In the wake of Zoom fatigue, we’re all looking for fresh ways to engage our learners and break up the endless stream of online meetings and virtual training. The negative impact of the 21st-century on our prehistoric brains is real. Worrying about how we look on camera, the lack of sensory stimulation and physical movement, and the challenge to pay attention to a single subject much longer than is physically possible can leave your learners mentally drained and physically exhausted. In fact, some may argue that it’s an experience closely akin to torture.
Why does this happen? You can blame our wonderful, socially active brains. In any social setting, we humans rely on our ability to read the room, inferring important characteristics of our fellow humans such as social status, intelligence, friendliness, and intent. This survival skill is called group awareness (GA). While we have a wide variety of tools available to do this in a face-to-face encounter, our online toolbox is much smaller and less effective. A recent study suggested one solution to help mitigate the challenges of online learning that you may have overlooked: the wiki.
What Is a Wiki?According to Wikipedia, a wiki is “a hypertext publication collaboratively edited and managed by its own audience directly using a web browser.” Wikipedia, while not the first wiki ever, is often the one most of us have experienced as users, and it is a great place to start when you are thinking about incorporating a wiki into your own learning programs.
Collaboration Is Engaging and RewardingWithout having to be in the room together or in a Zoom session, learners can collaborate to develop a shared understanding of the content, help each other clarify meanings, challenge assumptions, and check statements of fact. This asynchronous collaboration has been shown to increase learning and engagement, either as a standalone effort or as part of a blended solution. This study examined a group of teachers who used a wiki to grow their knowledge. As a result, they learned to design more understandable and lively content, and collaboratively generated, exchanged, and elaborated ideas for new creative instructional strategies for their students.
Writing Wiki Content Encourages MetacognitionCreating and maintaining a wiki forces learners to think about thinking—to analyze and express how they gather information and arrive at conclusions. The process of generating ideas, content, and considering peers’ ideas lends itself well to reflection opportunities where learners can assess their own level of mastery and expertise on the subject matter.
Supports a Growth MindsetA wiki is never finished because any user can add or update content. This practice is a powerful way to stimulate a growth mindset. The wiki is eternally being improved but will never be perfect. If you are using a wiki as part of your training, you can remind learners that their lives and learning journeys are like the wiki. Things are always changing as we get new information.
Wikis Are SocialWhile wikis were designed to deliver curated information, the process requires social interaction among users. An active wiki group looks a lot like a Facebook page or Twitter feed. You can insert a wiki into an existing learning experience you are already offering to expand opportunities for social activity. In one notable example, users built a wiki as their class capstone project.
Wikis Promote Asynchronous LearningWikis allow users to generate ideas and review others work in their own time. This provides learners the opportunity to process, reflect, review, and generate material at their own pace. Consider two users who would be considered an expert and a novice on the same subject matter. The novice user benefits from the flexibility and autonomy to participate and collaborate once they are ready.
Here are some considerations when designing your own wikis:
Adding Group Awareness Tools Increases Engagement
To amplify the value of the wiki as a learning experience, the research team out of the department of computer science and applied cognitive science at the University of Duisburg-Essen tested different group awareness tools. Engagement was measured by student responses to surveys and tracking of eye movements to determine the degree of attention paid to the content. Learning was measured by the quality of the articles produced by the students. These are the top tools that aided engagement and content retention.
- User Profiles. Wiki users are robbed of facial cues, body language, vocal expression, and other cues we use in social settings. Instead, these elements this can be replaced with detailed user profiles, which helped all users assess each other’s experience, interests, and knowledge of various subjects. Users will decide where to engage with other learners with this information and may behavior differently depending on the conclusions they draw about each person in the wiki.
- Content Ratings. As the amount of content on a wiki increases, it becomes more and more important to help users find the content that is likely to be of greatest value to them. Peer ratings, such as the star votes you see on Amazon and other online retailers, send a quick signal that one author is considered more valuable than others. Ratings can also spur a healthy competition when authors work hard to upgrade their content to win more likes. If this all sounds familiar, it should. The stimulation we get from our social media accounts is using the same motivational response to help them continue to deliver exactly what we want to see.
- Controversy Alerts. Rather than attempt to mediate when differences of opinion developed on the wiki, these researchers flagged articles where there was some disagreement over the content. These areas tended to draw the most user interest. Learners also remembered this content more consistently than less controversial articles.
- Contribution Ratings. When they log in, users of this wiki see a visual representation of the entire group’s participation levels. Each user is represented by a circle on the screen. These circles grow or shrink in real time to reflect the use’s contribution, in terms of articles, updates, or discussion posts. The more learners engaged with the content in these ways, the more they were able to learn.
- Contributor Recognition. Anyone who contributed to an article in the German wiki stayed on the list of authors, giving each person a chance to see where they contributed and compare their accomplishment to those of others. This simple, intuitive recognition motivated users to continue and even increase their efforts to contribute, learning more and increasing engagement for everyone in the process.
Limitations and Risks
The research team at the University of Duisburg-Essen also noted wide variation in participation and learning success across all groups in the study. Some participants preferred to spend most of their time in the discussion area, while others spent most of their time creating or updating content. They concluded that learner achievement varied, pointing out, “… simple participation does not automatically guarantee the emergence of valuable and highly qualitative cognition.”
Getting StartedWe are, after all, learning professionals, not collectors of likes. Building a wiki isn’t like the screenplay of Field of Dreams. If you build it, your learners don’t necessarily come. If you’re going to embark on this effort, take the time to educate learners about the purpose of the wiki and how to use it in their learning journey.
A wiki certainly isn’t the only way to increase learner engagement and bring some variety into your instructional design, but it can be a useful one. You may even have a dusty old wiki somewhere on your company intranet that is suffering from a lack of attention. See if you can introduce some group awareness tools with the help of your IT team and bring it back to life!