1. Learning perspective Collaborative document sharing is an ideal tool for teachers adopting constructivism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constructivism_(learning_theory)) as the underlying framework for their educational inputs. This theory stresses the importance of individual learners taking responsibility for their learning and the value of interaction between students and the role of the tutor as coach rather than instructor.
eLearning courses in particular that use the constructivist approach may allow much of the content of the course to be determined by the interests of the students and the ongoing interactions as students search for information, collate and assess it, and develop and express their learning and opinions. Many future employers might also feel that staff with developed skills in collaboration will make a better contribution to their business than new recruits who are used to working entirely on their own.
Document sharing allows students to support each other's learning and gives the tutor a wider range of options over their interventions in guiding the student's learning. Students learn from a wider range of feedback on their work, which is also more immediate. They also develop better skills in critical thinking by learning to constructively appraise the work of their peers.
Important If this is a significant departure in practice for the students concerned, they will need a good deal of support for the exercise to be effective. In some institutions, students are used to assignments being competitive exercises, so sharing of resources is limited. The details of individual work appraisal is also often seen as a private matter between student and tutor, with only final marks normally made available to the whole class. Asking students to both collaborate and accept open feedback can therefore be a culture shock.
- In the early stages it may be necessary for the tutor to suggest a fairly detailed template for the final work, although as students become more used to this approach, greater freedom and creativity might be encouraged.
- It is important for the students to know exactly how they will be assessed and marks awarded (assuming it is an assessed exercise). The marking regime should therefore closely follow the intended learning outcomes from the exercise and include marks for the collaboration process as well as final content and presentation. Some tutors assign equal marks to all members of a group for collaborative work on the basis that it can be difficult to clearly differentiate individual contributions. However, with systems that clearly track each addition or change to the document, individual assessment is more practical.
- A major issue is whether the tutor has access to the shared document during its creation. Students will not normally be used to sharing material with a tutor at the early stages of its development, and some may feel inhibited in expressing their opinions knowing that their tutor is monitoring all interactions. Most students would however appreciate the opportunity for some support and early feedback if they can see that it will help them deliver better results and obtain a higher mark. There may be other mechanisms for providing this other than direct access to the shared document during its creation, e.g. through discussion boards, real-time text, audio or video chat etc. Ideally through a relationship of trust and joint endevour should be built up between tutor(s) and students, allowing good exchange throughout the learning exercise.
Examples Shared documents are perhaps most useful for small group work, where each student is expected to contribute to an assignment with the output being a report or presentation of some type. In this context, document sharing offers the following benefits:
- All members of the group have equal access to the work that is being created and ability to contribute
- Students are encouraged to interact with each other, supporting each others learning, and negotiating on final content
- A record of the process is usually automatically created, allowing the tutor to see how the group is working and which students are contributing which ideas or material
- The tutor may also contribute during the course of the assignment - keeping the assignment on track and helping overcome any particular difficulties
- Students gain transferable skills in the use of new Internet-based technologies, and various communication skills
In practice, relatively few institutions and courses at tertiary level rely only on constructivist principles. It is perhaps more likely that document sharing may be introduced as a replacement for an assessed essay, or other problem-solving task. Rather that set an assignment and expect each student to submit their efforts by a fixed date, the students can be assigned to small groups (perhaps between 3 and 6) and asked to do the assignment collaboratively. Guidance should be given by the tutor as to how the group might wish to organise themselves and allocate tasks and responsibilities. Some document sharing tools include elements of project management including the establishment of workplans, assignment of tasks and monitoring of progress. Assignements will often require students to:
- Carry out research (using the Internet, but also other sources)
- Extract key information from their research
- Use that information in addressing the topic of the assignment - which may also include elements of calculation in technical subjects
- Present their findings and conclusions in an appropriate way to the tutor and the rest of the class
At the end of the assignment the group would normally receive feedback both from the tutor and the rest of the class. This can be done online (e.g. via a discussion forum), or in the context of a class tutorial.
2. Google Docs is probably the best knows document sharing site on the Internet. It offers a number of interesting possibilities for teaching and learning, particularly for collaborative and group work.
The service allows for the creation and sharing of documents, spreadsheets and presentations. These share some similarities with common office software packages such as Microsoft Office (Word, Excel and Powerpoint), although also have some significant limitations. Their key advantage is that several people can edit the documents more or less concurrently, so always have access to the latest version. Revision histories help to track the changes that have been made. The documents can also be easily published as web pages or sites on the Internet.
Getting started This video will help you get started with Google docs.
3. What is a wiki? In its purest form, a Wiki is a type of simplified content management system or piece of database driven software that lets a group of users publish and edit material to the internet without the need for technical knowledge or specialized programing skills. Wiki software is normally web based by nature and is designed to be very simple to use requiring minimal configuration.
