Exploring the Use of Wikis for the Improvement of English Writing Skills: Research, Reflections, and Recommendations
Jiyon Lee and Curtis J. Bonk
As we are consumed by an age where the globalization of information and work is increasingly apparent, students are expected to have many new skills and abilities. In high growth Asian countries such as Korea, much of the new skill emphasis relates to Information Technology (IT) and foreign languages, especially English. One solution is to embrace emerging Web technologies such as wikis, shared online video, blogs, and social networking in schools and to increase opportunities to communicate in English in various ways. Wikis allow people to easily write and edit on the Web. They are considered a new form of collaborative communication tool. The literature reviewed in this article explores the use of wikis for improving students’ English writing skills.
Keywords: Wikis, language learning, idea generation, writing research, global collaboration, authentic learning, English writing instruction.
Imagine a class where Korean, Indonesian, and Chilean students exchange information that they have examined through their natural environments. Korean students decide to investigate a ‘Typhoon,’ Indonesian students explore a ‘Tsunami,’ and Chilean students opt to examine both ‘Drought and Flood.’ Next, they use collaborative Web technologies to share their natural environments and the disasters associated with each. Korean and Chilean students who have some experience and knowledge of a ‘Tsunami’ might add to and edit the contents of a special website designed by Indonesian students. Of course, this activity is performed in English as their foreign language. In addition, their geography teachers must continuously monitor the accuracy and depth of the content, so as to give feedback to their students on their learning process.
To foster their online communications and collaborations, the students would also take English classes, especially concentrating on writing about and understanding other countries. Students pay particular attention to the contents that they collaboratively construct about their natural environments. With the expectations that students can communicate with foreign peers, they are engaging in a special opportunity that was heretofore impossible. This activity is highly complex yet a powerful learning process.
Much like the example above, today’s students who might be afraid of using English are getting to know an innovative teaching and learning method, mainly performed online with materials they have built in a wiki: not only a device for cooperative writing, but also a base of knowledge and information (Parker & Chao, 2007). Accordingly, when using a wiki to teach, the teacher’s role changes to facilitator who must support students with timely and effective strategies that allow them to enjoy this activity.
This paper explores strategies for the use of wikis to improve English writing skills of students in secondary schools. These strategies are primarily based on the special characteristics of wikis. The more effective characteristics are revealed in the following literature review. In particular, this paper will focus on the collaborative use of peer support among students from other countries.
The wiki as a strong Web tool for authentic interaction through writing
The concept of the wiki
The emergence of the wiki, which has introduced a new way of interacting on the Web has made it possible to create and share information and knowledge in a more authentic way than before. Not only does wiki technology foster communication among participants through writing, but it also facilitates important activities such as collaboration, reflection, and critical thinking for knowledge creation.
Educators such as Lin, Li, Hu, Chen, and Liu (2007) explain that “students through the wiki are able to post information that they want to share and easily interact with each other” (p. 343). Similarly, Lin, Bonk, and Sajjapanroj (2008) describe that in collaboration with other persons, the wiki is an online place wherein one can write information and exchange knowledge with others.
The concept and characteristics of wikis are explained by various educators and researchers. According to Evans (2006), “the wiki concept emerged when programmer Ward Cunningham wanted to create the simplest collaboration platform possible (p. 28).” In effect, a wiki is “a Web page that nobody would own and that anyone could edit” (p. 28). Also, Lin et al. (2007) explain that the wiki is “a type of website that everyone can edit, add and revise context using a normal web-browser” (p. 343). Simply put, wikis are “a multi-user technology” (Wagner, 2004).
Rick, Guzdial, Carroll, Holloway-Attaway, and Walker (2002) introduced the wiki as a “web-site” enabling all participants to revise and add to the content on wiki pages using an ordinary Web browser. As a website that can be revised, communities can form around the content that is produced there. Likewise, Eberbach, Glaser, and Heigl (2006) define wikis as a “Web-based software” allowing people who see wiki pages to change the content by editing it online.
As people exchange ideas over days, months, or years, the fund of information that is available continues to be refined and grow. Wagner (2004) argues that “the wiki is a collaboratively created and iteratively improved set of Web pages…” He further notes that the wiki is an accumulation of Web pages. Augar, Raitman, and Zhou (2004) also explain that the wiki is an aggregation of scripts or program files that go on a Web browser.
