Nov 24, 2007

Wiki in classroom.. Experiences and tips

Using a wiki for your course; an evaluation
This article is written after experiencing the use of a wiki for the course SPM9618 – (R)evolution in ICT Infrastructures. Hopefully it provides an overview of the positive and negative issues we encountered and will lead to a better system for setting up and successfully implementing this technology. It will have the following structure:

  • Explanation course and course objectives
  • Reason and intentions for using a wiki
    • What is a wiki?
  • Choice of wiki platform and reasons
  • Implementation issues - Technology
    • People
    • Tips and useful plugins
  • Implementation issues - Process
    • Get it going
    • Evaluation of TWiki use
    • Other problems and issues
  • Recommendations
    • Wiki environment recommendations
    • Process recommendations

Explanation course and course objectives
SPM9618 is a Mastercourse for students in the Master Systems Engineering, Policy Analysis and Management, at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. The course is usually taken by students that have chose to specialize in the ICT-domain. They are fourth or fifth year students. The course is 6 ects, scheduled in the second semester of the study year. In the study year 2006-2007 module manager Jolien Ubacht and ICT-colleague Jos Vrancken taught the course for the third time. In this edition, number of students taking part in the course has risen from about 15 in previous years to 23.

Reason and intentions for using a wiki
Several aspects of the course led to the inspiration to use a wiki instead of Blackboard as the learning environment (Blackboard is the official digital learning environment at TU Delft).
  • First of all, it is a course where students have to work collaboratively towards a final product: the design of an analytical framework for (R)evolutions in ICT infrastructures. There were no further specifications about the final form; the product could range from an essay, a website or Wikipedia entry, a seminar, a video… anything. This was done on purpose, because students were challenged to cope with unstructured problems.
  • Another reason was that in previous years it turned out that the Blackboard environment was too static for the groups dynamics, information added by students could not be adequately linked and that the freedom for the students to create contents themselves was limited.
  • The third source of inspiration to choose for a wiki was the fact that wikis become common tools in professional life and we wanted the ICT-students to once experience its possibilities during their studies.
What is a wiki?
A wiki is “a website that allows the visitors themselves to easily add, remove, and otherwise edit and change available content” (Wikipedia). It is increasingly used in business and educational settings to enable people to collaborate online (time and place independent). One of the major advantages of using a wiki rather than emailing different documents: there is one central place where individuals create and improve content.

Besides online editing of texts and other content, there are other important functionalities, including version management, the (hyper)linking of pages, and the possibility to use numerous plugins, such as a discussion forum and polls.

Choice of wiki platform and reasons
Two different wiki platforms were provided by the university; the MediaWiki, which is the same platform on which Wikipedia is built, and TWiki, another open source platform extensively used within companies such as Disney, Yahoo!, Motorola, British Telecom, SAP, and many more. Because of its success in business, its flexibility, and the wide variety of extensions, plugins, and
add-ons, we have chosen for TWiki. Although the interface of MediaWiki is much more familiar (same interface as Wikipedia), this problem was assumed not crucial.

Implementation issues – Technology
This section will deal with the setup of the wiki from a technological perspective. It discusses the people that were approached and the specific plugins that have proven useful on the website.

For setting up this wiki Thieme contacted the TU Delft section of E-Merge, an ICT consortium of several universities and academies. Besides Thieme for the process support, another person was involved in the technical support and setup of the wiki. He helped, after the initial setup, in installing several plugins that provided the students with several tools, and enhanced the website’s interface and preferences.

Tips and useful plugins
TWiki’s possibilities to enhance the functionalities and personalize the website are abundant. In this part a few of those possibilities are discussed, and some practical tips are described as well.

The functionalities that have proved most useful in the course SPM9618 are:
  • NatSkin – a so-called skin, which changes the interface of the website. Much more attractive than the original interface.
  • DiscussionForum – a rather difficult to implement discussion platform.
  • Polls – a plugin enabling the students to make polls.
  • EndNote – also called footnote. Puts text {{between brackets}} at the end of the page with a footnote.
  • WYSIWYG-editor
  • Variables: INCLUDE and HISTORY
Other crucial standard elements of the wiki are:
  • Statistics and Changes
  • Web Sidebar
  • SectionalEdit
  • Personal sidebar and personal preferences
  • Functions on top of page: edit… etc.
As said, the ability to personalize the wiki to your preferences are almost endless. There are more than 200 plugins and add-ons available on, addressing functionality, safety, tools, interface and many other subjects.

