Journal of Nursing Education

Educational Innovation 

Using Wikis to Stimulate Collaborative Learning in Two Online Health Sciences Courses

Hilde Zitzelsberger, PhD, RN; Karen A. Campbell, BScN, RN; Dorothea Service, MN, RN; Otto Sanchez, PhD

Abstract

Background:

The use of wiki technology fits well in courses that encourage constructive knowledge building and social learning by a community of learners. Pedagogically, wikis have attracted interest in higher education environments because they facilitate the collaborative processes required for developing student group assignments.

Method:

This article describes a pilot project to assess the implementation of wikis in two online small- and mid-sized elective courses comprising nursing students in third- or fourth-year undergraduate levels within interdisciplinary health sciences courses.

Results:

The need exists to further develop the pedagogical use of wiki environments before they can be expected to support collaboration among undergraduate nursing students.

Conclusion:

Adapting wiki implementation to suitable well-matched courses will make adaptation of wikis into nursing curricula more effective and may increase the chances that nursing students will hone the collaborative abilities that are essential in their future professional roles in communities of practice. [J Nurs Educ. 2015;54(6):352–355.]

Dr. Zitzelsberger is Assistant Professor, Ms. Campbell is Sessional Instructor, Ms. Service is Sessional Lecturer, and Dr. Sanchez is Professor, University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Oshawa, Ontario, Canada.

The authors have disclosed no potential conflicts of interest, financial or otherwise.

Address correspondence to Hilde Zitzelsberger, PhD, RN, Assistant Professor, University of Ontario Institute of Technology, 2000 Simcoe Street North, Oshawa, Ontario, L1H 7K4 Canada; e-mail: hilde.zitzelsberger@uoit.ca.

Received: August 25, 2014
Accepted: January 21, 2015

Abstract

Background:

The use of wiki technology fits well in courses that encourage constructive knowledge building and social learning by a community of learners. Pedagogically, wikis have attracted interest in higher education environments because they facilitate the collaborative processes required for developing student group assignments.

Method:

This article describes a pilot project to assess the implementation of wikis in two online small- and mid-sized elective courses comprising nursing students in third- or fourth-year undergraduate levels within interdisciplinary health sciences courses.

Results:

The need exists to further develop the pedagogical use of wiki environments before they can be expected to support collaboration among undergraduate nursing students.

Conclusion:

Adapting wiki implementation to suitable well-matched courses will make adaptation of wikis into nursing curricula more effective and may increase the chances that nursing students will hone the collaborative abilities that are essential in their future professional roles in communities of practice. [J Nurs Educ. 2015;54(6):352–355.]

Dr. Zitzelsberger is Assistant Professor, Ms. Campbell is Sessional Instructor, Ms. Service is Sessional Lecturer, and Dr. Sanchez is Professor, University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Oshawa, Ontario, Canada.

The authors have disclosed no potential conflicts of interest, financial or otherwise.

Address correspondence to Hilde Zitzelsberger, PhD, RN, Assistant Professor, University of Ontario Institute of Technology, 2000 Simcoe Street North, Oshawa, Ontario, L1H 7K4 Canada; e-mail: hilde.zitzelsberger@uoit.ca.

Received: August 25, 2014
Accepted: January 21, 2015

Wiki technology was introduced in the 1990s and slowly has been adopted in higher education to the point that it now is embedded as a tool in many learning management systems. Rasmussen, Lewis, and White (2013) recognized that a potential advantage of wiki technology is that students can collaboratively construct knowledge within learning communities in which they are engaged and provide peer-to-peer feedback. The online and mobile availability of wikis eliminates barriers for these interactions to occur. This technology fits well in courses that encourage collaborative and constructive knowledge building and social learning—a pattern that students are likely to carry into their postgraduate careers of lifelong learning (Carroll, Diaz, Meiklejohn, Newcomb, & Adkins, 2013). This article describes a pilot project of wiki implementation in two online small- and mid-sized health sciences elective courses and the authors’ perspectives of the effectiveness of wiki technology to enhance collaborative group assignments.

Pedagogically, wikis have attracted interest in higher education environments, as they greatly facilitate longitudinal interactions during the collaborative process required for developing student group assignments. The popularity of student group assignments is based on an ambitious list of elements to be evaluated that pertain to the group’s ability to use appropriate resources to synthesize and integrate knowledge into an organized and articulated document, while maintaining a collaborative, egalitarian, and productive team throughout the process. As useful as these assignments are, potential inherent drawbacks include (a) evaluation solely based on the final product, rather than on the build-up of a group process; (b) restricted identification of contributions by individual group members; (c) problematic assessment of appropriate use of resources; (d) interrater reliability heavily dependent on the strength of the rubric; and (e) increased end-of-term workload for markers faced with monotonous evaluation.