In summary, the wiki can be defined as a Web tool that everyone can build collaboratively – information and knowledge interact on a common document, which the participants then want to share. This process allows them to repeatedly improve the content, as well as facilitate interaction among group members.
The characteristics of the wiki
The wiki has three general activities: (1) writing, (2) reading, and (3) editing (or updating). Anyone can be freely involved in these activities by using an open Web document that is particular to the wiki. And the updating process of a document goes on infinitely until no one acts on it (see Figure 1).
As shown in Figure 2, the external appearance of a Wikibook is similar to ordinary Web pages. Figure 2 is an example of Wikibook as one of the wiki projects, and in the aspect of the function, it has four special tab buttons: (1) book, (2) discussion, (3) edit, and (4) history. With a wiki anyone can see the document as a type of e-book, discuss the project and related collaborations, edit the content, and see all changes participants posted.
Figure 1: The evolution of a wiki through the three general activities
Figure 2: A Wikibook constructed by graduate students in a specific course
Sharing one good quality document (1)
Maintaining newer knowledge and information (2)
Allowing collaborative writing without an on-site meeting (3)
Allowing participants to observe peers’ development (4)
Approaching working areas quickly and easily (5)
Following up on the contents students built (6)
Recovering former and deleted versions (7)
Recording documents’ information according to flow of time (8)
Noticing the revision of the document by email (9)
Weak in visual editing (10)
Difficult to embody some special texts that have complicated formats (11)
Difficulty lending 100% confidence regarding the content students have written (12)
* Resources: (1) Lamb (2004); Pedro et al. (2006), (2) Evan (2006), (3) Pedro et al. (2006), (4) Pedro et al. (2006), (5) Kelly (2005), Pedro et al. (2006), (6) Augar et al. (2004), (7) Pedro et al. (2006), (8) Pedro et al. (2006), (9) Pedro et al. (2006); Schwartz et al. (2003), (10) Eberbach et al. (2006); Lamb (2004); Pedro et al. (2006), (11) Pedro et al. (2006), (12) Eberbach et al. (2006); Lamb (2004).
Among the key disadvantages of wikis are questions related to the reliability of wiki content and poorness of design of many wiki-related tools. Recently, some educators and wiki researchers have made suggestions related to such concerns. The reliability of the content, for instance, is maintained through the openness of the wiki editing process. That is, because anyone can add, edit, and delete the content of each page, some content includes errors or might even be purposely destroyed. In terms of wiki’s reliability, Evans (2006) quotes Richard Watson, a professor at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business in Athens, who states that “wiki documents are meant to be self-correcting” (p. 30). Several security tools have been introduced to overcome this weakness; for example, duplicating the saving of pages that have been edited (the “History” function), immediate email notification of changes made, and requiring a membership registration (Augar et al., 2004; Eberbach et al., 2006; Lamb, 2004). Furthermore, in relation to school classrooms, participation of teachers as “experts” on educational content can be deliberated.
In terms of the poorness of design in relation to the explicit structure of wikis, some researchers are arguing that this is an inherent strength of wikis. Namely, it is the lack of sophisticated and complex design that enables quick uploading and content construction (Lamb, 2004; Schwartz, Clark, Cossarin, & Rudolph, 2003). In addition, Rick et al. (2002) insist that students who work with wiki technology are focused on the content more than the look of the website. They also note that this results in better quality work. In other words, they claim that wikis are an asset to those searching for tools for more effective learning.
The many uses of wiki technology depend on the aims of the organization, company, or community that wants to use it (Eberbach et al., 2006). In effect, it is vital to find proper arenas in which to use it, particularly according to the nature and the characteristics of wiki technology.
With regard to wiki usage, much research (Coutinho & Bottentuit, 2007; Langie, Lauriks, Lagendijk & Cannaerts, 2006; Lin et al., 2007; Parker & Chao, 2007) reports the benefits and the successful cases of using wikis through online and distant education. Specifically, Parker and Chao (2007) examined the current literature related to wiki usage, and argued that wikis can be used for writing instruction as well as learning the process of collaborative writing. They found it quite beneficial in online/distance education, especially as a way of motivating teams to interact and complete group projects. Parker and Chao viewed wikis as a key tool for collaborative learning and constructivist forms of instruction. Lamb (2004) also states that the most frequent use of wikis in education is to support writing instruction.
