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This issue of CDTL Brief discusses various issues and aspects of Independent Learning, incorporating views from NUS faculty and a student.
January 2008, Vol. 11 No. 1 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Using Wiki to Write Lectures Notes Independently and Collaboratively
 
Dr Stéphane Bressan
Department of Computer Science
 

Introduction

The benefits of a student centred teaching approach and how it motivates individuals to learn independently, experientially and collaboratively have been well-documented. It is therefore pertinent to explore how educational technologies and tools can help educators and education technologists implement and deploy applications supporting constructivist strategies. In this article, I shall discuss the use of Wiki1 for authoring lecture notes collaboratively.

Lecture Notes

The inseparable duo, lectures and lecture notes, is a part of the heritage of the German research university model adopted by American universities during the 19th century (Russel, 1991) and progressively by most universities worldwide. Although students often perceive note-taking as a boring, painful and redundant task, it is the first opportunity for them to engage in independent learning through critical analysis and synthesis of the lecture material and an important exercise in learning to write in the discipline's language.

The Case

CS2102S "Database Systems (S-option)" is an optional extension to the core module, CS2102 "Database Systems". CS2102S lets students apply their newly acquired knowledge and competencies to the study of ancillary database topics (for instance and in this case non-relational data models such as XML). The module's teaching and learning modes are based on independent and peer learning as well as peer assessment. For two semesters in Academic Year 2006/2007, computer science undergraduates taking CS2102S used Wiki to create their own lecture notes.

Due to the module's radical teaching strategy, the Wiki is used with few constraints and restrictions. Only students taking the module have access to the Wiki. They can freely create, update or delete the content. However, they can only modify but not delete the seven main pages constituting the front page and the six topic pages (the six main components of the syllabus). The web page's content is frozen for a few days before the module's final test and it is the only authorised document that students can bring with them for the test. In their direct or anonymous feedback, students recognise the learning benefits of the approach, but balance their feedback with criticisms of the rationale ("the.test will only allow students to [bring] in [the Wiki notes], thereby pressuring [students] to do a good job"), highlighting some of the difficulties such as the amount of effort and commitment required ("unfortunately we. don't have enough time to study this way, [though forum discussion] and Wiki [are good ways to learn about the subject]"), and challenges inherent to independent and peer learning ("the Wiki notes have lots of errors and misunderstandings", "[it] is [difficult for] us to verify [whether the information] is correct").

Designing Collaborative Notes Writing and Authoring Activities with Wiki

The difficulties and challenges of independent and collaborative learning enhance students' learning experience. Yet, there are two main issues that need careful management when designing and facilitating independent and collaborative notetaking activities-hive effect and plagiarism.

The hive effect is the collective creation of junk when the initial sense of ownership arising from individual participation in the collective task fizzles out with the loss of a sense of responsibility. An enthusiasm for creative work, a sense of ownership and the fact that the Wiki notes are the only authorised documents in the final test, motivate students to contribute. Colleagues to whom I have shown the CS2102S Wiki notes are impressed by their technical quality. Students are however, more critical of the collective effort and its results. As with any collective task, there are free riders and passive participants. Their existence makes those who contribute actively to the Wiki notes feel indignant. After using a Wiki for their course, Raitman, Augar & Zhou (2005) report that their students fear the loss of their work because of malicious or accidental deletion by other students or because of the lack of concurrency control despite the fact that it never happened.

Lecture notes in undergraduate courses, unlike research papers and thesis, are secondary writings that do not contain a significant amount of original work. It is difficult, in this context to differentiate plagiarism from note-taking. This is particularly the case until students are comfortable with analysis and synthesis. Since learning the discipline's language is initially achieved by imitation, it is necessary to emphasise and to strictly and continuously enforce the citing of sources.

Hive effect, and plagiarism can be managed through control and assessment tuned to the needs, requirements and objectives of the module. In CS2102S, control and direct assessment are kept to their minimum. I have found it useful to give and impose both a plan (i.e. seven main pages with sections and subsections of the Wiki together with titles and topics to be developed) and a compulsory and single case for all examples in order to improve coherency.

Conclusion

With control, restrictions, fine-tuning and proper assessment, collaborative authoring software such as Wiki is an indispensable tool in a modern educator's toolkit. Since the software is usercentred, its technologies and applications help students learn independently and collaboratively. The technology can be adopted without rejecting conventional teaching practices and their benefits. If managed well, such tools can leverage existing teaching practices to create an effective blended learning approach that helps students achieve better learning outcomes.

Acknowledgement

I would like to thank Elizabeth Ruilin Koh for an interesting discussion on Wiki and collaborative learning strategies and for the relevant references that she gave me. I would like to thank Ann Kian Yeo, Dennis Puk and Wee Yeh Tan from CITA for installing and managing MediaWiki (http://www.mediawiki.org) for this application.

References

Raitman, R., Augar, N. & Zhou, W. (2005). 'Employing Wikis for Online Collaboration in the E-learning Environment: Case Study'. Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Information Technology and Applications (ICITA '05), Volume 2, pp.142-146.

Russel, D. (1991). Writing in the Academic Disciplines 1870-1990, A Curricular History. Southern Illinois University Press.


1 Wiki is server software that allows users to freely create and edit web page content using any web browser. Wiki is also the software powering Wikipedia.
 
 
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Inside this issue
The Art of Not Learning: Two Versions
   
The Bookends of USP Learning: From WCT to ISM
   
Using Wiki to Write Lectures Notes Independently and Collaboratively
   
A Self-directed Learning Experience
   
Flashcards and the Leitner Cardfile System: A Useful Tool for Learning Human Anatomy Independently
   
Self-learning is Self-reliance
   
Service Learning: Where the World is Your Classroom