Wikis Foster Scaffolded Collaboration in an English Language Arts Classroom
When Thomas Friedman, New York Times columnist and expert on world affairs, commented that students today need to be great collaborators in order to succeed in the global economy (2007), he did not mention the wiki.
As a middle school teacher, I share Friedman’s belief. And the wiki, an online writing and publishing program, has been my tool of choice in teaching my students to work with others toward a shared goal. A wiki website has provided my students with the opportunity to create, alter, organize, and share their learning in a manner that would make Friedman proud.
Student Collaboration, Unexpected Growth
I teach seventh grade in one of the more diverse environments in our South Carolina district (38% Caucasian students, 38% African American students, 21% Hispanic students, and 3% other ethnicities). Each year, the number of ELL students grows, and 72% of the students received free or reduced-price meals in 2007-2008.
I put the wiki to work in my Challenge class, which consists of students performing at grade level as well as students who have been identified as gifted in some academic area.
My first wiki project helped prepare students to read Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s Farewell to Manzanar, a memoir about her family’s internment as Japanese Americans during World War II. We had gone on a WebQuest and noticed that while there were many sites that contained information about the internment camp experience, none presented a holistic picture.
That’s when the wiki came into play. We decided to create a virtual “field trip” for others so they could learn more about different aspects of the internment experience from a single Web source. With a wiki, we could provide summary information and relevant images, and link to the best sites on the Web to help our readers gather details.
Students paired up and brainstormed a list of topics we should include. Together, we created a class list of what could be included, grouping these topics into logical headings and subheadings. For example, the “Life in the Camp” section included pages on jobs, medical care and children and teens. Then, within each group, individual students were assigned the subheadings.
The wiki form provided opportunities for student learning and growth in content area knowledge and writing, and also advanced their development as collaborators. Each student was graded on his or her subtopic and also as a contributor to the group’s larger topic. If one member of the group fell short, it impacted everyone’s grade, which gave students an incentive to work together.
For example, Chris demonstrated his deep interest in research through this project. Up until this point, he had been a largely passive participant in class, doing what was required but never showing enthusiasm about his work. He became the chief researcher for his group.
However, he was not as keen on writing. A true collaborative relationship developed. Chris would show his group information on his laptop and explain its importance. Another student would then type some sentences while a third student read over their shoulders and offered suggestions and changes. The end product was truly a collaborative effort.
Had Chris been judged on his individual end results alone, he would have had little beyond notes to show. However, because he was working with a group, he was able to meaningfully contribute. Each member of the group pulled his or her weight, and all were able to offer their expertise.
I began to notice students growing in unexpected ways. Many of my students seemed to find their voices through this writing. For example, Ahmed’s writing had tended to be wooden. But in his wiki on spies during World War II, his readers really get a glimpse of his personality. Through text and pictures he was able to convey his sense of humor as well as his amazement at the gadgets spies had access to during World War II. Encouragement and suggestions from his peers, as well as a real audience, transformed his writing.
Expanding the Scope, Facing Challenges
After the promising results of this project, I decided to expand our scope. We would create a wiki examining real-world contemporary issues, one that looked for possible solutions. I called this the “Quest Project.”
This departure was a much larger challenge for my students, requiring more skill as independent researchers and as collaborators. Small groups of students each developed their own inquiry question, choosing a current problem to research based upon their interests. Topics varied from ending teen smoking to time travel.
Each student within the group approached the topic from a different perspective—historical, social, political, or economic. In the process they learned hard lessons about collaboration. Some students, for instance, changed their questions without informing the rest of the group. This problem came to light when a group researching the overly broad topic of famine in Africa found that its members were each focusing on completely different areas of the continent.
Rather than discussing the issue in order to refocus their searches, they worked at odds with one another, which ultimately resulted in an incomplete project.
On the other hand, some students worked out problems collaboratively that might have stumped them as individuals. For instance, Delmy, an ELL student, struggled with organization. With this in mind, I put her on a team of students who were researching the history of the African American quest for equal rights in the United States. This historical framework, I believed, would help students organize information chronologically.
After gathering information, the group began to falter, trying to come up with logical ways to break their research into smaller chunks. After I met with them, they chose to use a timeline structure to highlight important trends in each selected era. Delmy’s page highlighted slave rebellions, the abolitionist movement, and the attempt to pass laws outlawing slavery between 1800 and 1850.The time frame gave her writing an organizational structure.