Wikis also are valuable for the distribution and sharing of members’ ideas and views for the purpose of interacting within a group. Lamb (2004) describes the wiki as a sketchpad or a space for brainstorming online. He gives an example of wiki usage to support the planning of meetings including building on previous agendas, distributing URLs to participants in order for them to comment or add freely their own ideas to the agenda, and so on. Lamb is not alone. Tonkin (2005) also argues that “wikis are extremely useful for brainstorming.”
Suffice to say, the wiki is a highly social and collaborative tool. Augar et al. (2004) examined the use of wikis as an icebreaker to solve the scarcity of communication among online learning participants. This research confirmed that wikis increase social interaction and collaboration among participants in online education. If online educators take advantage of this enhanced student interactivity and teamwork, wikis can serve a highly useful function in students’ motivation, retention, and satisfaction in their courses.
Consequently, wikis can be utilized not only as a device for the collaborative writing and as a base of information and knowledge (Parker & Chao, 2007), but also as a tool for facilitating interaction among participants to support student course engagement and ultimate completion.
It is widely known that many countries where English is taught as a foreign language (including Korea) continue to persevere in their efforts to enhance their students’ English abilities. Specifically, Korea has been deliberating on the ways in which English education can be enhanced (Kim, 2008) since its most recent government was elected on December 19, 2007 (Wikipedia, 2009). As an example, starting in 2008, the middle and high schools in Seoul decided to teach English courses solely in English once or even more times each week (Choi, 2008, February 17). In addition, this school initiative focuses more on the expressive qualities associated with English writing and speaking than with English reading and listening (Choi, 2008, February 17).
This begs the question, however, related to what methods and tools are best used to authentically and effectively support the enhancement of students’ expressive abilities in English and other languages. If you seek a distinct method and tool different from former ones, whatever you decide, you need to understand that it should help students reduce their fear of learning English, boost their confidence, and allow them to more richly enjoy the learning process. Accordingly, it is important to explore the characteristics of expressive activities, specially, writing in English as a foreign language. That is the focus of this paper.
Regarding the process of English writing, Zamel (1982), who conducted research on the process of English writing with students from other countries, considers writing to be an activity of finding out meaning including creating, organizing, and clarifying of students’ ideas. She also emphasized the importance of revising as a primary element in a composition. Such revision is accelerated through students sharing of their writing with others in the course. Horowitz (1986) proposes several recommendations for enhancing the process rather than just the products or outcomes of English composition, namely: (1) preparation of various drafts, (2) work in a group, (3) writing themes according to individual interest, and (4) peer assessment.
With a process focus in place, more attention is paid to student interaction and knowledge construction including the key aspects of feedback and cooperation by peers in the composition of English as a Foreign Language. Carson and Nelson (1994) assert that the cooperative context of composition groups leads to the development of students’ own knowledge from group knowledge construction through discussion among members. Shim (2006), who insists the process of English writing be communicative, argues that revising by peers and combining reading and writing improves writing activity.
Given these trends, it is not too surprising that extensive efforts have been undertaken to apply computer technology for English writing. Baker and Kinzer (1998), for instance, found that in a technology-supported context, the process of composition was dynamic, not linear, even though the students were taught about it step-by-step.
Along these same lines, Neuwirth, Kaufer, Chandhok, and Morris (1990) designed a computer system for collaborative writing and annotation. After many years of research and development, they proposed several important guidelines to support student writing activities in such a technology-enhanced system. Their main findings conclude: (1) the best context for a user (author) and a correspondent (annotator) is when both are on the network and use same editing program; (2) most of comment systems presume that all participants can view the same content; and (3) some annotators would like to have the right to rewrite rather than to merely comment on text; often the latter is much more effective. Moreover, they suggest using a system that enables writers or annotators to revise in the area of the document without destroying previous versions of the document.
