The Affordances of Wikis for Enabling Group Work by Pre-Service Teachers

Kay Owens
School of Teacher Education, Charles Sturt University, Dubbo

The computer can facilitate both learning and interaction. Goos, Galbraith, Renshaw and Geiger (2003) noted that the computer is a mediating tool during students’ mathematical learning. It is able to extend thinking and provide alternatives for perceiving different aspects of the learning content. It is almost an extension of thinking. Students are able to inquire and learn more than they can without the computer. The computer, for example, in computer-aided algebra systems, responds and illustrates properties and relationships merely initiated by the student’s thinking. “An affordance of a tool is essentially an action made possible by the availability of that tool” (Dalgarno & Lee, 2010, p. 12). Pedagogically they provide greater immersion in the learning materials, both physically and mentally, and active learner participation (Dalgarno & Lee, 2010).

Furthermore, the computer screen activity becomes the focus for discussion in groups. Goos, Galbraith, Renshaw, and Geiger (2001) showed that technology encouraged a collaborative community of inquiry. They discuss the affordances of technology for the learning in terms of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, and Valsiner’s Zone of Free Movement and Zone of Promoted Action. Mutual engagement of participants, negotiation of a joint enterprise, and development of a shared repertoire for creating meaning emerged from the activity (Wenger, 1998). In an ecological or contextual sense, the technology provided an affordance for perceiving the mathematical concepts due to the screen representations and an affordance in terms of interactions between learner and technology (note that the physical actions generate change in the representations on screen), and the learners themselves as they discuss together the representations on the screen and decide on actions for problem solving and reasoning. Lecturer facilitation and dialogue, the voluntary and unstructured nature of participation, and the early face-to-face experiences that built up trust and mutual understanding between members of the community (Goos & Bennison, 2008) were features relevant to the current situation. In other words the learning design was in itself an affordance and possibly a constraint. It is argued that the learning was not a result of affordances related to physical objects alone but to the cyclical perception and action suggested by ecological models (Young, DePalma, & Garrett, 2002). The design selected to implement the subject assisted students to work together to learn. The computers were integral to this design and their collaboration.

This paper reflects on the affordances in the implementation of a subject designed to encourage first year beginning students and another to encourage third year students with off-campus work to collaborate in a group to assist learning. The first year subject is called The Literate and Numerate Teacher. In this paper, I will be describing how students were able to set up small group Project sites and begin collaborative writing using the wiki from Week 1 on campus. The material was directly related to tutorial practice of the lecture focus. In the first five weeks this related to grammar and academic writing. Students provided a response to specific questions such as what is literacy in the 21st century, write sentences and paragraphs and note their grammatical features, and basic references such as a syllabus statement and a one page reading. This was all on-line so it was easily available through hyperlinks. These were like mini-webquests in that they had a question to answer and resources to assist the students. Generally students (in groups of three) used one computer to read the module and embedded literature on the Interact site and wrote in their wiki of their Project Site on a second computer. These questions formed the basis of an overall essay which formed the assessment task. By week 3, they were writing and correcting paragraphs on the topic. Student services support and lecturer were in the computer room to assist groups. The interactions were both social and physical and reflected the interactions suggested by Dalgarno and Lee (2010) for 3D object screen manipulation:

• Embodied actions including view control, navigation and object manipulation

• Embodied verbal and non-verbal communication

• Control of environment attributes and behaviour

• Construction of objects and scripting of object behaviours. (p. 15)

There were some group activities that did not require the computer but could be adapted to a Smartboard. These were matching activities such as definitions of parts of speech or highlighting the features of a text according to its text type. Students also read to the group and assisted each other with reading well and interacting well and other basic teaching skills. (The intention had been for students to view themselves on the computer and give feedback but the computer and camera facilities did not prove adequate.)

By week 7, students were responsible for reading an article and sharing the content with their peers and commenting on their peers’ entries. The papers were on mathematics. More of this was done outside of class time. They had a few weeks on reading and summarising and then they had to reflect on their views of mathematics based on the mathematical experiences they were then undertaking. The increasing level of academic work, from a reading with a precise question to answer or specific grammatical features to concentrate on to reading an article and synthesising its content or on reflecting on the mathematical problem solving or reasoning skills reduced the earlier scaffolding of collaborative work (Lee & Dalgarno, 2011).

The groups continued to use the computers to look at mathematical questions and investigations. EXCEL was introduced as a means of finding patterns (Owens, 2005). For example, the squares of a hundreds chart could be “coloured” for multiples of different numbers and eventually the sieve of Eratosthenes let students discover the primary and composite numbers. Assistance was provided on-line for learning about basic mathematical conceptual knowledge but they had questions to direct their conversations. They were encouraged to solve most of their mathematical investigations using paper-and-pencil but place their reflections on what new mathematical idea or process they use.

