Wikis are frequently celebrated for their role in achieving lofty goals surrounding collaboration. While we did not witness significantly-improved collaboration attributable to the use of wikis in our classrooms, we did find wikis to offer more pragmatic benefits in terms of assessment and coordination. Wikis enabled our instructors to assess individual contributions to group-writing projects, and we suspect such assessment tools would be appropriate in many educational contexts. Additionally, in the context or our courses, the wiki assignment encouraged students to face the reality of writing--that every document starts with a blank page--much earlier than they otherwise might have. By putting the (nearly) blank page in a public forum for everybody to see--students and instructors alike--students confronted their own contributions and those of their teammates in a direct and immediate way: it was there or it wasn’t. This provided an incentive for students to work earlier and to contribute small pieces more often, which were also among our goals.
Although these courses were taught by instructors trained in disciplines other than rhetoric and composition (i.e., engineering and design/management), the faculty involved appreciated the iterative and recursive processes of writing, which closely parallels the process of engineering design. The fact that wikis helped to make the creative processes involved in writing more transparent was thus a key benefit for our engineering and design faculty. The process-based approach to writing, long hailed as a successful pedagogical model in rhetoric and composition studies, can be easily and directly be connected to design pedagogy, to the benefit of engineering/design students and faculty. Both on our campus and on others where engineering and the sciences predominate, it is worth exploring the potential of drawing out this parallel--between processed-based writing and design--in a more explicit way, perhaps even drawing on the old rhetorical canons of memory, invention, arrangement, style, and delivery.
Regardless of diverse disciplinary training, the faculty involved in this project all wanted to create conditions that would foster deep collaboration and to identify methods for measuring it. What we found--which perhaps should come as no great surprise--is that collaboration, deep or otherwise, is a complex process that is difficult to measure, quantitatively or otherwise. In part, this is because it involves a multitude of interdependent factors that are hard to separate--establishing classroom community, forging bonds of trust and respect among group members, and, perhaps most important of all, creating a culture that values collaboration itself. Furthermore, the reality that institutions and instructors seek to disaggregate individual contributions from jointly-authored writing exists in tension with the goal of deep collaboration, which necessarily blurs lines of authorship. Given this context, wikis seem to offer a tool for negotiating this tension--for enabling individual assessment while still encouraging deep collaboration.
These observations beg larger questions about the values and assumptions that underlie (what often seems to be automatic) praise of the adoption of wiki-like technologies in the classroom. While the use of a wiki in our classrooms entailed only one application among many possibilities, and while we found educational and assessment benefits derived from our use of the wiki, it was also clear that the wiki was neither panacea nor short-cut to achieving deep collaboration. Deep collaboration is realized only over time and through continual or repeated cognitive engagement by participants. Wikis can enable such investment of effort, but do not substitute for it. Our observations also bring to light the uneasy relationship that exists between the contemporary push for collaboration and the predominant way students are assessed. Organized as they are around the end product (the submitted document), instead of the writing process, typical assessment protocols are poorly matched to deeply engaged, iterative, recursive, and collaborative writing. Although the wiki provided a tool useful to the course instructors for negotiating the tension between collaboration and individual assessment, it certainly did not resolve or eliminate that tension. Ultimately the assessment protocol our instructors employed fell back upon a model that rewarded individual contributions that were documented. If educators are committed to collaborative writing (or collaborative design generally), if they believe that learning is improved when peers provide feedback on one another's work at each iteration, then rethinking the overall assessment process might be more effective than merely identifying tools that help cope with the existing tension.
At its completion, this project has addressed the questions it sought to answer only partially. Deep collaboration might well have been achieved, but the role of the wiki in fostering it is not straightforward and the extend to which group-authored writing was improved is impossible to determine. Insofar as the wiki assignment strengthened social ties, it did so through its role as an object of shared frustration, not because of the qualities of the wiki tool. And while the wiki increased transparency of individual contributions to the jointly-written document for the course instructors, this characteristic played no obvious role in improving the quality of the collaborative experience for students. Nevertheless, the role of the wiki in enhancing assessment for the instructors was not trivial--both course instructors agreed this was a positive outcome of the experiment. Similarly, the administrative effort required for exchanging feedback was drastically reduced (but only after the investment required to learn the software was made), which was another non-trivial achievement.
Hence, perhaps the difficulties we encountered in our attempts both to measure "deep collaboration" and to provide evidence for the claims that such collaboration improves writing were the result of flawed research design deriving from failure to account for this tension and for the assumption that wikis can overcome it. Or perhaps our attempt to "measure" the intricate and interdependent processes of community formation and effective collaboration was wrong-headed from the get-go, especially as it directed our attention (and that of our students) to the quality of the final writing submission rather than the writing process. Probably, however, the research questions we originally sought to answer themselves were too ambitious, as are the expectations surrounding many a new educational technology. Had we moderated our expectations, we might well have been more successful in achieving our research objectives. At the end of the day, the wiki did not radically change our teaching or our students' learning. Instead, it was merely a tool that required investment of effort to learn, offered selective improvements in teaching and learning, and was experienced with a mix of annoyance and gratitude by its various users.
Continue reading the Reflections section.