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Wiki becomes textbook in Boston College classroom

IT prof says Web 2.0 technology boosts collaboration among students

By Heather Havenstein
August 15, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - At many colleges and universities, wikis are used mostly as a supplement to primary teaching tools like textbooks and labs, while other Web 2.0 technologies -- such as social networking sites like Facebook -- have become a staple of student life.

In one Boston College professor's classroom, however, wikis have become a primary learning tool, replacing textbooks and allowing improved collaboration among students. The wiki is even used to let students submit possible questions for examinations, many of which actually appear on tests.

Gerald Kane, assistant professor of information systems at the Chestnut Hill, Mass., school, has been using a wiki from SocialText Inc. as the primary teaching tool in his classroom since October, relying on the technology to integrate content from other Web 2.0 technologies like social book-making tools, RSS systems, and Google for his "Computers in Management" courses.

"[The wiki] has become a really robust tool and has changed the way I teach, primarily because it means I am more of a guide to them rather than a lecturer," Kane said. "My job is to teach them how to navigate this information on the Web. The wiki is now the basis and the platform on which my class is based."

For example, before students submit papers to Kane, they can post them on the wiki to be reviewed by other students.

"The students are able to revise them before they submit them into me for grading," he said. "I went back and compared students who revised papers based on peer feedback to those who didn't. Those who did got a grade bump higher."

In addition, Kane does not write his own exam questions, but instead allows students to post suggested exam questions and submit answers to the wiki. Other students can edit the answers if they feel they are wrong. Some 350 exam questions have been generated using this tactic, he said.

"For the last couple of sessions, 100% of the exam has come from student questions," Kane added. "Students see the entire test beforehand but they don't know what questions I am going to [use]."

Some recent research surveys have found that some companies are investing in wikis, but the technology is used less heavily than other Web 2.0 tools like RSS feeds and social networks. For example, only 33% of executives surveyed by McKinsey & Co. for a report issued in March said that their companies are investing in wiki technologies. The survey concluded that companies are investing more heavily in Web services, RSS, podcasts, social networking and peer-to-peer networking

But Kane noted that because the wiki is collaborative and dynamic -- he and his students can update it as quickly as world events change -- it is a much better classroom tool than a texbook.

"My wiki is my textbook now," he said. "This platform is infinitely better and gets better information from a variety of sources. It takes a year and half for a textbook to get published, and by the time that happens it is outdated. [The use of] textbooks will begin to fade ... and these more collaborative-based, environment will probably rise to the surface."

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