MET:Wikis: A Theoretical Perspective
This page originally authored by Lindsay Noel (2013).
A wiki refers to an online system that permits users to modify and incorporate content (Bokhari & Ahmad, 2011). Educators primarily use them for collaborative work in e-learning contexts (Wheeler et al., 2008). This is because they eliminate geographical constraints to group endeavours by facilitating communication and coordination in an online environment (Minocha & Thomas, 2007). They are available online to all users, at no cost, and enable multiple individuals to produce a final product cooperatively (Koohang & Harman, 2005). Research suggests wikis are advantageous to e-learning contexts and student achievement (Bokhari & Ahmad, 2011; Matthew et al., 2009; Wheeler et al., 2008). As a result, teachers worldwide are using them for lessons and activities. Since instructors increasingly incorporate them in educational environments, it is essential to analyze whether they reflect the tenets of essential learning theories, particularly distributed cognition, situated education and constructivist learning.
This article will begin by discussing the various types of wikis that are applicable to educational settings and reviewing literature regarding wiki use in education. The pedagogical advantages and limitations of using wikis will also be presented, especially in terms of how they support distributed cognition, situated education and constructivist learning. Since wikis have numerous benefits in terms of supporting essential learning theories, this article proposes ways in which wikis can be employed to facilitate knowledge development.
Types of wikis
There are numerous varieties of wikis that are applicable to educational settings. Wikipedia is the most established wiki platform, with greater than four million articles available in English (Bokhari & Ahmad, 2011; Modigliani, 2011). Other common wikis include WikiIndex that describes and lists existing wikis, Wikiversity that provides learning resources and The Teachers' Lounge that has lesson plans (McFedries, 2006). Curriki, PBWorks, Wikimedia, WikiPapers, Wikispaces and Wikibooks are also popular wikis employed for educational purposes. Users are able to modify and add content in the case of each of these wikis.
Researchers have conducted significant investigations on the application of wikis to educational contexts. Numerous studies show a positive correlation between wikis and student learning (Begoña & Carmen, 2011; Matthew et al., 2009; Minocha & Thomas, 2007). Although some research demonstrates adverse impacts of using wikis in educational contexts (Naismith et al., 2011), the majority of studies indicate that they are advantageous (Matthew et al., 2009; Woo et al., 2011). Educators are increasingly using wikis to facilitate learning because of their affordances and due to research support (Wheeler et al., 2008).
Although numerous researchers have performed studies on wikis (Begoña & Carmen, 2011; Pifarré & Staarman, 2011), investigations on how these tools support collaboration in terms of essential learning theories is lacking. This is particularly the case for the combination of distributed cognition, situated education and constructivist learning. There is also insufficient research on how educators can employ wikis to support fundamental learning theories. Therefore, this article will relate wikis to essential learning theories and discuss beneficial instruction strategies.
Analysis of wikis and learning theories
Since the literature review demonstrated that learning theories need additional research regarding their relation to wikis, this section will discuss how wikis reflect the tenets of fundamental educational philosophies. It will discuss the learning benefits of wikis, followed by their potential limitations.
Advantages of wikis
Wikis offer numerous advantages to education. This section will discuss the benefits of wikis in terms of student learning. The focus will be on distributed cognition, situated education and constructivist learning.
The principles of distributed cognition are present in wikis primarily because they establish environments in which knowledge is freely available for redistribution among individuals (Koohang & Harman, 2005). They do not constrain information with spatial or temporal boundaries. Rather, their information can be accessed online from different locations at any time (Matthew et al., 2009; Naismith et al., 2011). Students retrieve this knowledge, and then input their own understanding by uploading and editing content (Naismith et al., 2011; Woo et al., 2011). Individual contributions form a joint product that enhances users’ collective expertise (Matthew et al., 2009). This process of cognitive cooperation facilitates the development of shared understanding and the construction of new knowledge. Research shows that this collaboration increases student comprehension and their ability to process information (Begoña & Carmen, 2011).
Wikis also reflect the theory of situated learning because they establish authentic communities of practice. These virtual workplaces can be applied to numerous learning situations because they do not limit learning to a time or place (Hung & Der-Thanq, 2001; Matthew et al., 2009). This flexibility enables wikis to support authentic learning environments (Brown et al., 1989; Matthew et al., 2009). Activities conducted using wikis also facilitate contextual learning. Skills students develop by collaborating with peers are directly applicable to professional workplaces (Bokhari & Ahmad, 2011). This includes the ability to work in groups, collaborate with others and use computer programs (Begoña & Carmen, 2011; Bokhari & Ahmad, 2011). New users go through the process of enculturation when using wikis, which also reflects the tenets of situated learning. They begin with passive behaviours, such as observing activity, posting comments and asking questions. Their participation gradually increases, and they become actively involved in the community. Users achieve enculturation when they contribute to discussions, edit content, share resources and develop projects autonomously (Ben-Ari, 2004; Tinto, 2003).
