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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive The Wiki Way: Improving Your Class Notes Using the Internet for Online Student Collaboration


Wiki technology presents an enormous opportunity for creating a dynamic and collaborative set of class notes on the Internet. Students benefit from wiki notes because it allows them to prioritize their learning by highlighting class material that they deem important. Stellar students benefit from the teaching moments of sharing information, while struggling students benefit by receiving supplemented materials. In addition, the learning environment is extended beyond the confines of the classroom. Instructors benefit from wiki notes because they can assess the ability of students to assimilate information based on their contributions. Each student can be given a unique identification, so instructors can assess who presented the particular piece of information. Dynamic feedback is created through editing of students' notes. This also appeals to the instructor's role as facilitator because the instructor becomes a fellow editor of a common pool of information. Here I will explain what Web 2.0 is and what is a wiki using Wetpaint as an example. I will also provide resources for implementation of wiki notes. In addition, I will assess a case study of class notes from one of my classes. Finally, I will examine the benefits and challenges of using wiki class notes.

What is Web 2.0 and What is a Wiki?

Web 2.0
To put it simply, Web 2.0 typically refers to web sites that encourage participation and facilitate user-generated content. Web sites become platforms and springboards for collaboration. The term was popularized by O'Reilly Media at a Web 2.0 conference in 2004. Examples of Web 2.0 include anything from text-based sites like blogs, to photo-based sites like www.photobucket.com , to video-based media sites like www.youtube.com , to social-networking sites like www.myspace.com and www.facebook.com , to web sites about web sites like www.digg.com (which allows users to link and rate news stories) or social bookmarking sites like del.icio.us (which allows users to share discoveries of their favorite and useful web sites), to virtual reality sites like www.secondlife.com (where users create alter egos). Essentially, any web site that encourages users to participate by adding or editing content is using a Web 2.0 model. In my own experience, these sorts of sites can be both useful and addictive. Colleges and universities have begun to tap into the riches and dangers of web technology with www.blackboard.com and www.ecollege.com , but if we want to stay abreast of current trends and useful tools, the apt instructor will find herself or himself venturing beyond the digital boundaries of these applications. One such tool that can be useful is the wiki web site.

Wiki
"Wiki" is a Hawaiian word for "fast." A "wiki" is a web site designed for visitors to quickly and easily collaborate by editing, adding, and removing content. In 1995, Ward Cunningham created the first wiki, www.wikiwikiweb.com . However, the most popularly known and infamous wiki is Wikipedia, the user-created virtual encyclopedia. Wikipedia reflects some of the current values of our up-and-coming students. These students are technology orientated and savvy. They gravitate toward easily obtained information, which is just a few keystrokes away. They decreasingly see their instructors as authorities and guardians of information because of the competing authorities found on the web, they lack critical thinking and discernment skills to weed out good and bad information, and they are attracted to collaboration. > Rather than rejecting these technological advancements, we need to teach our students to handle these resources critically. Wikis offer unique benefits and opportunities to educators.

The Wiki Way: Example of Wetpaint

Creation
The first step is to choose a site to host your wiki. For this case study, my choice was to use Wetpaint ( www.wetpaint.com ) because it is free, has a wide range of features, and is easy to use. Most importantly, the instructor determines who can add content to the web site. The most basic content that can be added is text, so a contributor can create a basic document. The toolbar gives commands equivalent to what is found in many word-processing programs, including the use of bullet points, tables, and spell check. (You do not need to know any programming language to use the site.) The web site has multimedia capabilities, so contributors can add hyperlinks, pictures, and other graphics from their computer or from web sites such as Photobucket, or videos from sites such as YouTube. Once saved, the web site is instantly updated!

Monitor Activity
An instructor can easily monitor the changes made on a webpage using the "History" page. By clicking on a web page's history, the instructor can see the precise number of words added or removed by a particular student. Various versions of the web page can also be compared. One of the foundational principles of a wiki is that it should be twice as easy to fix a mistake as it is to make a mistake. Thus, every page keeps a page history, which allows a user to always revert to a previous version of the web site with a simple mouse click! In addition, the instructor can monitor the specific contributions of each student, by clicking on the name and viewing his or her profile.

Features to Consider

Although Wetpaint is my top choice for free wikis, here are some of the most important features that are important to consider when choosing a wiki:

 • Cost: What is your budget and what is the cost?

 • Multiple pages: Make sure you get a wiki that is capable of handling multiple pages and has an easy navigation bar.

 • Editing: Look for a wiki that is easy to edit. Use a site (like Wetpaint) that uses WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) editing; avoid wikis that require any knowledge of html or other programming codes. Also, make sure the site can monitor the history of changes.

 • Users: Find a site that fits the number of students in you class and allows you to identify users (this usually requires registration). Also, be sure to have the ability to control who adds information to your site.

