More Challenges with Wikis: 4 Ways To Move Students from Passive to Active

While wikis provide an interesting and accessible tool for collaborative work with students, there can be an easy shift back to regular teacher-driven methods in their use as it is difficult and challenging to continue to facilitate collaboration throughout a wiki project. That is, as we already know, the technology itself does not develop the skill, nor is it the teacher; the technology is only a tool, and teachers must remain committed to the collaborative process if students are to fully engage and develop the skills necessary to work collaboratively with their peers. It is worthwhile, therefore, both from my own experience and from observation, to identify several specific strategies every teacher can employ to increase engagement from their students.

Like everyone, I have experienced that excitement in setting up a new working space using a teaching tool such as a wiki and to be totally disappointed with the response from students and the total lack of collaboration. I have at times resorted to "rescuing" the situation by gathering what I can from the project and directing its use myself. This, of course, is defeating the purpose of using a wiki and goes a long way to discouraging future uses of such technology in your class.

The first thing I have learned from these kinds of mistakes is never to assume anything in the set-up process. That is, although current students are often more technology-savvy than some of us who teach them, take time to walk through the actual technology setup and also the project expectations within the online environment--not externally to the environment but as an actual hands-on orientation. The items to address specifically in this orientation are:

  • How the technology works;
  • How each student can access the working space;
  • The expectations of the project: what to upload, what to edit, how to edit, and how to comment;
  • Timelines and deliverables.

This orientation will provide students with a "working" idea of the purpose and outcomes of the project. Without this initial set-up step, wikis can fall desperately silent, and students will have various ideas of what is expected and how it is to be achieved. This kind of chaos leads to passivity and an expectation that the teacher (the one who knows) will intervene and save the day. And that is often what happens.

Project Management for Wikis
Teachers must stake out a working project and manage it like any other project to be accomplished. Even though the focus must remain on collaboration and the full engagement of the students, the progress of the work must be managed by the teacher, if it is to succeed. As mentioned above, timelines and deliverables should be posted on the wiki site and reminders sent regularly to students. Additionally, there must be systems of communication identified and an agreement on the outcomes as things progress. Although the outcomes may be modified as a result of the collaborative work of the students, each modification must be articulated and circulated to all students on a regular basis. This preempts the synthesis that must take place at intervals in the process. For those teachers without a business background, a simple framework for managing a collaborative wiki project is as follows (SMSM):

  1. Scope out: Identify all students in each wiki workspace;
  2. Map out: Agree with students and name each space according to the outcome of the project;
  3. Stake out: Allow participants to brainstorm ideas of what resources are needed and set timelines clearly; and
  4. Measure out: Set timelines and deliverables.

Requiring Synthesis
A "must" in any working project is a requirement of synthesis--evaluating the work that has been done, seeing where that work connects with ongoing ideas and what is redundant and can be excluded, and then moving to bring the connections and ideas together into a meaningful whole that can be moved forward and reworked and built upon again and again. Synthesis is a critical skill and one that really benefits students not only in relation to their immediate learning but to lifelong learning and employability as well. Being able to see how information works together and brings ideas into clarity for easier use is vital. The tendency often for teachers is to step in at this stage and provide synthesis for students. The intentions behind this may be good, but it short circuits the learning process and denies the student the opportunity of learning this valuable skill. In order to stay focused on the process of synthesis, teachers must be able to coach but not dominate the discussion and work and guide the thoughts but not dictate the connections. Students must see the connections for themselves and see how the information moves their thinking forward as a result.

Jennifer Wagaman (2009), whose post can be found on, talks about the importance of teaching students how to think and cites the four basic level of thought as: evaluation, synthesis, analysis, and application. Wagaman suggests that all four should be integrated into every lesson for maximum results. Specifically about synthesis she wrote:

To synthesize information, students must go beyond the basic information and do something with the knowledge. Students should use prior knowledge to connect to new knowledge during this synthesizing thought process. Some things that require a synthesis thought process include hypothesizing, inferring, predicting, imagining, estimating and inventing.

If teachers do not expect students to move beyond the basic information, then synthesis cannot take place. As all students have prior knowledge, teachers can facilitate the process by encouraging students to think about what they already know in order to move their thinking into the next step of the thought process.

Rewarding Engagement
Rather than waiting until the final deliverables are demonstrated, active teachers should acknowledge each stage of engagement throughout the entire process. This is challenging to do both in terms of time and also in terms of commitment to the learning process. It is easier to wait but will more often result in students losing interest than staying engaged. It is also challenging to recognize engagement, provide guidance for improvement and direction for next steps without dominating the process. This will also lead students to silence rather than engagement. Students must be recognized but still empowered. Examples of great processing should be "iconized" for everyone and students called upon to explain their reasoning and logical flow. This kind of articulation will mean that students cannot "hide" in groups, and also teachers can help each student develop better critical thinking skills as a result. Articulation of thinking is a high-level skill, so patience is needed while students develop it. Again, resist the urge to complete the process yourself as a teacher and stay committed to each student's own progress.

As we already know, then, technology is only the tool and must be handled well by the teacher if the desired results are to be realized. Wikis are truly powerful tools to support collaboration; however, teachers are the central engager and the one who keeps the process moving forward. As students see their progress, they will continue to participate and even become energized as contributors in the process.

THE News Update

Sign up for our newsletter.

Terms and Privacy Policy consent

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.