In summary, English writing includes a few key characteristics. First, the activity of English composition is a process of finding out meaning starting from individual interests and experiences. Second, students perform various activities during the composition. This process is dynamic and reiterative. Third, the process of writing focuses on communicating and collaborating among peers and the teacher. Fourth, it is important for students to view peers’ development and feedback on the same document during the process. When combined, this highly dynamic and collaborative process, rich in social negotiation and meaning making as well as peer and instructor feedback, is an engaging and powerful experience for all those involved. And when a wiki tool is added to process, the potential for such learning power is amplified. When done effectively, collaborative writing in a wiki environment is something learners and instructors will remember forever.
Presently, research on wikis has been done from various angles in order to explore areas of proper application as well as the ability to utilize its functions. In this section, we investigate the advantages and disadvantages (Pedro et al., 2006), effective use (Augar et al., 2004; Lin et al, 2007), implications of distant use (Pfeil et al., 2006; Langie et al., 2006), and cooperative possibilities (Notari, 2006) of wikis in the classroom.
Pedro et al. (2006) conducted survey research after using wikis with college students for two years. When done, they summarized the advantages and disadvantages associated with the use of wikis in the college classroom. The results showed high value for wiki technology. For instance, users can approach a wiki activity easily and quickly, recover former document versions, and view detailed histories of former documents. In particular, the students appreciated the collaborative writing methodology base of wikis because they could cooperate without meeting, observe the development of their members’ work, and participate actively in communication (Pedro et al., 2006).
Augar et al. (2004) explored the role of the wiki as an icebreaker in reading new postings added by community members of a particular university. More specifically, they provided students with simple and clear guidelines to prevent improper postings and to build a dynamic and friendly atmosphere. Augar et al. (2004) report that the use of wikis increased students’ online activities such as viewing, creating, and editing the documents. In the end, they suggested that wikis can be used to distribute information as well as encourage learner social communication.
Lin et al. (2007) were interested in how each member’s role, when using a wiki, impacted learning. In their study, students were allocated to particular roles to complete a team project and developed stances and skills of given roles from the real learning context of wikis. In addition, Lin et al. (2007) confirmed that students collaboratively participated in supporting the writing and related activities among members.
A familiar wiki environment for most people around the world is Wikipedia. Research by Pfeil et al. (2006) illustrated the relationship between cultural backgrounds and communication (that is, the change patterns of the content) using Wikipedia among participants from four countries. For example, the members from a group that emphasized collective purpose engaged in adding contents more actively than a group that focused on individual’s thought and purpose. Culturally, varied patterns of behaviors appeared, and the outcomes of the research provide helpful information in understanding the collaborative activities of members online who have different cultural backgrounds and perspectives (Pfeil et al., 2006).
Langie et al. (2006) also conducted international research that used wikis to support peer coaching for collaborative composition between Dutch and Belgian students. This research was part of a two-year project on wikis to encourage cooperative and dynamic context within groups based on the outcomes of the first year of the project. This research was successful for several reasons: (1) the use of a common language for international cooperation; (2) a strongly constructed project with obviously shared guidelines and high standards for the evaluation; (3) support for interaction in the use of wikis for smooth communication between students; and (4) support by the instructor as a expert who monitored and scaffolded student processes.
Notari (2006) indicated that a wiki is a powerful tool for constructivist learning. She suggested the use of a script to support cooperative wiki-based activities. According to her explanation, a cooperative script is an educational scenario. Notari (2006) also argued for the development of “communication and comment culture” to create a context of smooth comments and editing activities since the beginning of a class. In particular, she insists that teachers need to focus more on encouraging students to participate in input activities than quality control of contents student made.
In addition, there is an important case related to writing instruction through computer technology even though this does not directly relate to using wikis. Dalton (1989) explored the advantages of writing instruction based on the results of case studies using computers. Several implications are mentioned as follows. First, as might be expected, allowing students to use computers to collaboratively write is one of the most useful methods in encouraging students to develop their writing skills. Second, through this collaborative writing process, students can interact with other students outside the classroom through activities such as newspaper publishing using computer communication. Third, it is critical for students to have chances to share documents and to obtain individualized feedback from teachers and other members about the revisionary needs of their own documents. In particular, Dalton (1989) mentioned the positive effects of “collaboratively writing a series of round robin stories on the computer” (p. 2) by three students and a teacher.
