16 July 2007

Review of Wikis in Distance Education

Hi Folks,

Of the various Social Apps, I would like to review the use of wikis in distance education.

Since 1992, several software programmes have been written to enable individual to and from other individuals to communicate through the internet. These add a social aspect to distance education which has been been dominated by heavy learning management systems that control the enrolment, dictate the syllabus and archive the student’s work for assessment. Learning management systems (typically Blackboard and WebCT) have allowed open and distance mega-universities to keep track of their millions of students – with some courses having several thousand students simultaneously on the one course. An army of tutors and their comments, grading and feedback are also managed by such university-wide systems. These systems however do not facilitate the social aspects of learning. They tend to offer FAQs and moderating of student text contributions to threaded discussion sites, but almost nothing in the form of live voice chat. Indeed the telephone continues to be used by some mega-universities with tutor ‘office hours’ for student-tutor one-on-one consultation – usually remedial in nature. Social software applications – Social Apps for short – have recently been developed to allow mid-course student-student interaction in real time synchronously. These were initially text-based instant messaging - like Yahoo Messenger, but later adopted voice over the internet VoIP - like Skype. Both of these are basically free. While initially also text-based, Google Talk now offers live voice VoIP Google Chat. It should be noted that VoIP is not recorded and not archived, and so encourages free conversation among students – though usually only between two students at a time. Skype now offers multiple users to chat in conferencing mode. Audio-visual conferencing has been available on learning managements systems for the past ten years, but used only at pre-set times for specific tasks academically.

Search engine capabilities have developed separately alongside web-based management systems and the use of email lists for group text-based asynchronous discussions. These search capabilities were initially developed by commercial for-profit companies providing an individual subscriber with matches to his or her personal data enquiry for dating purposes. Later on, these search capabilities have enabled individuals to find like-minded other individuals then to form special interest groups – usually hobbyists and not academic. Now students at universities can use these tools to form their own social groups. These social applications are especially effective for students studying at a distance.

Recent research still finds that middle-aged adult students in open and distance education do not avail themselves of the Social Apps or of the tutor ‘Office Hours’ conferencing. Younger students between 20 and 30 years old do so for both social reasons and academic (to get their money’s worth in terms of tutor attention and help), and older students above 55 years old do so for social reasons (to make new friends with other old students and with the tutor often of similar mature age, through their enrolling in study). There are now more than four hundred Social Apps for student-to-student use in distance education. Most however are not free and so not so widely adopted by students. They are also generally only for the Windows operating system, and not for Mac or Linux ; so even if most students use these Social Apps, a few will be left out in the cold because of their computer being incompatible.

Social Apps include Friendster, MySpace, YouTube as well as blogs and wikis. For educational purposes the leading Social Apps are blogs. From a literature search and from my interview in my recent podcast 5.2, it is clear that wikis are not used much in education. Both blogs and wikis may be termed first-generation social software applications.

Wikis are a special type of blog. Whereas blogs generally have short entries about work by others and mainly giving reference to work by others, wikis have entries produced by individuals together. The individuals may be separated by distance but they are considered to be synchronous tools since the individuals work on the entry collaboratively : one person may be writing one new sub-page while another is adding details to a previous page. Wikis are works-in-progress and are never finished. Despite being considered synchronous, a group may take up work produced years earlier and update it adding new pages and recent knowledge through more hypertext links. Such links are constructed automatically by the software (rather than requiring the author having to write using html) and links are made to other wikis. If the new pages are inside someone else’s wiki and are fairly self-contained not connected to other wikis, it is considered squatting – perhaps since the owner of the wiki in most cases pays for the wiki site hosting. Only a very few hosted sites are free, and open-source code is unusually difficult to put onto your own website.

Wikis are not used much by education administration, or by teachers and students. Several reasons might underlie this reluctance by those in education to use wikis. A wiki is a kind of blog in which multiple anonymous users can access and change the text on the wiki site. While the opportunity to destructive attack exists, surprisingly wikis have been very successful in building up a shared knowledge base open to everyone with any internet access.

Blogs are very visual and of all countries, Japan has more personal blogs that any other country. This is attributable to the manga comic genre and the visual range of writing available in Japan. Wikis on the other hand are hardly used. University administrators have paper-based regulation-format methods in use and firstly see no reason to change, and secondly see the novelty of wikis as untested and potentially unreliable.

Wikis are indeed open to misuse and hacking by ill-intentioned anonymous persons. However companies are adopting wikis instead of in-house intranet and close their wikis to prevent non-company access. Universities administrators, teachers and students too could set up closed net wikis for collaborative work-in-progress. Changes to a wiki can be tracked and the change author can be identified. This may in turn lead to competition between student users – which goes against the spirit of wikis as a shared work with contributions of various qualities and quantities from users.

As first-generation tools, wikis are best used for specific tasks such as deciding on a schedule for the students – those with something worthwhile adding can do so, and those with little to add are free to observe and acquiesce. This would appeal to the Japanese group-oriented culture. Additionally, wikis could be used in the same vein for summative anonymous course evaluation. They could also be used in mid-course to collate feedback on issues such as pacing, workload, and problems encountered – anonymously and formatively.

It is unlikely that they will be used as collaborative group learning tools, since a strong participant may be discouraged by no credit and by others freeloading.

Therefore wikis should be used for their strengths – to formulate group opinions, rather than for course work itself. Perhaps second-generation wikis will have sufficient recording functionaliity to allow for assessing each individual student, but not yet. Blogs remain more suitable for such applications.

Wikis and blogs are leaders in first-generation educational social software. Of these, we can expect refinements and further developments in wikis in the next few months and years.

Coming up soon, I plan to review a few small Social Apps including the full-screen whiteboard described a few days ago here, and also VoIP recording as mp3 for podcasting.

Also I plan to post here soon a critique of the available literature on wikis.
All Best Wishes

1 comment:

Dr Pam Miller said...

I am in awe of your knowledge. Well done.