The philosophy behind a Wiki is that ownership of content is not seen as important (rather it is shared by the group or community), and as a consequence any user can add or amend articles as they see fit. Although the application is open by nature, it is normal that one or more content administrators are appointed to oversee contributions and monitor the site for incorrectly structured articles, copyright infringements or even abusive content - issues often encountered in a systems of this nature. To aid with this process, the application will normally store a history of article versions which an administrator can roll back to if a problem is found. Wikiís can be configured to be open or private. In the case of private Wikiís, only registered users within a group or organisation are allowed access to edit and / or view content within the website. With open access Wikiís, anybody can view or edit articles.
A Wiki will normally be installed at a single, specific web address (or url) so allowing users to publish and view content on a certain subject at that location. Because Wikiís are designed to contain vast amounts of information on a variety of interconnected subjects, on a large number of pages, Wikiís tend to forego traditional navigational framework techniques (header / sidebar) in favor of a global search facility and in-content linking between articles.
How do I add/amend content? Wikiís provide a simple, integrated means for adding or editing content. The normal method is for a contributor to navigate to the desired article (if it exists) or else create a link to the article (from a existing related topic) if it does not. Once on the desired Ďpageí the user need only click an Ďedití button to be presented with an editable version of the content located in an html text area ready to be amended. The editor tools usually include a formatting (wysiwyg) toolbar, or some kind of simplified markup language integration, such as "wikitext", to allow content to be formatted easily. Wikiís also tend to allow the most common web based content media to be integrated into articles for support purposes. This will often include such things as images, pdfís and video, which, in turn, means that copyright issues are a key concern for publicly accessible Wikiís. Because of this, most sites, such as Wikipedia, normally exercise a strict copyright policy, which will allow only Ďpublic domainí content to be published on the site.
Can I configure the `Look and Feel´? Wikiís offer very little control over the look and feel of the final website. The software will normally only allow users to configure basic aspects of the visual appearance such as the inclusion of a logo image or amending the general colour scheme. Because of this, most Wikiís tend to look very similar to each other, although most solutions do have a very distinct visual identity of their own.
What are Wikis commonly used for? Because of the limited configurability of look and feel, Wikiís are most often used where a publicly projected Ďidentityí is not an essential component of the site. They are particularly popular within education establishments or company intranet sites where content is the key attribute of the publishing platform. Indeed, many organizations have found Wikiís to be a very useful project management tool due to their easy information sharing nature. Similarly, they are often used within organisations as means of creating an internal knowledge base for employees within the company to access and contribute to.
However, Wikiís have also become very popular in the public domain, particularly as a tool for providing a means of publishing user generated web content accessible to the wider community. For example, Wikipedia is a web based encyclopedia that lets any member of the public contribute knowledge and expertise on any subject they wish. Likewise many open source software projects use a Wiki within their product website as a means of developing a user manual on a product they are developing. The Wiki lets experienced and knowledgeable users of the product easily publish Ďhelpí articles on the site as their contribution to the development of the software.
Should I use a hosted version or install one on my own web server? An installable Wiki is a piece of software (usually free) that a user can upload to their own web space and configure to use with a database associated with his/her web server. Simple install scripts are normally included with the package. However, some degree of technical knowledge is often required to set up the database and configure the server appropriately. The main advantage with this solution is cost - there are many free open source Wiki solutions available for anyone to use. However, installed solutions place the burden of maintaining and monitoring the software on to the user and this can sometimes lead to security problems particularly with well known software packages which hackers and spammers often seek out and target. Examples of installable solutions include:
MediaWiki - www.mediawiki.org (used by Wikipedia)
- Foswiki - foswiki.org
- Moin Moin - moinmo.in
- TikiWiki - tikiwiki.org
- XWiki - www.xwiki.org
Dokuiki - www.dokuwiki.org
Pmwiki - www.pmwiki.org/
A hosted Wiki solution is a web based software service provided by a hosting company that will allow a user (or group of users) to easily create a Wiki without having to install or configure any complex servers. In this case, all that the user need do to set up the Wiki, is navigate to the hosting companyís website and sign up for the plan that s/he requires. Once a simple configuration form has been completed, other users can then be invited to join the group and contribute content to the site.
The main advantage of this type of solution is that it requires no technical expertise to setup and run. Security and performance issues are also avoided as a team of specialised engineers will be taking regular database backups and constantly monitoring the servers to guard against malicious attacks. The main disadvantage with hosted solutions is cost. Hosting companies will normally charge a monthly hosting fee which will usually be much higher than that of a basic website hosting package. Free solutions are also sometimes provided, although, these plans will normally require advertisements to be embedded in the content.
However, some companies do offer free non-advertisement supported plans for educational establishments. Examples include: