In theory, distance learning offers some wonderful advantages, such as increased interactivity for each individual student and the opportunity for each student to take all the time he or she needs to reach a full understanding of the subject. In practice, the lack of in-person contact can lead to isolation between students as instructors steer away from even attempting significant class discussion. Fewer tools have been developed for asynchronous discussion online, and teachers of traditionally discussion-intensive courses can have a hard time translating their classes into an online format. Most courseware has only a forum module, and those may not structurally encourage the students to interact with each other much, for example with “reply” links and threaded displays or notifications. Even with such structures, forums make it easy for students to respond only to the instructor's starting prompt or question rather than expanding on the topic or responding to each other. One potential solution to this issue is to use wikis as the medium for class discussion.
Some instructors have recently tried to fill the discussion tool gap, and take advantage of students' familiarity with strongly interactive social media, by using existing social media platforms such as Facebook or Twitter instead, but this has limitations and pitfalls. First and most basic: students use those to interact socially. The platforms themselves do not connect with course management software, and students may well resist using a social space for class activities. Second, contrary to popular media mythology, not all students are “tech savvy.” They are often end users, familiar only with a few particular tools. Most of them probably know Facebook, but only some will know Twitter. Those who know Twitter may not know how to use Tumblr or G+. Those who know how to use any of these from a smartphone app may not know how to use the browser interface, and many will be very resistant to any sort of change in the tool they are familiar with, the interface, or how they use it. A class discussion can founder on such problems before it even starts. The need for us to teach our students how to use whatever tools we give them is well-established in online learning research, and that's not a step we can skip with social media platforms on the assumption that our students already know how they work. Wikis are actually an especially pointed example of this. All my students have read Wikipedia or a Wikia site, but only a few out of any class have edited a wiki page or will attempt to do so for class without an hour or two of instruction and practice at the beginning.
Despite this need for training, which will be true for any medium, wikis have some potential advantages over forums or microblogging platforms as a class discussion tool. Most students will be familiar with the basic concept of a wiki, largely thanks to Wikipedia, and the nature of a wiki encourages collaboration. A wiki page, something anyone can edit, embeds multiple perspectives in a single document and gives students both permission to alter the discussion's direction and encouragement to integrate their own views with others'.
Again, I must emphasize that this is not something that will happen automatically. A wiki is not a magic wand that will produce collaborative discussion just by being used. The instructor has to provide encouragement and guidance appropriate to the age and experience of the students. Instructors need to give students clear guidelines for how and how much they can edit each other's words. For example, you might remind them to edit form but not meaning; to create lists or new pages but make sure they transfer all content in full; to not revise or erase anyone's contributions but their own; and that disagreement or multiple perspectives are a good thing as long as they are courteous, giving some examples of such courteous disagreement. A clear grading rubric that states how you will assess things such as frequency and sophistication of contributions will also make students more comfortable and likely to participate. Each instructor has to decide, based on the purpose of the class, how to value content edits that advance the discussion—versus structural edits that clarify and organize the discussion—and then communicate those standards clearly. Below, for example, is a possible rubric for a university-level non-major literature course.
|Frequency or volume of contribution
|One or two brief contributions
|One or two substantial contributions or three or four brief ones
|Three or four substantial contributions or five or six brief ones
|Five or six substantial contributions or seven or eight brief ones
|Evidence of analysis and comprehension beyond surface action
|Understands surface action
|Understands individual examples of symbolism or historical significance
|Can link together some individual symbols or historical issues into themes or patterns
|Can demonstrate symbolic or historical themes and patterns with clearly explained examples from the text and presentations
|Integration of different viewpoints into a coherent page
|A few small edits to smooth out grammar or structure
|A handful of edits that significantly improve readability or coherence
|Several edits that make clearer transitions or draw connections between points
|At least a handful of substantial edits that add material by reconciling or adding context to different views to create a more coherent page
Wikis also offer a great deal of flexibility in instructor participation. Research so far is deeply divided on the question of teacher involvement in an online discussion. Some insist that teacher presence is absolutely necessary for motivation and guidance, while others point out that too much involvement is stifling and that all these conclusions are clearly very circumstantial. They all depend on the kind of class and discussion in question. Using a wiki, the instructor has freedom to build many different discussion formats and participation styles, far more so than a forum allows. For an upper-level or highly responsive class, the instructor might “seed” each page with a few starter topics or questions in the same paragraph-style text that the students use and then interject in the same way as the discussion develops. A more tightly structured possibility is to create sections for students to report their results or responses to class material and to create subsections for other students to respond and discuss each other's thoughts. Either could work equally well, as long as the instructor's expectations are clearly explained.
One of the other major advantages of a wiki is that it records each contribution, but only in the background, on the separate History page. This means that shy or anxious students can contribute without it being immediately obvious which words are theirs, while students seeking the instructor's notice can be assured that their contributions are clearly attributed in a place the instructor is sure to check. That too should be emphasized during initial training.
We should also note one of the major drawbacks of using a wiki: there is no built-in notification system to tell you or the students when something has been added. That will require some extra work on the instructor's part, reminding students to make their contributions or check back on the discussion, perhaps mentioning what percent of the class has contributed so far or asking for a second layer of responses. One tactic that can help is to assign specific students to do extra research on a given week or topic and for that session to act as the peer-expert who can start the discussion rolling or make a presentation to give the other students something immediate to respond to. Another approach is to make specific reference in your prompts to more structured parts of that week's assignments.
Wikis demand more forethought and planning as well as closer monitoring than forums, but in return they offer far more flexibility and opportunities for students who might not normally contribute to discussions. I believe the results are worth it, but preparation time and training requirements do have to be taken into consideration. A wiki is an addition to our toolbox, not a one-tool solution, and the decision of what tool to use must always depend on the type of class and the students you find in it.
Emily Ravenwood has taught for eight years as an adjunct instructor in composition and literature at a four-year liberal arts college, which is just beginning to offer online and hybrid courses.