Wiki Project Problems

I have students create wikis for my English classes. With the new focus on teamwork in the Core Objectives for the Texas Core Curriculum coming in Fall 2014, I probably will continue wiki projects. In theory, they would look something like this:

Creative Commons license from Scott Maxwell
(click for Flickr link)

In practice, sometimes they go okay, and sometimes they go terribly. I’m still searching for smoothly.

In one course, I started the site and students joined as members. They built out the wiki, Nine Great Novels, with lesson plans for the nine novels we were covering. The final product has some amazing content — some of our pages are even on the first page of Google hits for lesson plans on that book — but the navigation is cumbersome, as each student created several pages. The course was both face-to-face and very small, which helped, and students received a group grade for part of the task and an individual grade for the rest. Thanks to the way Wikispaces is set up, I could see exactly who did what work.

I fear that I may have to move to this model with my ENGL3043 class, which is three times as large.

In the past 3 semesters I have taught online versions of this course, and the final project has been a collaborative service-learning wiki. Two times, groups were created randomly by the course management system (my university uses Moodle), and I added and shifted members as students dropped the course. Students who went quiet and stopped logging in for more than a month were put in the same wiki group. Each group submitted a contract specifying who would do what. Inevitably, two students would do the majority of the labor while the other one or two members failed to attend meetings or reply to tweets / e-mails. The assignment included a detailed “kick-out clause,” and at least one group invoked it each semester.

The main problem, therefore, was online collaboration. Is this just part of the task, the frustration of less-than-enthusiastic team members?

This summer, I tried another tactic. Students would create individual public wikis and then be assigned to edit and add to a classmate’s site, just like they can on Wikipedia. The first problem came when we realized that Wikispaces required a $1 fee to create public wikis; students had to add me and a fellow student as members in order to complete the project. Once again, partners were assigned, this time in order of submission of the assignment — the first two students to turn in their sites were paired, and so on. After a week of reminders, some students still hadn’t added their assigned partner to the wiki, and several students were frustrated, panicking over their grades, and unable to complete their work. I ended up putting together an alternate wiki for students to edit.

The main problem, therefore, was online collaboration.

Maybe it would be more accurate to say the problem is collaboration, period, for college students taking full course loads and working more than 40 hours per week. Even when I taught this class in a traditional setting, students complained about group members not pulling their weight, and the “kick-out clause” was used.

Maybe I’m missing something very basic / crucial / obvious about team projects. I’m still planning to assign a major wiki next term, although this time it will be ONE site that all students must join and build out. That way, the content will be there, ready to revise. We’re also meeting face to face in a computer classroom; students can sit down at a machine while talking to a classmate.

Problems solved or at least cut down to a murmur? I hope so.

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