Wikis in school projects?

Wikis should be great tools for building student-project documentation, right?  They should also be great tools within businesses.  But they aren't getting used as much as the proponents think they should. 

A reader asked me a question about using wikis for student group projects.  I have some ideas, but I'd love to hear from my readers with suggestions as well.

[I am working on a Senior Design* course in chemical engineering.]  We have encouraged the students to post their work on wikis created for each project.  The quality of these postings is generally not very good.  Are there some papers, etc that might help the next years students do a better job of collaboration via this (or other) computer technique?

The question isn't "how to make it work better" but step bask and ask, "What is going to be different if the team uses Tool X (wiki, blog, Blackboard or some other tool)?"  Or maybe, "What problem are you solving?"  Then check out the tools to see whether they actually solve the problem at hand.

My basic view on this is that, while they may be interesting, wikis aren't that much different from any other mechanism for a team to share information with one another.  Without the web, it is sitting in a room together and doling out responsibilities for who does what: reports, research, experiments, etc.  Now, of course, some of this can be done online -- and you can start sharing it with others: the team, the professor, classmates and even other schools.  As I've observed it, most teams don't get why this would be valuable to their result criteria: getting the project out the door / getting the grade at the end of the semester.  So the job of the manager (professor) is to set out expectations on using the tools at hand. 

Wikis or blogs can be very nice project reporting tools.  Give the students / team some structure (and requirements) around how to report their project progress, and they should be able to succeed.  Blogs could work this way too, if you are expecting more personal status updates.

Some references

* For those that don't know, a Senior Design course might be anything from several weeks to a semester to an entire year, depending on the school.  It's similar to Capstone projects or a senior thesis, but clearly done as a group project.  The idea is to integrate several years of education into a project that highlights many of the aspects of typical engineering problems.  Some schools approach this with one, massive project and others do it with many, smaller projects.  Sometimes they will use industry experts to help facilitate the process.

4 Comment(s)

I know people who are more active in the formal-education world than I am, and there are very smart pockets making use of wikis as you suggest.

I like the "what is going to be different if we use this tool?" question -- it gets the focus off the technology as technology.

In rare circumstances, talking with the right prospective client, I'll ask a question from the other angle: "Just how much of this job involves answering multiple-choice questions?"

I think there's a learning curve for effectively using a wiki. By "effectively," I mean that the user thinks he's gotten something worthwhile done. Since people tend to grasp things inductively, it's helpful to tell a story as problem - effort - solution, with the word "wiki" (or blog, or social bookmark) coming only after the punch line.

Thanks, Dave. I think one of the issues with blogs and wikis in an education setting is the time frame. By the time people get familiar with how to use them, they are moving onto the next class. If it were part of the whole curriculum, the comfort level builds and they can be used more effectively. (Assuming there is a reason to use them.)

Jack Vinson Author Profile Page said:

Stewart Mader has done a clearer description of "how to make it work better" in How to do a better job of project collaboration using a wiki. Thanks, Stewart!

Ah, thanks for the nudge - been meaning to get this post out ...

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