Most universities now do this on their home websites with student voices or student opinions about their learning experiences. Wikis do not ideally show student learning narratives.

The issue of whether wikis can be used for collaborative learning balances on the point of what level of learning is being done. During construction, contributors offer their own ideas cooperatively, although the finished product is unknown by anyone and so the overall process can be considered collaborative construction through cooperative sharing. Children in school can learn from wikis as a resource of reasonably-reliable current knowledge, in a one-way cooperative delivery mechanism ; wikis rarely offer conflicting or contrasting opinions within a same page – any incoming knowledge usually displaces the ‘weaker’ earlier contributions, sadly, and to our loss. University students might also access wikis for up-to-date knowledge – especially since hard-back textbooks are so expensive nowadays. As for students in higher education and at the postgraduate level, wikis offer no space for collaborative progress unless users understand they must tolerate differing opinions on the page and structure their page to accommodate these. This level of maturity is essential if wikis are to be effective collaborative learning spaces. This would move us on to the concept of learner autonomy.

Anderson (p3) writes “Recent interest in so called blended learning ( Bersin, 2004 ; Garrison & Kanuka, 2004 ) shows that it is very possible to combine different formats and media of delivery. However, the challenge is to select … those forms of education that offer the greatest degrees of freedom …” [= autonomy]. These sentences are interesting for several reasons. One that Bersin writes magazine articles without any literature references, two that Garrison does not anyway understand the Theory of Transactional Distance, and three student learning autonomy should not be maximized. I have previously discussed Bersin. Garrison (2000) has described that in “Moore’s theory, the most distant program has low dialogue and low structure while the least distant has high dialogue and high structure”. He is wrong. The least distant has high dialogue and low structure (Kawachi, 2004 ; Moore, 1991 & 1993 ). According to Moore (1993, p. 27) the institution here should “take measures to reduce transactional distance by increasing the dialogue through use of teleconferencing”. According to Kawachi (2005), students will lose some Autonomy (A-) in going to synchronous mode since they must become more empathic with others, but they will gain in Dialogue (D+) and also gain in responsiveness to their own wants and needs, and own context (with S- decrease in institutional Structure) leading to more learning and deeper quality learning. Moreover, even though adults in open distance education may want increased autonomy, they /we must compromise on autonomy in order to achieve pre-set learning tasks.

This point is surely illustrated in our current experience with WestGa. We may want more autonomy and self-pacing, but we must compromise on our desire for more autonomy if we are to complete the pre-set coursework duly and on time.

All Best Wishes

Anderson, T. (2005). Distance learning – Social software’s killer ap? Proceedings of the ODLAA Annual Conference. Retrieved June 11, 2007, from http://www.unisa.edu.au/odlaaconference/PPDF2s/13%20odlaa%20-%20Anderson.pdf

Boulos, M.N.K., Maramba, I., & Wheeler, S. (2006). Wikis, blogs and podcasts : A new generation of web-based tools for virtual collaborative clinical practice and education. BMC Medical Journal, 6 (41). Retrieved July 10, 2007, from http://www.biomedcentral.com/content/pdf/1472-6920-6-41.pdf

Dalsgaard, C. (2006). Social software : e-Learning beyond learning management systems. European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning. Retrieved July 10, 2007, from http://www.eurodl.org/materials/contrib/2006/Christian_Dalsgaard.htm

Garrison, R. (2000) Theoretical challenges for distance education in the 21 st Century : A shift from structural to transactional issues’, International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 1 (1), 1-17. Retrieved 10 July, 2007, from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/2/22

Kawachi, P. (2004). Course design & choice of media by applying the Theory of Transactional Distance. Open Education Research, 2, 16-19.

Kawachi, P. (2005). Empirical validation of a multimedia construct for learning. In S. Mishra, & R. Sharma (Eds.), Interactive Multimedia in Education and Training (pp. 158-183). Hershey, PA : IDEA Group

Moore, M.G. (1991). Editorial: Distance education theory. American Journal of Distance Education, 5 (3), 1-6.

Moore, M.G. (1993). Theory of transactional distance. In D. Keegan (Ed.), Theoretical Principles of Distance Education (pp. 22-38). London : Routledge.

Schwartz, L., Clark, S., Cossarin, M., & Rudolph, J. (2004). Educational wikis : Features and selection criteria. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 5 (1). Retrieved July 10, 2007, from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/163/692

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