A WIKI-BASED APPROACH FOR TEACHING ENGLISH IN HIGHER EDUCATION

lecturer Gabriela Grosseck, Ph.D., assistant Ramona Bran ggrosseck@socio.uvt.ro, rbran@socio.uvt.ro University of the West Timişoara Faculty of Sociology and Psychology Department of Modern Languages and Social Informatics
A wiki is a website which allows users to add information, like on a forum. Moreover, anyone can edit the content very easily. The most known example is Wikipedia. Since we started to explore and use wikis in our own development/improvement, we have been intrigued by their potential and, especially, by the possibilities of integrating them in education in general, and in particular in the teaching activity. The paper describes the tasks and topics developed and discussed by the authors on the wiki tic07.wikispaces.com, with the first year students from the University of the West, Educational Sciences Department, during the 2nd Semester of the academic year 2006-2007. This didactic experience aimed to practice the English knowledge they had already acquired, thus emphasizing the role of using wiki as a platform for developing a virtual community of practice.

Introductory Remarks In specialized literature, a wiki is defined as a Web application which allows users to add information, like on a forum. It is a „freely expandable collection of interconnected web pages, a hypertext system of storing and modifying information” (Leuf and Cunningham, 2001). In addition, anyone who has a web navigator can edit the content very easily, without having Web programming knowledge (Richardson, 2006). The term wiki also denominates the collaborative software used for creating such a web site. Basically a wiki is designed according to the OpenSource paradigm and it is a tool for online collaboration, a space created by a group rather than by an individual (Ebersbach, Glaser and Heigl, 2006). Different wiki services offer distinct facilities

though including several common features like the history of versions, discussion forums, notification of changes through email, etc. Perhaps the best example is Wikipedia, which managed to radically change the classical concept of encyclopedia, in almost all languages of the world. Wikipedia, which is very popular (especially among youngsters), has rapidly become one of the projects with the largest free content, and it represents an interesting experiment of complete trust and of socializing of the intellectual expertise. Although there are several ways of using a wiki (source of information, space for research or practice communities, or for organizing events, individual and collective brainstorming, system of collaborative knowledge management, etc), in education the most widespread are:     easily create simple websites project development with peer review students research projects collaborating on ideas: students can add summaries of their thoughts from the prescribed readings    place to aggregate web resources: teachers can use wikis as a knowledge base a wiki can be used as a presentation tool in place of conventional software manage school and classroom documents: a wiki can be used for publishing course resources like syllabi and handouts  classroom discussion and debate area: wikis are tools for group authoring (collective document v.s. individual pages)  wikis can be used to map concepts (brainstorming, linked network of resources) etc. Although a wiki belongs to the new trends in the evolution of the Web, currently it is rather difficult to estimate in how many of the higher education institutions from Romania wikis are used and in what ways. Even though one of the most frequently cited ways of using wikis is the management of documents and the creation of knowledge, the purpose of our didactic experience was to determine what role a wiki can play in forming a community of learning and practice (see fig.1). Thus, our attempt which was a truly practical one, started from the assumption that foreign language teachers can and must

show openness to other educational spaces, by means of a few possible didactic options offered by information technologies, especially by Web 2.0 ones (Grosseck and Bran, 2007).
Fig.1 Wiki strategies for building a community of learners

Chen, Gilbert and Sabol, 2006

Hence, we chose an integrated curriculum which could facilitate the transfer of information and competences from one subject to the other, namely from Informatics and English. We were particularly concerned with ensuring external coherence, based on the adoption of some inter and transdisciplinary elements. Our initiative, as teachers of „Information and Communicaton Technologies” (ICT) and of „English for Specific Purposes” (ESP) respectively, at the 1st year students majoring in Education Sciences, at the Faculty of Sociology and Psychology, University of the West from Timisoara, materialized in a team teaching partnership on the space tic07.wikispaces.com, developed as a virtual environment of learning Informatics. TIC07.wikispaces.com – Presentation For developing the ICT course we chose as virtual platform a wiki because: ▪ it can be accessed from anywhere if there is an Internet connection (moreover, access is allowed only to authorized members);