As well as offering learning benefits because of teamwork and authenticity, wikis are advantageous because they provide a learner-centred environment that promotes active student engagement (Koohang & Harman, 2005). Learners use prior knowledge and online information to construct their own understanding (Almala, 2006; Koohang & Harman, 2005). Students also collaborate with peers, and this fosters cooperative knowledge construction (Begoña & Carmen, 2011). In the case of wikis, teachers have a primarily supportive role. They scaffold student learning and facilitate collaboration (Koohang & Harman, 2005). They also encourage students to reflect on their learning, which further develops student understanding and increases information retention (Almala, 2006; Jonassen, 1999).
This section will examine issues with wikis in terms of whether they support distributed cognition, situated education and constructivist learning. It will study each of these theories in sequence and discuss ways in which educators can mitigate potential problems.
Bokhari and Ahmad (2011) reported that online communication is problematic due to the absence of a shared face-to-face location. This results in asynchronous conversation, which can inhibit spontaneous idea sharing (Bokhari & Ahmad, 2011). If students who utilize wikis desire synchronous conversation, they have to schedule a time to communicate (Minocha & Thomas, 2007). This is typically challenging because students who use wikis prefer temporal flexibility. However, Bokhari and Ahmad (2011) note that, with the use of appropriate communication tools like live forums, these effects can be minimized. Minocha and Thomas (2007) also argue that many learners prefer asynchronous discussion because they have more time to reflect on content and control when they participate.
Another problem for distributed cognition is unequal participation among users of wikis (Wheeler et al., 2008). Individuals may choose to participate passively, by observing dialogue, rather than actively contributing content. In this case, they refrain from sharing their knowledge with the group, which inhibits the distribution of information. In this case, although other members will not benefit from their expertise, research shows that passive participants are able to learn from others exclusively through observation, thus contributing to distributed cognition (Wheeler et al., 2008).
The primary issue for wikis regarding contextualized education is the time-consuming process of cognitive apprenticeship (Ben-Ari, 2004). Ideally, for situated learning, a student chooses their desired profession as a child (Ben-Ari, 2004). Through collaboration with a master of a trade, in this case a teacher of wikis, students gradually increase their knowledge (Brown et al., 1989). Typically, this does not occur in the case of e-learning. However, this scenario is rare and primarily theoretical in any context. Also, although wikis do not allow for entirely situated environments, they do support the essential characteristics of contextualized learning by enabling students to participate in an authentic community of practice (Brown et al., 1989).
In addition to distributed cognition and situated learning, wikis inhibit certain characteristics of a constructivist environment. In order for students to produce their own knowledge, they need to be directly engaged in learning activities (Koohang & Harman, 2005). In the case of wikis, some students may refrain from actively participating. They may rely on their peers for information and others’ contributions to group projects (Begoña & Carmen, 2011). This prevents them from constructing their own knowledge. Although this would present a problem, there is a tracking tool embedded in most wikis that enables educators to monitor participation (Begoña & Carmen, 2011). This discourages passive participation and promotes equal contributions to group work.
Wikis have numerous benefits for student learning, particularly because they reflect the principles of distributed cognition, situated education and constructivist learning. Given their advantages, this article suggests that teachers employ wikis. This section provides instructional strategies for using wikis successfully by supporting essential learning theories. It also discusses these tools in terms of distance education programs.
Wikis can be incorporated in face-to-face classrooms, blended environments or distance education programs. To use these tools effectively in any context, teachers should establish the online platform by creating the interface, organizing the content, listing participation criteria and specifying discussion questions (Almala, 2006). They should provide various types of activities that are authentic, contextualized and stimulating (Hung & Der-Thanq, 2001). Educators should also suggest related resources and encourage learners to seek additional information. They should support students throughout the activities by answering questions, giving prompt feedback and scaffolding learning (Almala, 2006). Finally, teachers should encourage students to participate and collaborate, which will help promote the co-construction of knowledge (Wheeler et al., 2008). These teaching strategies will help educators support distributed cognition, situated learning and constructivist education when using wikis.
Wikis and distance education
Learning tools and teaching strategies that reflect the principals of fundamental learning theories are especially necessary for distance education programs. As discussed above, online learning can be inhibited by asynchronous interaction and lack of student engagement (Begoña & Carmen, 2011; Bokhari & Ahmad, 2011). However, by using the teaching methods described, wikis provide an ideal learning environment that supports distributed cognition, situated learning and constructivist education, despite spatial challenges.
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