Aiming for communal constructivism in a wiki environment

Referring to my post about my failure using wikis in the classroom Stephen Downes said “I wish I understood just how the exercise turned into a failure.” at: Stephen's Web Threads

I see now, that I never described the process in any detail. I mention that I developed a formula, but hadn’t shared it. Nor did I elaborate on why I perceived this as a failure.

The failure, really, is that I missed the opportunity to share the essence of the experience I am having collaborating on communal wikis. Instead, I merely slapped wiki technology onto a tried and true training method. I never got to ‘that level’… I’m putting that in scare-quotes because I know there’s something wrong about making value judgements about learning situations... I just can’t articulate it yet.

How I learn on a wiki

The essence of my experience on CommunityWiki has been collaborative document editing, and the wonders of hypertext- in a very ’95 sort of way. Sharing and learning there has shown me how you need to develop ideas in a group through rhizomes- linking out from existing topics. As a newcomer you begin to understand the established community’s shared knowledge, and you learn where you can introduce your voice in the discussion.

Your words then become absorbed by the group, and ‘refactored’ as they say in wiki-speak. And as others come to understand your ideas, it becomes their own, and new thoughts spring from your page, in a very literal sense: new links. The wiki, in a constructionist sense, becomes “an object to think with”. Issues of ownership become blurry, yet the social support and feedback system still provides a sense of accomplishment and pride.

This the experience I wanted to model and share with my participants. I feel that this process is a great tool for communal constructivism, a concept which I am highly influenced by the lecturers on my course:

“What we argue for is a communal constructivism where students and teachers are not simply engaged in developing their own information but actively involved in creating knowledge that will benefit other students. In this model students will not simply pass through a course like water through a sieve but instead leave their own imprint in the development of the course, their school or university, and ideally the discipline.“
You can read more about communal constructivism here, in a : Communal Constructivism:
Students constructing learning for as well as with others.

So in some ways, the bar for me has been raised ‘above’ the level of finding handy tools to deliver course material. I’ll describe now how I used the wiki in the classroom, and how it was a failure…

How I used the wiki in a classroom

I was conducting a workshop on visual design for non-experts. We used a wiki for presentation and in-class exercises. I have since discovered this practice is used elsewhere, and there’s even a catchy name for it: WikiPoint

  1. Prepare lecture material on the wiki.
  2. Devise in-class activities where we could interact through the wiki. Set-up the pages for these activities.
  3. Send a link out before the lecture
  4. Meet group, review previous week, talk about goals for that session.
  5. Give brief lecture of 10 mins or less, referring to prepared materials.
  6. Conduct in-class activity, the bulk of the time.
  7. Review activity in reflection

Each week, I prepared course material on the wiki. Mainly this was links and as brief a text as I could possibly manage. I created illustrations where needed.

Example activity

My most complicated in-class activity involved a sort of game about colour theory and colour in culture. First, I introduced some issues in colour and design, I talked about colour and emotion, and also cultural inferences we can make from colour schemes. I was trying to de-mystify working with colour in design. Then we jumped into the two-part activity.

Each participant prepared a page on a specific aspect of colour theory. I had created the links to the pages ahead of time. On this page ColouringFun: They were required to click the ? question mark next to a term. They were given a few resources, and wrote up about. We went around to each person as they described what they had learned.

Next, I secretly assigned each person a target group and content along with a colour theory, for example: single-adults cooking site/analogous; rural farmers community site/complementary; children’s maths site/contrasting. The task was to get people to try and use the information about colour relationships, and cross this with an understanding of using colour in context. They worked silently as I went around and help people develop their scheme.

Afterwards we went around the class presenting each example and people had to try and identify which colour relationship this represented, and which target group this one suited best. It was fun and funny, and I do think people had at least acquired the language of colour theory at the end of that session. But we could have done this with paper and crayons, I suppose.

Was it a failure?

I guess I’m making a criticism of instructionist classroom methods where they stifle or limit student-to-student interaction. I do think that lectures have their place but for certain subject matter, a lecture would not be suitable. Each week, I prepared the material, each week I contrived some kind of in-class activity to let people ‘interact’. But as I mentioned before, I was merely creating fill-in-the-blanks exercises… I realize now, that to get to the level of which I was aiming, in terms of communal constructivism, you need to let the participants identify their own blanks.

I don’t think people came out of any session complaining about how little they learned… What’s wrong with me? The failure is probably all in-my-head. It is a perception I have based on the influence from my course director and lecturers- as mentioned about communal constructivism… it is a bar I strived to reach. At least in not reaching it, I got a better idea of where it is, and how to get there.

More about people using WikiPoint, quite happily and quite successfully:

- WikiPoint details on process and benefits

- In French at CraoWiki, WikiPointPuissant

- At TeachingWiki: ProjectSuccess November 12, 2002 mentions where a student had “created a draft version of this slide show - a veritable "wikipoint", if you will, on the wiki itself - not having Powerpoint on his own machine. A creative use of the Wiki to be sure.”

- An article on the advantages of using a specific wiki engine to replace powerpointt

- WimpyPoint, a tool that looks an awful lot like a wiki

- Other Kairos articles at Stephen Downes


TrackBack from notes:

I promised I'd reflect on my failure using wikis in the classroom. I shouldn't have used the word brilliant, because that makes it sound smarter than it was. - My Brilliant Failure: Wikis In Classrooms 21 May 04 where I...

Your experience with wiki in teaching struck a chord with me, posted here. I'm finding that wiki is organic. Organic is difficult, messy, uncertain, but worth doing.

I, like you, made a connection and thought that using wikis with a class would be a good idea. I've been trying to find how often it has been tried (using wikis with a class with all of the class as editors and contributors, not merely spectators), but so far this has been the only instance I've found documented online. I'm still trying different keyword combinations though, so hopefully I'll find some new material. I'm trying to hunt down the article that Matt wrote, because I'm at least curious about what it talks about.

 I'm a mathematics undergraduate, and I gave a presentation on using wikis with mathematics classes last fall, and this spring, the chairman of the mathematics department decided that he wanted to try using a wiki with his Introduction to Mathematical Proof class. The class gains access to the wiki today, so I'll be watching and will try to document the process we've gone through as I go so that if it works, it will be repeatable. I agree with many of your points, and I thought that you'd be interested to know that this is being tested somewhere else.

One of the benefits of me not being the professor is that I can devote more time to maintaining the wiki and ensuring that it is developing smoothly than I think most professors would have time for. Plus, if it works, I already have at least two more professors who are interested in using the system so I may find myself developing a tool for mathematics education. Heh, the only thing more important in my eyes than discovering new concepts is improving the methods of conveying the old. 

 Feel free to email me, and I'll try to come back to this page a few more times at least and look for responses here.

Unusual approach to teaching . . .
I think the students like it, and they welcome your approach to teaching !