Even though Dalton’s research was conducted prior to the emergence of wiki technology, wikis can sufficiently support students’ writing-related activities and instructional scaffolds. Dalton recognized such acts as important to learning. However, wikis do more than that. They bring people together to a socially shared document to present, evaluate, extend, and transform ideas. Each visitor brings additional knowledge and experiences which can be shared while each visit brings a new awareness of what is important to the writing project or product. A designated space in a wiki is a perpetually unfolding process. It is exciting and dynamic.
In previous sections of this paper, we examined the research on the use of wikis and the functions of computer technology to enhance writing skills. Judging from the relevant research to date, we can conclude that wikis are a sound tool to support the collaborative activity of composition among learners who have different cultural backgrounds. As such, wikis require thoughtful reflection by educators before incorporating them in the classroom as a writing, idea generation, or teamwork tool.
An effective way to learn writing in English as a foreign language is to be in an environment that allows students to communicate directly with native English speakers. Obviously, however, it is difficult and often impossible for all students to study in this way. If direct conversation in an authentic environment is not possible, students need to be allowed to communicate with other participants within similar contexts where they can use English. Often such an environment is a technology-driven one.
As indicated, wikis can support the process of communicative composition. The linkages between the process of English writing and wikis is shown as Table 2.
The process of finding out meaning (1)
Supporting interactive brainstorming and discussion
Supporting critical thinking integrating reading and writing
Emergence of student’s various activities (2)
(dynamic process, not linear)
Repeated revision: various draft (3)
Supporting divergent thought such as adding and linking to other information and knowledge
Following participants’ traces
Creating and keeping all versions (draft) participants made
Interaction and collaboration among peers and the teacher (4)
Supporting interactive and collaborative writing
Development of participants through reviewing others’ (5)
Supporting peer review on a same document
Supporting teacher’s monitoring
* Resources: (1) Zamel (1982); (2) Baker & Kinzer (1998); (3) Horowitz (1986); (4) Carson & Nelson (1994),
Horowitz (1986), Shim (2006); (5) Carson & Nelson (1994).
Like the previous potential example of using wikis among Korean, Indonesia, and Chilean students, these students would be exposed to a space wherein they can communicate with each other with the support of their teachers. When effective, the students participate in and enjoy an interesting activity which leads to their ideas and thoughts generated from this activity being published in an e-book, which in turn leads to an understanding of other countries’ cultures as important parts of language education.
In addition to the possibility of using wikis in English composition as above, significant strategies are needed to be discussed fully in order for a more successful activity to take place. The following section suggests several such strategies.
The strategies suggested below relate to the support of English writing activities for students in secondary schools who have different cultural backgrounds. The research reviewed previously on the use of wikis provides many implications for English teachers and researchers. Accordingly, we propose several conclusions based on the functions of wikis, and the lessons learned from the previous cases as well as the literature we have reviewed (Refer to Table 3).
Providing continuous feedback by teachers
Augar et al. (2004)
Eberbach et al. (2006)
Langie et al. (2006)
Encouraging the creation of ideas/Finding proper writing topics
Encouraging creative composition
Carson & Nelson (1994)
Building an atmosphere that encourages comments and editing
Pfeil et at. (2006)
Auger et al. (2006)
Monitoring students’ activities
Pedro et al. (2006)
Lin et al. (2006)
Pfeil et al. (2006)
Langie et al. (2006)
Learning wiki technology at the start of the use of a wiki activity
Auger et al. (2006)
(input tables, images, etc.)
Content Feedback: First, the teacher as a content expert should continuously provide his students with feedback about the content and the expressive ways that the students can write through wikis. One of the most important reasons that this kind of activity is needed is to retain the reliability of the contents. In particular, since the students are not necessarily good at writing in English as a foreign language, it is necessary to continuously investigate the content generated and online collaborations. In this case, an English teacher and a specific subject teacher can deliberate on teaching an integrated class together in order to give feedback effectively.
Idea Creation: Second, students should be encouraged to post their opinions and ideas without hesitation and fear of negative feedback. In existing research (Coutinho & Bottentuit, 2007; Lamb, 2004; Langie et al., 2006; Lin et al., 2007; Parker & Chao, 2007), many advantages of wikis are revealed, but to maximize the achievements of English writing education, teachers need to build careful plans that keep the students’ attention and interest in writing activities. Most important of all is that the teacher needs to find the subject areas that are most interesting in order to foster students’ energy for the project and overall collaboration for different writing topics.