 • Content: Is the site capable of adding links to other web sites? Can the site add pictures or video? What organizational features does it have (e.g., bullet points or tables)? Will students be able to transfer notes from their computer's word processor?

 • Compatibility with Macs: Be sure to use a site that allows Mac users equal access.


Case Study: Romans-Galatians Wiki Notes

The Assignment
I used Wetpaint to create a collaborative set of class notes for my Romans-Galatians class ( http://carltoney.wetpaint.com ). This common set of class notes was the basis for my midterm and final examinations. Students were offered extra credit to create the class notes. Each student was required to post the class notes for a particular class session, and each student had to edit and add to the class notes of another student. Participants were typically given two weeks from the original day of class to complete the notes. They usually had one additional week to edit notes posted. In addition, I also kept track of the notes and edited content. In order to keep track of contributions, each student was assigned a unique user identification.

Evaluation and Future Implementation
Overall, I found the experiment to be a success. Students expressed a great appreciation for having a collected set of organized and typed notes. It also helped fill in the gaps in students' notes and helped for students who needed to miss class. It also created a challenge because I had to be sure that false information was not being perpetuated in the class notes.

Students felt more prepared for exams because the collected notes took away a degree of uncertainty. I also found it easier to prepare the exams because I knew exactly what information to which I could hold students accountable. However, it required a bit more creativity in creating questions, so that students were not simply memorizing outlines. It was a challenge to cultivate the attitude that the notes were a springboard for understanding the course content.

I discovered that allowing two weeks to post and edit the notes was too great a lag time because I found the quality of the notes diminished. Many students procrastinated, so that by the time they posted the notes, the information was not fresh on their minds. This lack of freshness also created difficulty for those students who had to edit those notes. Further, the specific lecture was no longer fresh on my mind, so it was hard to remember the specific details myself! Thus, I would give less lag time, such as one to three days between the class and when the notes needed to be posted and edited.

The quality of the notes could also be improved. Because I had only two students working on a day's notes, some days the notes suffered because of the poor note-taking skills of one or both the students. I had to make up these short-comings with my own contributions. In the future, I would also require more students to edit and contribute to each day's notes to help offset problematic students. In addition, some students had a tendency to contribute the bare minimum, so at times the notes would be a bit sparse. So in the future, I would also place a minimum word contribution requirement, such as a 500 word minimum for the primary contributor and a 50-100 word minimum for the secondary editors.

Finally, because I found that taking good-quality notes can be a great deal of work (for both myself and the students), I would make these class notes part of the students' regularly assigned and graded work and would grade them like a paper (e.g., checking spelling, punctuation, and grammar).

Benefits

There are many benefits to using wiki notes for both students and instructors. One of the greatest benefits of wiki notes for students is that note taking becomes a corporate responsibility. This can take pressure off of individual students to be mere transcribers of information in the classroom setting because they might "miss something." It can also encourage active learning through discussion and reflection upon the material presented in class.

Wiki notes can help students develop the skills of note taking. In my experience, many students lack the basic skills of prioritizing information and identifying both key words and concepts. Students' notes tend to either be too full by transcribing every detail of class or too bare by cherry picking ideas from class or merely writing down only what appears on a PowerPoint slide or whiteboard. The public forum of notes allows students to compare their notes with others. The maximalist will be edited down by the minimalist, and the minimalist will be expanded by having information contributed by the maximalist.

Further, in a typical note taking scenario, students usually look at their notes a second time only prior to taking their examinations. By requiring the contributing and editing of online notes, students will engage with their notes several times before their examinations, helping students retain what is gained in classroom instruction—and the often missed steps of synthesis and reflection will potentially occur. Synthesis may occur when students attempt to evaluate which portions of their own notes are worthy of being contributed to the collective notes. Synthesis also occurs when students attempt to fit their notes and ideas into the notes and ideas of others. Reflection also occurs in this process because the students revisit their notes after class. If the students use the blog feature of the wiki, then students could also post comments about how the material is applicable to other facets of life.

Online notes extend the learning experience outside the classroom because the students join a learning community each time they interact with the wiki. It fosters an environment of co-learning as students make meaningful contributions that will aid themselves and other students in their education, helping students take ownership of their learning. All of this is done in a medium that is familiar and comfortable for students.

For instructors, wiki notes can provide measurable feedback about what is being communicated and learned by students. Using the "History" feature, an instructor can actually see what work a student contributes to the site. This allows the instructor to quantifiably evaluate individual students. Minimum word contributions through additions and editing can provide specific measurable criteria for grading. Instructors can also pinpoint which students are taking notes well and which students need help, and instructors can help, possibly by pairing-up such students.

