Using a Wiki in an Undergraduate Class
Every fall I teach an undergraduate course in Food Chemistry to about fifty students, mainly juniors in Food Science. Three hours of lecture, three hours of lab, exams, homework, reports, C-minimum to graduate. Food Chemistry is taught in relatively few universities so there is no real commercial pressure to produce a student-friendly textbook and instead I depend an interactive lecture as my main method to deliver the information they need.
Students seem happy enough about this approach (perhaps only because I don’t ask them to by a hundred dollars’ worth of books) provided they can have a copy of my PowerPoint slides in advance. I hate this. My slides provide a rough map of my class rather than a detailed list of the points (however powerful) I need them to know. Indeed I am suspicious of isolated facts in the context of science education; without a framework, learning facts is like learning poetry in a language you don’t know. I try to frame most of my lectures as series of thought experiments that try to engage the class in a series of linked “why” and “what next” questions. I need them to be engaged in thinking about the argument I am trying to build rather than trying to write down every word I say. Consequently many students, poorly trained in note taking to begin with, end up with a minimal written record from my lecture, no textbook, and nothing to study for before the exams.
Last semester I experimented with a private class Wiki as a way of allowing students to collaborate in note taking. I used a fairly simple, linear structure with one page per lecture. I added a skeleton of six or seven top-level headings for each class and allowed students to add whatever they wanted. Students could choose to be anonymous to their peers but I needed to know who they were so I could award a small amount of extra credit for participation. I did my best to edit as the material developed but I had a disclaimer that I couldn’t guarantee the material was ever “correct”. A few observations on the results:
- The Wiki program selected (Wikispaces.com) was very intuitive and no one requested assistance in using it. However, only about 20% of the class ever made an edit to the Wiki and I depended on 3-4 students for most of the work. This seems consistent with the typical contributor:lurker ratio in most online communities.
- Even the students who didn’t contribute found the Wiki helpful. In a mid-semester survey (~50% response rate) 100% of the respondents saw some or a lot of value to the Wiki and wanted to see it continue. In the end-of-semester course evaluation many students identified the Wiki as a highlight of the course.
- Students spontaneously used the discussion feature for questions and answers. I did most of the answering but the public nature of the process had a general benefit. Students rarely edited one another’s contributions.
- The structure I created remained intact as the Wiki evolved and there was little effort to generate links between topics. This was clearly a class Wiki, focused and shaped by the form and content of my lectures. It had value to students taking the class but probably not to a wider audience.
- The document produced served as a robust set of notes for my class and was better than an individual student could have created. There were some mistakes but the final quality was remarkably good. I was confident a student could use the Wiki during exam preparation.
I was pleased with the results and I would recommend a Wiki to other instructors working without an appropriate textbook. I suspect without a higher participation rate you would need a minimum of 50 students to maintain momentum. I will use a similar approach in the future and I will probably begin again from scratch as I think the process of generating the Wiki has value to the students who participate. Indeed I will use stronger incentives to encourage all students to get actively involved in writing and in particular editing.