Informal Assessment Series #3 - Collaborative Technologies (Blogs & Wikis)

Blog Screenshot--image credit: Wordpress ThemeViewer As web-based tools (and online courses) become more widespread in the College of Engineering and in universities more generally, so too have technology-driven assessments and course elements.

Two common online tools that have been successfully incorporated into courses are blogs and wikis. (The link for "blogs" will refer you to the IEEE blog "Tech Talk," while the link for "wikis" will refer you to one of the more famous wikis in use, Wikipedia.)

Blogs and wikis are different kinds of web-publishing software that run within internet browsers and allow for easy creation of internet content.

A blog, a shortened form of the term "weblog," or web diary, is a chronologically-arranged series of posts, usually on one theme or topic. The individual posts are usually authored by a single person, and the front-page view is something like a news website - a list of stories, each with a summary and a byline.

A wiki, on the other hand, is more freeform, exhibiting topical links and specific content, somewhat like the inside pages of news stories. Different from the news, though, wikis open editorial control to users, allowing them to collaboratively create, order, and maintain a website.

Blogs, since they are always organized in a reverse-chronology (new posts at the top of the page), have more inherent structure, while wikis can be shaped and re-shaped to fit a community's changing needs.

Blogs, since they are always organized in a reverse-chronology (new posts at the top of the page), have more inherent structure, while wikis can be shaped and re-shaped to fit a community's changing needs.

Both of these tools can be used to keep class participation active in the hours before and after class discussion, as well as for assessment purposes.

David Hatfield, an Educational Psychology doctoral student, is the TA for Introduction to the Learning Sciences (EP 795), a graduate-level Educational Psychology course taught by David Williamson Shaffer. In the course, students use a weekly blogging assignment to prepare for seminar discussions. After students read each week's articles, they post summaries of and questions about the material in a blog post.

"At the simplest level," Hatfield reports, "posting to the course blog provides a quick prompt and record of a student's engagement with the seminar's reading." Blog posts can easily be assessed as part of each student's participation grade, and their content gives students and intructors a good sense of what questions students find interesting.

The blog is not only an assessment tool, however. Hatfield points out that the most important function of the blog posts is academic skill-building: "Blog posts are used to provide students an opportunity to practice professional skills. Students read and share summaries of important readings from our field, while also seeing how their peers do so."

Lillian Tong, of the Center for Biology Education and an instructor in the Delta Program, first created a blog for use in her Delta Instructional Materials Development (IMD) course, co-taught with Statistics professor Rick Nordheim in Spring 2007. Students worked in teams to create and post different elements of their Research Report - a collaborative document that identifies a problem with student learning, motivates the creation of instruction to address that problem, and presents the team's research and solution to the problem.

Tong was pleased with the people-centered nature of the blog, compared to the discussion forums used previously - she notes that "I thought people would be more engaged with a blog (as opposed to discussion forums), and, in fact, they were. They seemed to spontaneously introduce themselves, and posted more communication about themselves."

At the same time, though, Tong points out that the blog's structure was less useful for students because throughout the semester they were meant to be collaboratively writing and revising sections of a document. "Having the most recent post on top made the Research Report difficult to read as a growing report," Tong says.

In the most recent iteration of the IMD course, Tong, working with Professor Robert Jeanne (Entomology and Intro Bio 151-152), tried a wiki format, hoping for a more flexible workspace for students.

Wiki Screenshot--image credit: Wikipedia "I really liked how the students took ownership of the wiki," Tong reports, "Each team was able to use a different kind of structure and organization, and they all created something that worked. When a student would find a resource for the class, they'd put it on the wiki in a place that made sense to them. The wiki promoted their ownership of the class content."

And, at the IMD course's conclusion, the wiki provided both a useful presentation medium for teams and an assessment tool for participation. "The teams presented their reports using the wiki... and I could see all of the changes that they made to their different sections," Tong says.

In EP 795, which is organized by a chronological series of topics, Hatfield points out that the class blog serves a similar function - giving students more ownership of the discussion by creating openings for topics of their interest. "Blog posts, and the comments students make on peers' postings, play a role in adding to the seminar agenda. They provide an additional channel for raising questions to be discussed."

One of the central points in adopting any technology, Tong notes, is for an instructor to think about the role that it will take in the course. How will students be using the technology? What will motivate them to use it actively, week-to-week?

"I've used many different technologies in different classes," Tong says, "and I'm beginning to get a feel for when you use a blog or a wiki or a forum. If you have a specific question, then you use a forum because people don't need to feel ownership there, they can just respond to the one question."

For more complex projects, Tong suggests a few differences between blogs and wikis, key considerations for an instructor designing technology for a course:

"A wiki is good when you want people to generate some of the content for a course and feel ownership in the course and the project. Students can find a structure in the wiki that makes sense and works for them, and they can write together, collaboratively. Blogs are different, much more individual and reflective. Blog posts are moments in time, you capture one moment for one person and then move to the next - they are very good for catching people up on content, or if you want students to write a public diary of their thinking."

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For more information about the ideas in this article:

Riley, D., et. al. (2006). Learning/Assessment: A tool for assessing liberative pedagogies in engineering education. Paper presented at the ASEE conference, Chicago, IL. (Paper is available online here.)

The authors examine the introduction of liberative, student-centered pedagogies to Engineering classrooms. One of the key pedagogies discussed is an individual blog, developed over the course of a thermodynamics class, in which students reflect on the learning that they do within the course, "connecting classroom content with personal experience." This piece is interesting because it brings the idea of narrative, and students' experiences with and reflection on thermo content, into the classroom and course assessments.