Faculty Exchange/Ron Elcombe Discusses Using Wikis to Support Group Work

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General Information

  • Audience - All WSU instructors interested in using wikis in their courses.
  • Interview Date - 10/12/2010
  • Tools Used - Dokuwiki

Meet the Faculty Member

Dr. Ron Elcombe, WSU Professor in Mass Communication, received his B.S. from the University of Minnesota. He earned his M.M. from Mankato State University and his Ph.D. from The Union Institute. Dr. Elcombe has spent the majority of his academic career exploring advertising and public relations. His most recent administrative duties and research have centered on living and learning communities designed to engage first generation students. Among other courses, Dr. Elcombe teaches MCOM 100 - Mass Media and Society, MCOM 260 - Advertising, MCOM 305 - Mass Media History, and MCOM 400 - Mass Communication Theory.

Viewing the Interview Segments

The full interview is divided into five segments. Select play to begin viewing Segment 1. To advance to another segments at any time by using the Next Next button.

Segment Descriptions

  1. Why do you use wikis in your courses? Ron describes the challenges of managing group projects and the difficulty tracking individual participation in group work.
  2. How do you use wikis in your group writing assignments? Ron explains that his wiki assignment replaces a research paper. Groups collect current research on a chosen topic, organize the literature, and critically evaluate the implications of the new research in the field.
  3. What impact is your wiki assignment having on groups? Ron describes improvements in writing quality, with students spending more time and a more even distribution of effort across group members.
  4. What advice do you have for faculty considering wikis in their courses? Ron emphasizes the importance becoming familiar with the wiki tool and how it can be used to meet specific instructional needs. He also stresses the importance of segmenting the assignment to help students develop though an isolated inductive thinking process.
  5. What's next in terms of your use of wikis? Ron explains that wikis have opened up many new instructional opportunities and he would like to see better integration with learning management and instant messaging systems. Ron also considers the relationship between wikis and word processors.

Good Practices

  • Contribution Tracking: DokuWiki automatically saves a history of all revisions to all pages, along with information about who edited the page. The User History plugin aggregates this information by user, making it easy for the instructor to see at a glance the degree to which all members of a group contributed. Ron used this tool when evaluating student input. This may reduce instructor grading workload and lead to increased perceived fairness among student groups.
  • Private Pages: During the initial information gathering and organization phase of the assignment, Ron restricted access to pages to himself and the members of the group that created them. DokuWiki includes a flexible access control function that supports the easy configuration of page restrictions. This may have promoted better organization of the literature by all groups, allowing groups to develop their ideas without being influenced by the work of others. It may also encourage all groups to conduct both deductive and inductive thinking about the literature and facilitate group cohesion.
  • Focus on Content: Ron emphasized that the formatting of wiki pages was not important. This may help students stay focused on content and analysis rather than style and format.
  • Require Wiki Use at Multiple Points: Instead of giving students the option to use the tool, Ron required the use of the wiki at multiple points during the project. Students were not allowed to collaborate in other ways during these phases. This ensures that students would gain experience with the tool and wouldn't wait until the last minute to use it.
  • Support Information Organization: Wikis allow groups to gather large amounts of information very quickly. The challenge then becomes organizing and analyzing it. Ron provided students with guides, benchmarks, and other resources to help them learn how to condense, organize, summarize, prioritize, and interconnect their group's information. He also pre-configured the wiki in some very basic ways to support different forms of organization. Finally, he segmented the assignment such that he could provide feedback and students could take corrective action at each stage.

Key Outcomes

  • The quality of group papers improved, perhaps due to better division of labor across group members and the resulting perception of fairness (Segment 3).
  • Time-on-task and depth of group contributions improved. Everything individual students contribute to the project was documented and archived, allowing for content analysis of group participation (Segment 3).
  • Ron observed students accepting and adopting the technology quickly and easily. Students readily acknowledged that they would need to know how to work with these tools in their professional lives (Segment 3).

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