Some of possibly relevant other possibilities are tagging of pages, especially useful in large wiki-sites, the inclusion of the content of web-pages through RSS, making spreadsheets, presentations, sectional edit (editing sections separately), and many more.

Implementation issues – Process
During the first few weeks the results of use were quite disappointing. The students did not embrace the wiki platform as much as we expected, and wanted. This chapter will explain how we have introduced the wiki to the students, and what would have been a better approach. Some other issues that are specific in collaborative projects, such as the evaluation of individual efforts and the prevention of hitchhiker behavior are discussed as well.

Get it going
In order to get the process started, and explain everyone a bit about the workings and purpose of the wiki, a presentation was given at the first lecture. This was clearly not enough, and afterwards we thought it would have been a better idea to approach the introduction to the wiki in a more practical way, for example providing the students with some exercises on the wiki, with or without supervision. The first weeks students were given a couple of simple assignments to get started:
  • To get to know each other better, and to introduce the students to the basic use of the wiki, the assignment was to create a personal page, with relevant personal information, such as projects done, interests, domains, experiences, etc. The intention was also the let the students reflect on the types of knowledge and skills they could use during the team work of the module. This personal assignment was done by all of students, but some pages were limited to only the most basic information.
  • Secondly, the students had to make up their own process rules for the use of the wiki, and the course itself.
  • Thirdly, they had to find information about the use of wikis within education, and start a discussion about the specific use and value of it within this course.
  • Fourthly, we created regular assignments to be fulfilled via the TWiki, for example writing weekly reports on the meetings by 2 volunteers, uploading material to prepare guest lectures etc. or exploring a case study in innovation in ICT-infrastructures.
  • Fifth, the end report was a collaborative report written by several sub-teams, that wrote chapters for which we created specific websites within the TWiki.
Thus, we gradually moved towards using more functions of the TWiki, that gradually were more related to the contents of the course.

Evaluation of TWiki use
Some students were already used to using a wiki in other settings (e.g. own company as a brainstorm tool). These students turned out to be the most enthusiastic users at the start of the course. Less experienced students took a dislike to getting used to a new, innovative environment. We were disappointed by this reluctance to a new digital environment because we expected that students in the ICT-domain would experience less fear for new technology. On the contrary, we expected more enthusiasm as using a wiki is an innovation (the subject of
the course). The first weeks discussions on the interface and which editor to use distracted a lot and created a barrier to entry. Towards the end of the course, especially while writing a collaborative report, the use of the TWiki raised.

During writing the report, the students experienced the benefits of the TWiki more as they could quite easily reconstruct the process they went through in developing the end product of designing an analytical framework for (R)evolutions in ICT infrastructures. We must however mention that some groups of students used Google Docs first to write their chapter and then published it onto the TWiki where it could not be altered anymore. Google Docs clearly has better functionalities in editing texts and is better in case of collaborative writing.

The first enthusiastic users of the TWiki experienced a disincentive to continue putting a lot of effort into the TWiki when they realised that other students did not use it the same way. As coaches we had hoped these students to take up a pioneering role by showing the added value
of the wiki and thus inspiring others to adopt the innovation more quickly.

Although the TWiki provides every user with statistics on the use of it (user name, amount of changes performed by a user), the use of holding this against the students is limited as it does not tell you anough about the quality of the work done on the TWiki and because it can easily be manipulated (e.g. by just changing multiple comma's into exclamation marks). Moreover, we preferred to put more trust into the intrinsic motivation of ICT students to experiment with a new ICT-tool, but students seemed to be annoyed because of having to learn a new environment while having to rely on Blackboard for the other courses they took. This initial reluctance was strengthened by the discussions on the TWiki technology at the start, the students opinion that the design of the website was unattractive and the lack of a student manual. Regularly we inspired the students to have a central information manager who would take special care of the structure of the TWiki but this suggestion was not followed up by action. A next time we will make this a mandatory role.

Another reason was the inherent liberty a wiki gives to its users in combination with the vague course objectives and little direction from teachers. This was done on purpose, but the result of it was that most students just did nothing for a while. The students experienced too much vagueness at the start of the course because of its unorthodox form, so they had to invest in too many things: making a team effort, getting the assignment right, contributing to the TWiki, in
short: finding their way. We as coaches have learned a lot from this and will choose for a more balanced start next year.

At the end of the course we experienced a problem with uploading material to the TWiki,
the uploaded documents were provided with the details, but the links to the full documents did not work. This was a technological problem that was quite problematic, but there was no support from the persons who set up the wiki. We solved it by putting the material on our own server and providing the students with the links to the contents on the TWiki.

However, the students could no longer upload material themselves, which was frustrating after the effort to get it together.

Our enthusiasm for using a wiki in a learning environment remains unabated. The interactive nature of a wiki, the possibilities to continuously structure and restructure information, the opportunities for students to create sites and provide their own information and documents, etc. has great added value, especially in courses in which interaction is required. Therefore we hope that more staff and students at TU Delft will consider using a wiki for educational (and other!) purposes. In order to stimulate this, we have formulated a number of recommendations, dealing with technology and process issues. These recommendations are both addressed to teachers or other individuals interested in using a wiki in a course context, and for the TU Delft itself.

Wiki environment recommendations
The technical support of e-merge was fine at the beginning. When asked to install a number of plugins, they did it on time. As mentioned, there was no support in the end, when it was needed, because the responsible person was unable to offer support. This was unfortunate, but since it was the first project of its kind within the university, some initial frictions could have been expected. Hopefully, in the fuure there will be more experience and institutional structures are set in place to fully support wikis at the TU Delft. Therefore, also from the perspective of increased use of wikis in the future, the recommendation to set up a specific wiki portal for anyone at the university (student, teacher, researcher) interested in using a wiki. This
portal would include
  • A standard wiki package;
    • standard interface, implemented and well
    • standard WYSIWYG editor (NatEdit)
    • standard web preferences
    • standard plugins
    • support when needed
  • List of plugins; as mentioned in a previous section, there is a number of plugins that should be implemented to make the wiki an attractive and useful tool for collaboration. A strong recommendation would be to lower the barrier for teachers, and to include a description of the most important plugins and options on the TU Delft wiki-platform (hopefully to be implemented in the future).
  • The ability to have a more attractive wiki domain, such as
  • List of options/plugins for persons who want a wiki for their course/project (indicate the options you want xx then implement the desired preferences by installing the relevant plugins and change the web preferences. And for the future: make this process automatic.)
  • A clear explanation of how to use a wiki in a certain context, with examples.
  • A wiki forum where people can discuss problems and ideas.
  • A list of persons to approach in specific situations.
  • A list of students who can serve as student assistants in setting up, maintaining, and supporting a wiki
  • A manual for students including exercises to get started.
At this moment an efort is done to create a central wiki environment for the University of Technology that includes the needed support. It will be integrated with A-Select, meaning that you can access the wiki from Blackboard without an extra login (lower barrier). Attractive URLs will be integrated in it as well, as is done with the weblog initiative.

Process recommendations
As for the procedural part of using a Wiki, we have formulated the following recommendations, based on our experiences. These recommendations are based on the assumption that a standard TU Delft wiki environment is created, including the manual as mentioned in the section on Wiki environment recommendations above!
  • Choose a wiki for specific reasons within the course: the Wiki has to fulfill a function in the course, this should not be limited to just serving a goal of merely using a Wiki, a real integration between goals, contents and learning environment has to be designed;
  • Set clear goals, especially in the beginning. When some progress has been made, the people will probably be able to cope with more liberties;
  • Provide students with reasons for using a Wiki instead of Blackboard, make them aware of the added value;
  • Formulate the role of information manager: one student or students taking turns, who is responsible for keeping structure on the wiki and translating users' wishes into structure;
  • Start with simple assignment for students to get used to working with the wiki, make a plan to work towards more complex assignments that require the use of more wiki functions (and that demonstrates the added value of the wiki);
  • For coaches: be active in using the Wiki yourself. E.g. participate in discussion forums, comment on the information provided by the students, etc.;
  • If possible: test your ideas for using a Wiki in your course with potential students in the course or at least test the Wiki with other users before the course starts on structure, user friendliness, clarity of the assignments;
  • Make use of a student assistant or class representative to play a part in the management and setting up of the wiki. Most teachers will not have time for that, and an experienced student assistant can probably do a lot in a short period of time. This person can also help students in their initial steps in using the wiki.
We are convinced that using a Wiki is a great experience in learning environments (and beyond). We hope that we inspire more staff and student at TU Delft to join this next phase in experimenting with new ways of interactive information sharing towards innovative knowledge generation!

This text has been written by Thieme Hennis and Jolien Ubacht (TU Delft). We hope we have provided some ideas about difficulties in process and technology of using a wiki in an educational setting. Any additions, links, ideas, comments, criticisms, etc. can be posted below.

1 comment:


    >> this is the wiki itself