One of my strongest writers, Steven, struggled with introductions in nonfiction pieces. Despite his reservations, Steven wrote the introductory page for his group’s work. His peers read the piece and tweaked his initial draft through the wiki tool. The end result was a clearly focused introduction. His passion for the topic came through in his writing.
As illustrated by these examples, I came to see the importance of the social component of learning that Smith and Wilhelm advance in their study of adolescent boys and reading (2002). As my students worked, they talked. If research had been an isolating experience before, it was not any longer.
Students began to understand the benefits of effective collaboration. They the said things like,
“[Collaboration] helped me with social skills and I was able to learn tips from other students on researching.”
“You get to experience other ideas from another point of view.”
“I liked that I got to have social time with my friends, but at the same time I was learning.”
Students were very concerned about their writing, knowing they potentially had a worldwide audience. They turned to one another for advice and support, sharing what they knew with their peers. Collectively they became a network of in-house resources, demonstrating that the knowledge students gain cannot be separated from activity (Brown, Collins, and Duguid 1989).
I have learned that wikis are not a stand-alone solution to teaching students to work in a collaborative manner. However, with the teacher’s support, wikis are a near ideal tool for collaboration. As new groups of students have worked on wiki projects, I have tweaked the assignments based on what I’d learned from previous years. Here is what I have found works best.
In the Manzanar Project I gave my students just two weeks to complete the “field trip.” The following year I expanded the amount of time students had for the project, hoping to get more thoroughly researched and polished results.
We started working on the research component as we were reading the memoir, allowing students to explore areas of interest they were uncovering in literature.
With the additional time, students were able to revise their project, adding more links to their wikis as well as making sure their sources were cited properly. With the use of an online generator, they were able to create accurate MLA citations.
Greater Student Accountability
In an attempt to make this project less teacher driven, I shifted control of their research and writing process to my students. Rather than giving students a set due date for the final project, I created a “contract” for the students with benchmarks. The benchmarks helped the students break the project into manageable portions and also kept them moving toward their end goal.
When they missed benchmark dates, there was no penalty—only the awareness that they were falling behind in their work and might need to spend some time outside class or rethink their approach.
Focused Topic Selection
The Quest Project was minimally successful. I realized part of the problem was a lack of topic focus and my inability to provide adequate scaffolding to so many different research projects. With five groups of students researching five different topics and each student examining each topic from a different perspective, I was unable to offer the type of support in finding appropriate sources and examining perspectives.
Now I have the class choose one issue together. We research this topic as a group, and then small groups each examine the topic from a particular perspective. Having all students in the small group work from the same perspective allows them to help each other learn.
The Benefits Continue
Even in the struggling first Quest Project, students became engaged in their research, so much so that some had trouble moving from research and note-taking to writing the wiki. In each project, students took great pride in finding new information and sharing it with their peers. Emailing each other links became common practice and it was inspiring to see them help one another.
Perhaps what I found most rewarding as an English teacher was that students were now working together to revise their work. Students could accept or reject one another’s changes using the history function on the wiki, and more often than not they gratefully accepted the help of their peers.
My classroom became a more democratic place. Using a wiki, every student was able to participate in both the writing and revision of the work; no longer were the most assertive students the ones whose voices were heard.
Experts emerged in different aspects of the process. One student might be excellent at finding information, which would lead to other students asking for his or her help.
Meanwhile, as a teacher, I was able to fulfill my role as a guide rather than a dispenser of knowledge. I created minilessons that pertained to the work we were doing together, but the bulk of my time was spent alongside students, helping them to interpret information they had found, answering questions, reading drafts with my writers, and participating in a writing workshop environment.
Research Without Walls
Research was not confined to a library or classroom, and working together happened at any time of the day or night. Proximity was no longer an issue, and for students who might live miles from one another this was a novelty. The ringing of a bell no longer dictated our work schedule.
Collaboration Is Here to Stay
Friedman notes, “In the future, how we educate our children may prove to be more important than how much we educate them” (309). Explicitly designed for collaborative writing and easy to use, wikis are one tool that allows us to give our students room to explore and create their own understanding of our world.
Brown, John Seely, Allan Collins, and Paul Duguid. 1989. “Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning.” Educational Researcher 18 (1): 32–42. Retrieved July 1, 2008, from jstor.org.
Friedman, Thomas. 2007. The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. New York: Picador.
Smith, Michael W., and Jeffrey D. Wilhelm. 2002. Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys: Literacy in the Lives of Young Men. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.