The computer was a focus for recording and when students were helping each other they developed appropriate mentoring strategies. Overall most groups worked well together considering they generally selected their group prior to really knowing each other. Peer mentoring was often strong although some students were concerned about the lack of group attendance, basic skills, or people skills of other members. The students were self-regulating in a social context that encouraged both collaborative learning and mathematical thinking and in which the students’ thinking and affective responses were interacting with the social environment. Part of the environment were the tools for learning and the students’ learning included these learning tools (Jonassen, Peck, & Wilson, 1999; Owens, 2007/2008).

To establish the hyperlinks in modules, webpages were used but this was not a facility that all teaching staff had so most of the work had to be funnelled through the convenor. This had disadvantages as far as modification was concerned. New Interact facilities might improve this problem.

The third year subject also required students to read different articles (generally more difficult than the first year ones) and to complete their summaries and comment on each other’s articles noting similar issues and extensions between articles. After the first week, these students were working from home. The subject was linked to assessment (individually assessed student input to the wiki as well as a cumulative essay), there were some students who failed to submit work in a timely manner but others who talked together (either face-to-face or by other means) and submitted a joint response. The reluctance in some groups seemed to be related to being assessed and they only wanted to submit quality work (the amount awarded to this wiki space was only 10% but in a competitive small group this was significant given the rule of more passes than credits etc).

Having to produce some text on line was an important driver or affordance for students to compare, contrast, and assist each other. Students were also aware that the history feature of wiki permitted the lecturer to see whether they provided timely and appropriate comment to each other, thus permitting a recognition of collaborative work (a small part of their assessment which was generally given full marks except to those who were not uploading materials each week and were absent from class in the case of first years). Establishing their own wiki group also meant that the students became familiar with another computer interactive group. There was one group in particular whose wiki did not function well and they selected to work with blogs. Another made use of resources for a similar reason.

Overall student felt that the collaborative groups were supportive and facilitated learning as indicated in open-ended questions. Among the first years, there was one group with quite distinctive inter-personal differences that did not function well only towards the end of the session and two in which students were not attending or submitting on-line regularly. One third year group faced the latter problem. The collaborative group work and wikis generally encourage regular participation in learning. The link to assessment may or may not have assisted this. It seems some were more reluctant to put down comments on the wikis whereas others were more keen to do something each week. This was especially noticeable for students whose lives were otherwise very busy.

Students were able to share their difficulties in a small group. In general, fellow students were supportive although they may have come privately to tell me of the problems that their fellow student had with literacy (something that I was aware of myself by walking around the room). One other difficulty was the lack of space in the room as one tutorial group increased in size. Both the way of working with modules, the value of embedded files for interactive learning with the computer, and the affordances of the computer in terms of group-work facilitation were evident in the delivery of these subjects. This is particularly salient for first year students to encourage peer support when they enter university with a wide range of literacy and numeracy backgrounds and personal interaction skills.


Dalgarno, B., & Lee, M. (2010). What are the learning affordances of 3-D virtual environments? British Journal of Educational Technology, 41(1), 10-32.

Goos, M., & Bennison, A. (2008). Developing a communal identity as beginning teachers of mathematics: Emergence of an online community of practice. Journal of Mathematics Teacher Education, 11(1), 41-60.

Goos, M., Galbraith, P., Renshaw, P., & Geiger, V. (2001). Promoting Collaborative Inquiry in Technology Enriched Mathematics Classrooms.

Goos, M., Galbraith, P., Renshaw, P., & Geiger, V. (2003). Perspectives on technology mediated learning in secondary school mathematics classrooms. [Article]. Journal of Mathematical Behavior, 22(1), 73. doi: 10.1016/s0732-3123(03)00005-1

Jonassen, D., Peck, K., & Wilson, B. (1999). Learning with technology: A constructivist perspective. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Lee, M., & Dalgarno, B. (2011). Scaffolding discovery learning In 3D virtual environments: Challenges and considerations for instructional design In S. Hai-Jew (Ed.), Virtual immersive and 3D learningsSpaces: Emerging technologies and trends (pp. 138-169). Hershey, PA IGI-Global.

Owens, K. (2005). Patterns on spreadsheets. Reflections, 30(4), 18-22.

Owens, K. (2007/2008). Identity as a mathematical thinker. Mathematics Teacher Education and Development, 9, 36-50.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Young, M. F., DePalma, A., & Garrett, S. (2002). Situations, interaction, process and affordances: An ecological psychology perspective. [Article]. Instructional Science, 30(1), 47-63.

Click below for the power point presentation:

The Affordances of Wikis for Enabling Group Work

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