Take a risk with wiki work

December 7, 2007

Instead of merely tweaking course content, try a 21st-century makeover that shifts the emphasis from tutor to learners, Martina Doolan advises. How often do we reflect on our teaching of a particular module and what do we actually do about it? I'm sure most of us think of doing things differently, and we may have radical thoughts about a complete course redesign. But putting this into practice is often fraught with difficulties.

For example, you may consider changing the conventional "contact hours" model into a student-driven activity-based learning approach, whereby the tutor sets up the learning environment, develops complementary assessed activities and then leaves the students to get on with it.

This can seem risky, with many issues to address and barriers to overcome - not least of all the preparation time, the knowledge and skills required to develop a complementary online/face-to face learning experience and addressing institutional/departmental quality assessment mechanisms and processes. And what about other colleagues teaching different modules: how will they react?

The temptation is to simply tinker with last year's notes and take the less risky option - after all, last year's students gave positive feedback.

But to move forwards and really motivate our students and help them to learn, perhaps we should think about a substantial change and work with our colleagues on a reflection and redesign process.

Why should we do this? The higher education landscape and the expectations of students and other stakeholders such as employers are changing and putting pressure on universities. We are seeing a push for more personalised student learning, which is working its way through schools. So rather than tinkering with our current teaching, shouldn't we seize the opportunity and really help our students to learn?

Tutors who take the risk will see students benefit as a result of exploiting the use of online social networking tools - in other words, Web 2.0 technologies and all that this supports, including blogs, wikis, podcasting and so on - to foster collaborative learning. This also requires a review of assessment practices: indeed, developing appropriate assessed student activities are a way of driving their learning experience.

Why use wikis, blogs, podcasting and the like? The simple answer is that they can be used to empower learners to take ownership of their own learning.

Web 2.0 provides opportunities for academics and learners to edit, co- edit, co-create and co-construct content. Learners can be encouraged and empowered to create their own dynamic learning environment in a style that suits them best to support their learning and to undertake their assessed group and/or individual learning activities.

For example, a wiki has no fixed structure and provides pages that can be constructed and authored by any user. Therefore the structure is determined by the users and depends on how they wish to use the pages. Wikis provide an opportunity to network pages, and so pages may be linked to other pages and/or linked to other websites and content, including images, sound, Word documents, and PowerPoint presentations. Podcasting can extend these learning opportunities by allowing students and tutors to exchange audio and video in a portable format and to create/listen to them at a time of their own choosing.

This dynamic learning environment will feel different and possibly even threatening to some academics, given its shift in emphasis from the tutor to the learner. The approach is a co-constructional one that sees the tutor as less of an expert and more of a supporter of learning.

Our current learners seem to embrace this approach. In my teaching practice, students used a wiki to support group-based assessment in which they shared texts, video and podcasts. This resulted in 35,000 page loads by learners over just four weeks and 60,000 over the duration of the module. These learners moved from being simply passive receivers of information provided by the tutor into being co-creators of that information.

Learners are increasingly entering higher education already skilled in the technologies that facilitate social networking. We shouldn't try to "hijack" these technologies from our learners (they are only tools) but instead should look at ways to exploit the learning opportunities.

Online engagement by students in virtual spaces is becoming commonplace. Indeed, learners don't view technology in the same way as older generations. It is not a challenge to them - it is just there.

The challenge for us as academics is to redefine our role within the student learning experience. We should not be threatened by this but should take an active part in making it happen.

With this new approach, there is a need for the tutor to prepare learners for online learning, even though they may already appear familiar with the technology.

My approach was to do this face to face at the start of the module by engaging students in simulated online groupwork activities. There is also a need for tutors to design the online learning activities and to support learners while they are engaging in their "virtual" spaces.

The depth and level of engagement and support by the tutor will depend on how the space is being used and for what purpose, but the tutor is key in helping learners to "scaffold" and to ensure they are engaging fully with their new environment.

These are exciting times for teaching in higher education but it is not without some major challenges, not least turning from "expert" into explorer and facilitator. It is about continually striving to fully exploit the pedagogical benefits of existing and new technologies, all with a focus of directly bridging the gap between the ways in which academics and students use technologies.

Our students deserve the best learning experience we can offer. My reward is to see them achieve what they are truly capable of.

Martina Doolan is principal lecturer, School of Computer Science, Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning Blended Learning Unit, Hertfordshire University.

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