▪ as a source of information, a wiki allows the easy access of students to the content of the studied subject; ▪ on a wiki the norms of communication and collaboration are more flexible; ▪ as a multidimenssional space it is transparent, open and pluralistic (it allows free editing and team work); ▪ neither a webdesign application, nor a system of updating Internet pages are necessary; ▪ it stimulates creativity and democratic participation of students to class and, furthermore, it encourages students with low digital competences; ▪ a wiki can be a constructor of a learning and practice community. From a technical point of view, we chose Wikispaces because it has a friendly interface, with a low technical jargon, while content management is extremely simple, especially for students. Every wiki page contains: ▪ a forum (Discussion), where one can write observations, suggestions, opinions, basically anything which can’t be written on the main page. It can also be used as a classical forum of discussions. ▪ a History and ▪ the notification of changes through email or RSS (Notify me). Because the virtual learning environment was dedicated to using Web 2.0 technologies in education, our activities were adapted to the particular conditions of the ICT subject. Thus, our didactic experiment was designed, from the very beginning, on a special wiki page, named ENGLISH CLASS (see fig.2). On this page we focused on discussing the influence of ICT in daily life.
Fig. 2 Wiki page English Class

http://tic07.wikispaces.com/English+Class

The group with which we worked was made up of 8 students, who were fluent in English, and with their help we tried to identify opportunities but also limitations of interdisciplinarity. Thus, our project focused on: coherence in expressing ideas, the ability to bring arguments to support one’s opinions, overcoming communication barriers/complexes by developing/strengthening linguistic competences in English as well as the abilities of using wikis. From a technical perspective, the system of competences we assumed for this experiment materialized in: editing the wiki page English Class, inserting texts, images, audio and video clips which were relevant for the topic, participating in the forum of discussion and following discussions by RSS. From a linguistic perspective, we didn’t focus so much on the spelling and grammatical accuracy, but we were concerned primarily with finding out whether our students used IT jargon or in what way they stuctured dialogues with their peers in English. Indeed, we followed attentively the way in which they interacted with each other and with us (their teachers and moderators). Furthermore, we were very interested in the messages they conveyed - what they were saying regarding the topic, not just how they were saying it. As far as language is concerned, we didn’t correct mistakes explicitly but in the replies we posted, for example, we were careful to use the correct forms. In this way, students had the opportunity to express thier ideas, comments and knowledge freely, without being embarassed about

making a spelling mistake for instance. As teachers we didn’t act as censors, but we couldn’t let the big language mistakes go unnoticed. EnglishClassTIC07 – a wiki community for practising English The large number of messages we received on the forum (namely 139 new threads of discussion, posted between April and June 2007) suggests a lively exchange of ideas and denotes the openness of students to debates and dialogue in English on a proposed topic, and also an individual need to share opinions and make one’s voice heard (see fig. 3). Moreover, the students really felt they belonged to a community. This last argument is strengthened by the fact that they continued to check the wiki and post messages, links and comments even after the semester had come to an end, they had received their marks and the holiday had begun.
Fig. 3 Messages posted by students

http://tic07.wikispaces.com/message/list/English+Class

We started from the question „How do the Information and Communication technologies influence our lives?”, but a wiki can be adapted and used, in our opinion, on virtually any discipline. Students had the opportunity to find and post texts, links, audio

and video files. But, most importantly, they were constantly encouraged to express their own opinions about the topic and the things they/we posted. The wiki was thus an excellent space for them to practise their reading and writing skills. Moreover, by embedding video and audio clips their listening abilities were also challenged. We noticed that they didn’t drift away from the initial topic, but, quite on the contrary, they launched many new themes for discussion. It is very important to stress the fact that they felt comfortable to do research, to write comments, and to debate about these themes, in English. In this respect, perhaps it is a limitation that we didn’t have more time. The first post is a youtube clip about the beginnings of the Internet. The student comments: „After watching the video I realized how far we’ve come since then. Today the Internet is the most used way of communication and a source of endless information, good or bad”. Already from this first post, a student draws a perfectly reasonable and correct conclusion: one ICT (the Internet) has developed dramatically and now has the power to influence our lives decisively! The others react immediately and bring materials about the Internet addiction. They argue that it is „toxic” because it eats up too much time, to the detriment of reading (which stimulates imagination) or of practising a sport (which keeps us fit). Everyone agrees that we need all three, but in a balanced way. Otherwise we will all become „the slaves of technology”. During this debate someone mentions that online books exist, but they are not accessible to everyone and, even if they are it is bad for our backs and eyes to read them on a computer screen. Another negative aspect that the students have identified is represented by computer and video games. They agree that these represent a source of violence and induce children with a destructive attitude. Someone asks rhetorically: „Shouldn’t they rather play outdoors than inside, on the computer?” But not all things about ICT are bad. For instance, someone found a video about a person bound in a wheelchair who uses these technologies to run his business from home. The student draws a wise conclusion: „I think that technology is the most important thing human mind could ever build... but in time we forgot its purpose... We are so obsessed with making our lives easier that we have forgotten how to live... normally”. Indeed, this

