Using Wikis to Facilitate Small-group Learning

TARGET AUDIENCE: Stage 1 Geography students
from the module GEOG 10020
Geography of Cities

The context was a stage 1 semester 1 module in Geography with 360 students and a focus on skills development. GEOG 10020 examined the nature and character of cities within a wide historical sweep.  There were three assessments and no terminal examination.  These were designed to develop skills in effective reading, focused writing, problem solving and group skills together with developing confidence in an online environment and obtaining practical knowledge of the library, referencing, searching and communicating. The module was hosted on the virtual learning environment where themes were developed further and additional resources provided.

Resources available to the module were not sufficient to support more than three ‘physical’ tutorials for each student.  Therefore use was made of virtual learning environment to facilitate small group work. 

The goals of this assessment, the second of three, were to help to (a) develop group skills; (b) demonstrate effective reading and (c) develop effective writing and communication skills.  Students had been exploring the impact of renaissance planning ideas on European cities.  They were now given the task of developing descriptions of major planning elements as they would have been used in ‘Grand Manner’ planning in Europe. This led into an individual assessment where they applied this knowledge to ‘read’ a map of nineteenth century Paris where ‘Grand Manner’ planning was evident. The scope of the work required that tasks be divided while the requirement to produce material in a coherent style necessitated overall co-ordination. To emphasise the need for communication to be effective and focused, a strict word limit was imposed and students were expected to develop a full and complete discussion, illustrated by examples, within this limit.  A group grade was awarded but with disincentives in place for any individuals who did not participate fully.

The wiki provided the opportunity for students to work in small groups in a managed electronic environment. There were tools for students to create content and for that process to be evaluated.

The essence of a ‘wiki’ is the ability of many users to create and edit content in a dynamic environment and this seemed to offer just what was needed.  Students were allocated to online groups that matched their physical tutorials.  They were set the task, as described above, each group making its own decisions about how and when to accomplish it.  These issues were discussed, however, within the tutorial groups and various possibilities outlined.  The wiki environment provided e-mail communication for each group, a discussion board where the group could meet.  It also afforded me and their tutors the opportunity to view progress, to interact with each group and to intervene where necessary.

Each group had access to its own wiki environment.  This was an on-line editor with the ability to create multiple pages.  The editor offered sufficient features for the tasks.  Each group could see who was doing what tasks and could track the involvement of each member.  However, they could not see what was going on in other groups.

Student reaction was extremely positive.  The end of module questionnaire asked detailed questions about the experience.  Some 99% of students found the wiki an interesting experience and only 20% found it not to be a ‘fun’ experience. Perhaps more importantly, 97% agreed with the proposition that they ‘learned a lot from the assessment’.  Less than one third had any previous experience of group work but 70% agreed or strongly agreed that they had learned a great deal about group working.  The vast majority of them were comfortable in the electronic environment and only 8% found the wiki hard to manage.  They used e-mail and the discussion boards extensively and fewer than 10% found it difficult to interact with their group.  They enjoyed the flexibility offered by the online working environment and the capacity to work with their group at all hours of the day.  However, meeting as a physical group in the tutorials was found useful by over 80%. 

As a module co-ordinator, I was very pleased with the level of engagement with the assessment.  All students participated to lesser or greater degrees.  This was most unusual for a mid-semester 1 assessment and was important in keeping students engaged with the module at a critical time in the student settling-in process.  Group dynamics appears to have been quite important in getting this participation but the novelty of the approach seems also to have caught the imagination.  The quality of the work was also very good.  I was impressed by the desire of the students to produce high quality work and to meet the specifications of the assessment.  They took pride in what they did and while the assessment took time, they got caught up in it and only 9% felt that it took too long to complete.

Setting up the online groups was extremely time consuming and frustrating.  Using the wiki is an approach that I commend in its own right.  Students are at home in an electronic environment and it added great flexibility to their learning, giving them control over their time while also allowing them to work as group.  It also has pragmatic benefits. I could not have contemplated using small groups without something like this in the absence of much more significant resourcing for tutors and associated support.