Wiki-facilitated group writing allows for the evaluation of elements inherent to experiential and problem-based learning. Experiential learning theory supports the collaborative nature of group work as a stepping stone toward workplace goal-oriented team work, which is an essential skill for nurses (Yardley, Teunissen, & Dornan, 2012). Similarly, problem-based learning encourages collaborative and constructive experiences as pillars in higher education (Dolmans, De Grave, Wolfhagen, & van der Vleuten, 2005). From the authors’ perspective, other benefits of embedding wiki technology potentially include (a) changing student perspectives regarding assignment completion and evaluation from final product assessment into group process assessment; (b) rewarding students who are good time managers and enjoy leading and facilitating group work; (c) allowing assessment of individual contributions in group work; and (d) stimulating task-defined online interdisciplinary work as a lifelong skill. Finally, wikis facilitate the role of course professors, who are able to now provide timely feedback and proactively intervene during multistep group work processes that precede completion of the assignments (Rasmussen et al., 2013).

Nurse educators have started to use wikis as innovative tools to facilitate students’ collaborative creation and resource sharing. For instance, Martin (2012) used Google-based wikis in a small graduate nursing course in which students first worked in a group assignment that eventually became available to the other course members. From the student perspective, the use of wikis was perceived as a positive experience overall. Among the challenging aspects of using this technology, Martin highlighted a need for a solid and thorough introduction to wikis for students to abrogate any resistance to adoption, followed by technical support for any issues faced by students. Similarly, Collier (2010) used wikis with small group assignments in graduate epidemiology and undergraduate community health nursing courses and received positive student feedback.

Implementation of Wikis in Two Online Small- and Mid-Sized Health Sciences Courses

The pilot project focused on the implementation of wikis in two online courses comprising nursing students in the third- or fourth-year undergraduate level within interdisciplinary health sciences courses. The authors informally tested and compared the wiki tools available in the institutional Blackboard Learn learning management system against other wiki platforms. The Blackboard wiki tool was used because it offered an integrated and familiar environment for course professors, teaching assistants, and students, and it could be easily extrapolated to other courses taught by the authors.

During the fall of 2013, wikis were implemented in an elective advanced pathophysiology course with an enrollment of 18 students. Five self-appointed groups, each with three or four students, developed a case study–based assignment with milestones, which was worth 40% of the final mark. Student groups freely chose how and when they would use their wiki to complete the assignment steps. Some direction about wiki use was provided through a PowerPoint® resource focused on technological instruction. For this assignment, after the students selected a clinical case study of their preference, they collaboratively summarized and discussed the case. Following this step, student groups then selected and critiqued a relevant journal article, found and appraised case-appropriate Web sites, and performed final pathophysiology clinical correlations. Each step was evaluated and marked by the course professor as the students progressed in the process.

During the winter of 2014, wikis formed the basis for student group projects in an elective women’s health course, with an enrollment of 84 students. Although the goals of wiki implementation were similar to those of the advanced pathophysiology course, a greater level of student support was incorporated. This included a project developer solely dedicated to supporting the wiki assignment design and providing assistance to students; “Wikitips,” a resource available in a wiki format; and two optional, synchronous Adobe Connect® online sessions that provided live demonstrations of the use of wikis. In addition, early in the term, two weekly modules presenting course content in wikis served as examples and introduced students to a wiki environment.

In the women’s health course, students engaged in a two-phased group wiki project that was worth 40% of their final grade. Phase one of the group project involved the online creation of 15 self-appointed groups, each composed of five to six students. At this point, students were expected to determine a group topic relevant to women’s health, develop a group contract, and outline the content of their project. The final phase of the project included the completed group wiki that was made available for all students in the course to view online.

Discussion of Experiences

The implementation of wikis for group assignments in the two courses provided some clear advantages for instructors and students. Instructors noted that the use of the wikis allowed for (a) feedback to be provided within the wikis prior to the due dates because the wiki documents were available online as they were drafted and edited; (b) quantification and identification of the value of individual student contributions by comparing different versions of the documents; (c) clarification of the time line progression of the group toward the final paper or project; and (d) early observation and intervention into group dynamics because collaboration was visible in the wiki. General student feedback indicated that the use of wikis enhanced the ease of student collaborations through the online availability of the assignment drafts, the ability to work synchronously or asynchronously, and clarification of each student’s contributions to the wiki through time stamping. Disadvantages included an unattractive user interface, with challenges in formatting, the lack of mobile smartphone wiki access, and the absence of an alert function that would notify group members when additions or changes were posted in the wiki.

Meaningful and productive interactions occurred among most student groups; however, some students faced challenges. The university is committed to a technologically enriched learning environment, where educational technologies are implemented in all courses and programs. As such, most of the students are comfortable using multiple learning technologies and quickly develop competence in doing so. However, prior to the two courses, only a small number of students had collaborated within a wiki. A few students in both courses expressed frustration about using an unfamiliar technology. Significantly, group participation, coupled with a transparent construction process, created barriers. Clearly, uneven and inequitable contributions among group members detracted from the overall group success. Some students were apprehensive when initiating assignment work when it entailed that he or she would be the first student working alone within the wiki. Another salient, and somewhat surprising, observation was the degree of resistance among students in either undertaking or accepting the editing or modifying of their own or their peers’ work. Our most obvious observation was the heterogeneity in the use of wikis among student groups. On one end, a few groups embraced the wiki environment and, through self-learning, positively and collaboratively created their assignments, whereas at the other end, some groups preferred to work outside of the wiki environment and submitted their final assignment only through the wiki tool.