An instructor may learn ways to improve his or her own teaching. An instructor may learn how organized or unorganized material is presented in class. He or she may also learn if important information, such as key concepts, is being sufficiently highlighted and conveyed in class. Because an instructor is a fellow editor, she or he can also make up for any insufficiencies by helping to reorganize notes or to highlight key concepts. Thus, the instructor gets the opportunity for a second or third pass at teaching the same material to students. Instructors can even provide additional commentary to the notes using the blog feature of the wiki.

Challenges

While there are many benefits to wiki notes, there can also be some challenges. Using wiki notes encourages students to bring their computers to class, which may bring distractions like games or the Internet. I also find that students on computers tend to be slower to engage in dialogue than other students. One solution is to limit computer use to only those students who are assigned to contribute to that day's content, while other students are encouraged to take handwritten notes.

Wiki notes can also prey on the student vices of passivity and laziness. If some students are not careful, in their effort to create class notes responsibly, they can become more of passive scribes than active participants. Other students may become lazy when they realize that they are not responsible for every day's class notes. This is especially true for students taking the class merely for the grade. Some students may not see the importance of attending class if they can access the information online. Part of the solution is to move students away from seeing the goal of the class as obtaining facts and information; instead, they need to view class as a chance to develop skills. Instructors need to be mindful of what makes the classroom different from other learning activities by creating classes that provide transformative experiences and teach skills alongside ideas. Another solution may be to require students to take a more limited set of notes in every class, even if they are not the primary contributors to the wiki for that day.

Another challenge can be to ensure the quality of the wiki notes, since poor note takers can diminish the quality of the notes. However, the collective nature of the note-taking enterprise can help offset these shortcomings. In addition, not everything an instructor deems as important will make it into the notes, but as a fellow contributor, an instructor can supplement the notes in these cases. This requires a degree of finesse from the instructor because students should not become dependent upon the expertise of the instructor for the quality of the notes. At times, it is important to allow students to have control over the notes, so that they take responsibility for them. At other times, material may be too important to pass over.

There is also a format limitation. The wiki is limited in style to outlines, basic charts, or possibly even Cornell notes, and formal guidelines should be given for the sake of consistency. This can be difficult for students who use other styles of note taking. Part of the solution is to encourage students of different styles to maintain their own style in the personal notes while stretching themselves in the collective notes. It can be helpful to establish the criteria for the format, so that students know what the class notes should look like. This could include giving a lecture about taking class notes and/or providing samples.

It can be harder to implement evaluation of individual student's work (e.g., analysis of readings and classroom teaching) when collective notes are used. Students can become overly dependent upon others for producing quality notes. Also, these notes work best the first time round and may encourage plagiarism, especially for future classes. Part of this solution is to emphasize the skill set being taught rather than focusing on the information. In addition, the "History" portion also helps with being able to evaluate individuals. Some wikis can also be restricted in their access to other users, so that non-class members cannot access the information.

With wiki notes, instructors are faced with the challenge of the technology gap. A wiki can be one more program to master, and in the rapidly changing world, new tools will quickly outpace this tool. The good news is that certain wikis are relatively easy to use, having interfaces similar to word-processing programs. If the task still seems too daunting, another solution is to have a TA create and monitor the site.

More problematic may be that this can create more work for the instructor (as well as the students). By extending the class outside the walls of the classroom, an instructor also gets drawn outside the four walls of a building. This may involve making choices of where and how class preparation time is being spent as well as where and how grading time is spent. So a final consideration for the use of the wiki may be a time-management decision.

Other Uses of a Wiki

After using the wiki for class notes, I realized that there were other exciting possibilities for using a wiki, and I just want to take a brief moment to highlight using wikis for class projects and papers. Class papers might be improved by putting them on a wiki because students can incorporate pictures, videos, and links to other web sites. Of course, caution needs to be taken on the quality of information being referenced. In fact, students can write traditional research papers using the non-traditional platform of a wiki. While footnotes cannot be used, students can still write research papers by documenting research using parenthetical citations. The web design can also create an "entertainment" element for the project. Value can be gained because the student's work may be published immediately on the web. The blogging feature allows the student to receive feedback from others. This technology could be especially helpful for group projects because an instructor can see exactly what each student contributes to the project by looking at the "History" page. This would help overcome the problem of stellar students doing the work for slacker students.

Conclusion

This overview of wikis shows an exciting new medium for doing tradition facets of the classroom, such as class notes (and possibly group projects), in a non-traditional fashion. Wiki notes allow for collective learning to occur outside the classroom. Students learn team dynamics by working together for a common goal. They will also improve the content of their class notes as well as developing the skill of note taking. Instructors are given a tool for tangibly evaluating students' contributions and ability to assimilate information. Further, as a fellow editor, the instructor can take on the role of facilitator and give dynamic feedback to students. 

Carl N. Toney, Biola University

Citation: Carl N. Toney, " The Wiki Way: Improving Your Class Notes Using the Internet for Online Student Collaboration," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Feb 2008]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=755

 
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