Creative Composition: Third, students should be encouraged to write ‘a creative composition’ in presenting their thoughts and ideas without limitation. The final goal of English writing education is to encourage free writing among students. Free writing allows students to generate thoughts and information from their own experiences and ultimately to share them with others (Oh, 2004).
Of course, a common recommendation is that teachers engage in or guide students in writing activities in order to avoid initial confusion in arranging writing topics and sub themes. But, as time goes by, it is important that students themselves have the authority to explore and arrange the writing topics and the related sub themes.
Collaborative Atmosphere: Fourth, teachers and students need to create an atmosphere in which students do not feel afraid to edit, comment, or change others’ documents. When a safe and engaging environment is created, students will accept and participate in those activities. In addition, when everyone in a community reviews and edits a collaborative document, or adds new ideas, students learn to accept the contributions of of others and grow from this experience.
Think back to the earlier point related to building a culture of productive interactions and commenting among members as suggested by Notario (2006). Teachers can consider introducing wikis as a way to help students’ understanding of original meanings.
In fact, this strategy is different from merely encouraging students to creatively build their thoughts and ideas in a wiki. It is related to encouraging them to develop their critical thinking, and so it cannot be ignored.
Monitoring: Fifth, the teacher as a facilitator should monitor and encourage the activities of their students while they write a composition on the wiki. In the case of online group activity, some members do not acclimate to the activities, or even can give up. Consequently, a wiki activity or project can result in limited student participation. To deal with this problem, the teacher can facilitate the students’ participation using some methods (for example, assigning them roles). Moreover, information related to the students’ activities can be efficiently checked through the ‘History’ function of wikis that preserves the changes of the wiki content.
Training: Sixth, before using wikis in a class or project, students need to have enough time to get to know the wiki tool. Of course, some research suggests that users need minimal time to understand the wiki tool, and that it is possible to introduce how to use the wiki in simple instructions using e-mail (Lamb, 2004). At the same time, other research indicates that most students who participate in wiki research need more time to get to know the wiki tool or environment (Notari, 2006). Familiarity appears to be a factor for success. Teachers also should remember “the wiki usage as an icebreaker” model. In the beginning use of wikis, for instance, students can learn the technology while participating in an icebreaker activity, such as introducing themselves to the group or getting acquainted with the ways the technology can be used.
Much previous research describes the wiki as a tool to support writhing instruction and collaborative activities among users far beyond the geographical and cultural limitations of the past. In this paper, we considered English writing for middle and high school students who have different kinds of cultural backgrounds as a proper arena in which to apply wikis. And through the literature review, a set of factors were outlined to smoothly implement English writing instruction among international learners through wikis.
First, the teacher as a content expert should continuously provide his students with feedback about the content and the expressive ways that the students can write through wikis. Second, students should be encouraged to post their opinions and ideas without hesitation and fear of negative feedback. Third, students should be encouraged to write ‘a creative composition’ in presenting their thoughts and ideas without limitation. Fourth, teachers and students need to create an atmosphere in which students do not feel afraid to edit, comment, and change others’ documents. Fifth, the teacher as a facilitator should monitor and encourage the activities of their students while they write a composition on the wiki. Sixth, before using wikis in a class or project, students need to have sufficient time to get to know the pertinent wiki tools.
As known, the wiki is a useful tool for authentic communication among distant participants in the global world. To make this new and helpful technology into an effective tool for education, future research needs to continuously find proper areas to employ it. In addition, future researchers need to develop strategies that are applicable to other specific settings and that can be used for effective and successful learning.
In the same context, the strategies found in this paper are relatively new since scant research and practice exists related to the use of wikis with middle and high school students. To address this gap in the literature on wikis, our upcoming research will focus on case studies that explore the use of wikis with this population.
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Ji-Yon Lee is an Assistant Director of Institute of APEC Collaborative Education. She majored in Educational Technology at Pusan National University. Dr. Lee is in charge of R&D for online learning community consisting of researchers, teachers, students, and entrepreneurs in the APEC region. Her research interests include online learning communities, communities of practice, systems design, and international cooperation in education. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Curtis J. Bonk is Professor of Instructional Systems Technology at