From the idea of ‘cooperation without coordination’ arising from social sites such as GitHub to the events of the Arab Spring made possible by social media, today the concept of online collaboration seems to be commonplace if not overused.
However, eight years ago, online collaboration was still in its infancy and considered be a novel innovation. Incidentally this was around the time when Clare Brett, an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum Teaching and Learning at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), began her work with wikis.
Born out of her interest in educational technology and her desire to create a writing environment where her graduate students could practice academic writing, Prof. Brett’s Instructional Technology Courseware Development (ITCDF) project, Wikis as a shared writing environment for graduate and preservice courses, investigated and implemented wikis in a few graduate courses at OISE between 2005 and 2006.
The wikis were used in the courses for writing group assignments, asking or answering questions, and knowledge sharing between groups, and included a variety of rudimentary functions. For example, they allowed users to track revisions and understand why editing changes were made.
According to Prof. Brett, when asked for their feedback, students generally had a positive reaction towards the wikis. There was a general consensus that wikis were an effective tool for collaboration and it provided them with a sense of community.
Yet, despite the positive attitudes towards wikis, Brett discovered from the project that collaborative editing and the usage of wikis were not natural processes.
“We were building a wiki at a time when wikis were very new,” Prof. Brett said.
“In the literature there is talk of how discussion is, in fact, a primary mechanism for supporting learning,” but, according to Prof. Brett, some students, mainly non-computer programmers, were uncomfortable with the collaborative technology and needed support.
Other problems included issues with task-organization, lack of threading, and loss of text.
Nevertheless, these problems were corrected with each successive version of wikis that Prof. Brett was involved in.
The project also informed Prof. Brett’s later and current works such as with Pepper, a threaded discussion environment used by the faculty of OISE when teaching their courses.
Unlike the wikis used in the project, Pepper has superior capabilities such as allowing students to cite each other’s works, avatar creations, and seeing which users are online.
“There wasn’t a lot going on during that time [with regards to teaching technologies],” Prof. Brett says. “Now I’m overwhelmed with technology … the pace of change is huge.”
And that’s why studying how technology is used in education is even more critical today, and why Prof. Brett’s original ITCDF grant was so important. Even if she is no longer using the wikis as she once did, what she learned from that process helps her keep up with the pace of change.