Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Working Together: Wiki, ESL Writing Project Update

Technology cannot replace a good teacher nor cannot it automatically make group’s work together, especially in a cultural context where students have little experience working together. As I reported earlier, I am currently experimenting with Wiki technology in some ESL writing classes of mine in China (See WikiWriteRight). As the initial weeks end and we attempt to move towards competition, it is appropriate to look at what is going well, what isn’t and how can it improve.  While the results haven’t been all negative so far, the one factor I underestimated was how little experience and understanding Chinese students have with working in a group.

Working Together: Wiki, ESL Writing Project Update

American students spend a significant amount of their education working together. There are times when it works better than others, but overall we all understand the needs and general how-to when comes to working with a group.  In my current experience, this is not at all true for Chinese students. When I informally questioned my classes about experiences working together in groups, they said they had had no experience working with others.

My misperception of the cultural context and general assumption of people knowing how to work together meant over two weeks after this project had started many groups had yet to do any sort of work together. Some groups had indeed started creating a story, but once I looked at the history page, it became clear that simply one student had done all of the work. Up to this point, only a few groups had really embraced the idea of working together towards better ideas and better writing.

I subsequently spent this week’s class focusing on group’s getting better organized. I did several activities for groups to self-report on things they need to work on in their story and parts of their writings that need more explanation or more details. In turn, I had them self-assign homework for each other.

I am not sure how well this will turn out, but in the back of my mind, this was a mistake I made at the beginning of the project. Namely, more time needed to be spent at the beginning to establish who should do what. Looking back, I think each week should entail some sort of tally sheet to keep track of who does what. Each weekly class should end with a list of small assignments for various members of the group. Without some form of organization, I think groups tend to remain rather stagnant.

The other idea that I think would improve this kind of collective writing project using wiki technology would be to choose topics that instill more unified visions of what is to be done. For this project, I decided to do a pure story writing activity. I did not set any particular limits nor require any kind of parameters. After looking at a very short story, I gave students some time to brainstorm various aspects of stories and to list possible ideas for their stories, including characters, settings, and conflict scenarios. Even though some groups did find a thread to follow, some have yet to really start and are still searching for what to do. Pure creative writing is good but perhaps too open for disagreement and varying visions in groups, especially given that I didn’t set any parameters and I required them to work in groups of my choosing not their choosing.

One way to improve this would have been to choose a nonfiction topic where students could work together without such trouble brainstorming what should be done at the beginning. The problem with nonfiction writing is that it significantly opens the door to cheating, since depending on the topic assigned, there is the possibility that the answer (or at least an answer) is already out there on the Internet.  Research-based projects on historical, political and social topics would seem to easily lead to plagiarism.

One idea that came to me this week was to do a nonfiction writing project that focuses on writing about the life and thoughts of Chinese university students. The idea would be to imagine creating a time capsule for future generations. As a pre-writing activity, you could imagine what things you would want to include in it and why. In turn, you would say that one thing that needed to be included in the time capsule is an account of life as a Chinese student today. You could then brainstorm about what aspects of Chinese student life that would need to be included in this written account. After brainstorming a list of topics for this account, groups would be assigned to start writing the various sections.  There are various reasons why this project would be easier to manage and finish than our current project. Namely, (1.) the writing process would be more goal focused; (2.) each group would have a more focused project that is also a part of a whole; (3.) individual members would more easily be able to add details and revisions without worrying so much about tarnishing someone else’s contribution.

I am not sure I will in the future attempt a similar project like this, but if I do I think I would seriously consider simplifying the user interface (perhaps using some adaption of Drupal or Moodle over MediaWiki) as well as choosing a more goal focused writing topic where less time would be spent on pre-writing questions about what to write as opposed to drafting and writing process of details and revisions to add.

These are just some thoughts. Have a look at the [current site][3], and if you have any thoughts or questions, post them in the comments section or directly on the Wiki.

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