Using a Wiki to make Group Work Easier (New, Improved “No Markup” Edition)

I have some exceptionally good news: the CITES Wiki service received a major upgrade this semester (Fall 2014). One big change was that Wiki Markup has been done away with.

* This old posting has been updated, to show how to do things without markup. *

When you think “wiki” do you automatically think “Wikipedia”? It wouldn’t be surprising, but the wiki technology has many uses besides the free online encyclopedia. Wikis can assist with collaborative work in the classroom in a number of ways. This post describes one simple use of a wiki in the classroom.

A wiki (like the Wikipedia) is a Webpage that anyone can edit (at least anyone given access), right there, on the Web. U of I faculty can request spaces on the campus Wiki service and have their students given automatic access to the space, just as they can in Illinois Compass.

I’m teaching a course this semester and I’m committed to collaborative learning, so I’m relying heavily on group work, where students are divided into small groups, given a task to complete together, and asked to report their work to the whole class. The wiki is a great tool to take care of the mechanics of group work.

Formatting text is simple, and so is creating child pages. Just put the name of the new page in brackets.

* There are now three ways to create links in the new Wiki service:
Select text and hit the link button. This gives you a dialog box with five tabs:
The Web Link and Advanced tabs allow you to make a link to a page in your Wiki that doesn’t exist yet—and create the new page at the same time. This is the best way to create child pages in your wiki. This way, users will be able to find your content, without sifting through the pile of all the pages you’ve created.
You can also type a square bracket and you’ll get a dropdown menu. Choose Insert Link and you’ll get the same dialog box as above. Or you can also use Control-K or Apple-K. *

editing a page on the wiki, with dates in brackets: 29 August, 5 September, etc.


As you can see in this screenshot, all I had to do was create one page (I called it “dailies” in my wiki) for each class day we use have a group task. (Notice the cheat-sheet along the right, showing the most common tags.)

The hardest thing about working in a wiki is file management, finding the pages you create and making sure you’re not editing someone else’s page. So, the first thing I do after the groups have formed is ask each group to come up with a name. This tends to be more fun than you’d expect. But the basic idea is I don’t want the group pages to be called One, two, and three because it’s so easy to forget what page each group should editing.

editing a page on the wiki, with names of groups in brackets: sloth, group 43, low expectations, tom petty and the.

I’m fortunate to be teaching in a classroom with a computer and projector. Now all I need to do is go the wiki page for today’s date, have the students call out their group names, and type them inside square brackets to create links.

When they’re ready, the students click on the links to their respective groups. This takes them to their own page, and they can start typing.

When it’s time to hear the group’s reports, I open all the wiki pages for the groups, and put each up on the screen as they talk about their results. This way the record of their work is available during class, but also recorded for future uses (ideas for papers or projects, review for exams, etc.)

* You can still create a bunch of links at once with Wiki markup. (But wait! There is no more wiki markup in Confluence 5! Well, sort of.) Click on the Plus-sign button the ruler, and choose Wiki Markup from the menu. In this window you can enter all the old wiki markup, and to make a link, all you need to do is put the name of each new page in square brackets.
So to create a page for each of five student groups, all you’d need to do is type the names, and put brackets around them. *The Plus menu, showing Other Macros is the last item.

As I said, wikis are really simple to learn and to use. The first day we did a group project, I took around five minutes to walk students through entering, editing and formatting on the wiki, and they were off and running. By the second time we used the wiki, after I displayed the first group’s page and took their report, the second group asked me to “refresh.” There was some laughter in the room. Why? Because the students realized that the second group had been rewriting their page as they listened to the first group. I took this as very positive, as it meant that the technology was already transparent, and the students were looking past it at the content.

A variation some of my students discovered: each group member can type individual text in comments at the bottom of their wiki page (there’s a link to “Add Comment” on every page), and then one member can combine these together.

Group tasks in the classroom are a long-standing component of active learning, with plenty of research to support their instructional value. Wikis can help solve some practical difficulties that can potentially limit the power of this technique. It’s win-win for technology and teaching.

You can request a wiki space today!

-Alan Bilansky

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