point is pertinent: technology is essentially good and meant to ease our existence. However, sometimes it is misused and then it becomes negative. Students are encouraged to take other ICT into consideration and they come up with posts about mp3 players, cell-phones and television. They strongly identify with the first two (they consider music players and mobile phones as most useful and part of their lifestyle). Interestingly, they dismiss television and believe they could easily get used to living without a TV. They add that most people read the news online and find entertainment in other ways. The iphone (newly released at that time) which caused hysteria in the United States is popular among our students too. A possible explanation for this huge impact is the fact that modern phones provide „technological convergence” (namely, they have telephony features, digital camera, mp3 player, voice recorder, games, 3G technology, etc.) We gave feedback to students permanently, and in one of our replies we stated: „The simple fact that we are doing this wiki is proof of how technology has evolved and changed our lives”. They agree with online teaching, but they still believe that it lacks an important component: eye contact. Moreover, they are aware that technology is more and more used in education, but they also found a survey which proved that access to technology differs according to economic and social status. Possibly one of the most interesting discussions that arose on our space was the one about a time machine. Will we, at some point, get so far with technological inventions as to be able to travel to the past or even to the future? Could we change, rewrite history? This heated debate is smoothly concluded: „It would perhaps be a nice thing to travel to the past like <<observers>>, without being able to intervene and change anything”. Apart from these intriguing debates, dialogues, quotes and comments the students also brought fresh approaches to the topic. Someone posted a poem („Toxicity”), another one wrote a blog entry (about a woman who lived her life „online” and who finds a tragic end). A student even posted a fairy-tale, called „Evolution” and written by her. „Once upon a time there was a world called Booktopia”. People in this country used to read books, until the evil PC was created and PCland took over. The story ends with the idea

that the world of tomorrow should be somewhere between Booktopia and PCland. In a highly inspired manner she also inserted photos to illustrate all the steps of this „evolution”. CONCLUSIONS Using the wiki methodology in teaching English seemed a real revolution in working with students, and English Class TIC07 seemed a stimulating environment, a perfect space for social learning, in which the sensors of communication and collaboration with and between students were represented by collective trust, responsibility, motivation and active participation. In this context, our attempt, designed in an interdisciplinary manner, led to the idea that practising a foreign language can be done easier with the help of Web 2.0 technologies, thus emphasizing the role of using wiki as a platform for developing a virtual community of practice. BIBLIOGRAPHY 1. Chen, Helen L.; Gilbert, Daniel; Sabol, Jeremy, Using WIKIs to Build Learning
Communities, Poster at Educause Learning Initiative (ELI) Annual Meeting, San Diego, CA., 2006, http://scil.stanford.edu/about/staff/bios/PDF/ELI_Poster1.jpg.

2. Ebersbach, Anja; Glaser, Markus; Heigl, Richard, Wiki Web Collaboration, Springer
Berlin Heidelberg, 2006.

3. Grosseck, Gabriela, Un experiment pedagogic reuşit: utilizarea wiki în desfăşurarea unui
curs academic, paper presented at 3rd International Scientific Conference eLSE, „ELearning and Software for Education”, Carol I National Defense University, 12-13 April 2007.

4. Grosseck. Gabriela; Bran, Ramona, Web 2.0 Tools For Creating E-Portfolios In Higher
Education, paper presented at „International Conference on E-Portfolio Process in Vocational Education, Present and Future”, 2-3 May 2007, Bucharest, organized by Societatea Romana Pentru Educatie Permanenta.

5. Leuf, B.; Cunningam, W., The Wiki Way: Quick collaboration on the web, Boston:
Addison Wesley, 2001.

6. Richardson, Will, Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, And Other Powerful Web Tools For
Classrooms, Corwin Press, 2006.

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