A key insight gleaned from the pilot project is the fundamental need to invest in the process of creating an effective wiki learning environment to facilitate meaningful and educational student experiences. Jones (2011) highlighted the critical importance of attending to four key elements to ensure positive and productive collaborative experiences for wiki-based student group work. These elements include (a) student involvement with course content, (b) student–instructor interactions, (c) student–student interactions, and (d) student–technology interactions. In this pilot project, the authors paid significant attention to student–content involvement and student–technological interactions in both courses and to student–instructor interactions within the women’s health course. Supporting student–student interactions was the most challenging aspect, as collaboration in a wiki environment is visible and traceable, and students may require significant support to develop strong and confident collaborative skills. Yet, student–student interactions arguably are the crucially indispensable element to ensure that collaborative learning and knowledge building can transpire. As educators committed to developing future nursing professionals with strong professional collaborative skills, the authors believe student–student interactions must be more carefully and realistically considered. Simply providing a wiki environment and expecting successful and productive student–student interactions may be asking too much from students without a strategic implementation of this technology as a promising long-term working tool for collaborative projects. These barriers may be further enhanced by the discomfort and inexperience of faculty who have yet to model online collaborations in their daily activities within wiki environments but expect this from their students.

The experiences described in this article coincide with those summarized by Rasmussen et al. (2013), who emphasized the need for a solid, well-planned setup of the wiki platform, with clear instructions to the students. In addition, overcoming concerns around work ownership, peer-to-peer feedback, and exposure of individual draft work becomes a priority for ease of acceptance of wiki technology. Although collaborative group writing within a wiki environment closely mimics “community of practice” settings that nursing students will face as future health professionals, it also brings a novel element of peer-to-peer feedback with which many undergraduate students may be uncomfortable or inexperienced. Enabling students to give and receive peer feedback appropriately may require well thought-out training and guidelines (Lin & Yang, 2011).

From the instructor perspective, wikis may be perceived as time consuming because the inherent transparency of the constructive process requires close monitoring of various document versions, feedback of individual and collective contributions, and multiple student–student interactions and instructor–student interactions (Jones, 2011; Kear, Woodthorpe, Robertson, & Hutchison, 2010).

Reflecting on the experiences of this pilot project, the authors envision the curricular implementation of wikis as a progressive process in which this technology is embedded into courses that will benefit and reward collaborative and constructive learning outcomes. This has already been incorporated in at least one interdisciplinary undergraduate setting (Stephens, Robinson, & McGrath, 2013). The introduction of wikis into early-level nursing courses focused specifically on collaborative skill-building, with the intent of gradual intensification as students progress to advanced level courses, may be productive. Furthermore, the impetus toward interprofessional communication in contemporary health care education and practice environments strongly lends to the rationale of employing robust tools, such as wikis, within undergraduate nursing education. Technologically enabled collaboration integral to wikis may be ideal for modeling and training effective interprofessional communication within interdisciplinary courses focused on inter-professional health care teams.

Stemming from what was learned in the pilot project, the authors propose that a thoughtful and systematic approach to wiki implementation, such as the STOLEN (Specific, Timeline, Ownership, Localized, Engagement, Navigation) approach suggested by Foord (2007), be adopted. The STOLEN approach can be easily adapted to justify the use of wikis within specific nursing and interprofessional courses by (a) ensuring specific aims that match wiki use with course learning outcomes; (b) setting a clear time line for students to work within the wiki environment; (c) guaranteeing ownership of the draft and final work to the group, with carefully planned tutor or professor intervention; (d) developing a localized and modeled structure of collaborations and construction for students to follow; (e) establishing clear rules of engagement by individual students, tutors, and professors that will respect ownership, divergent thinking, and creativity within a transparent online environment; and (f) proposing a course-specific navigation path that students can follow within the wiki platform used by the course or institution. Adapting these principles to appropriate well-matched nursing courses may effectively facilitate the use of wikis into nursing curricula and increase the chances that nursing students will engage positively in ways that will make them consider using wikis in future virtual collaborative endeavours as health professionals.

Conclusion

Wikis are being explored by many educators as promising platforms for collaborative learning. This article summarizes the authors’ experiences and perspectives gained from using wikis with nursing students that are working within interdisciplinary student groups and who are technologically highly skilled due to exposure to multiple educational technologies throughout their program. The current literature reports experiences that are generally positive for students and instructors. Overall, it was also found that collaborative content development and knowledge construction were possible within, and enriched by, the wiki environment. As instructors, we were able to witness, comment on, and assess at various times throughout the building process of assignments, which is a clear pedagogic advantage to evaluating just the final group assignment product. Despite the advantages, the experiences of the authors clearly indicate a need to further develop the pedagogical use of wiki environments and align them to course learning outcomes, particularly in the area of cultivating students’ collaborative skills, before they can be expected to support collaboration among undergraduate nursing students. Implementation of wikis will also require solid orientation of educators and learners to ensure smooth use of this technology.

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