Research Questions and Methods
With a small grant from DePaul University’s Center to Advance Education for Adults, Michelle and Polly initiated this project in Winter Quarter 2007 while teaching together for the first time in the bridge program. At that time, we believed that we were succeeding in using a wiki as a teaching tool to distribute information, promote collaboration and build a sense of class community. Our research goals were to check our assumptions about our success using the wiki as a teaching tool, experiment with ways to use the wiki as a learning tool and evaluate our ability to disseminate what we had learned to Peggy and Suzanne, another new bridge teaching team. Our central research questions were:
- How can a wiki be used to improve academic writing skills and build community in classes for adult students from diverse ethnic, cultural, economic and prior learning backgrounds?
- How can teachers develop and transfer their learning about how to work with new technology, like wikis, to other teachers?
To address these questions, we planned to use retention data, a comparison of initial and final papers, surveys, course evaluations, and analysis of the content and quantity of postings on the course wikis.
We eventually decided not to use the retention data we collected and not to compare students’ initial and final papers for evidence of writing development. We had wanted retention data because we believed that courses that build community and strengthen academic writing skills would promote retention. Thus, we attempted to compare student retention within our classes and the persistence of students for two quarters after taking our classes to the average retention and persistence of students taking the same courses at our institutions. However, we were not able to obtain reliable retention numbers from the City Colleges of Chicago. More importantly, we realized that, because of the bridge program, our classes differed from the other classes along so many dimensions (including team teaching, additional advising, and mixing of two- and four-year students) we could not attribute any gains or losses in retention and persistence directly to the use of wikis. Similarly, any improvements in writing skills we might have found by comparing students’ initial and final papers could have multiple causes independent of the wikis (for more on this topic, see (Improving Academic Writing Skills?). T
herefore, to understand how wikis may or may not have contributed to our students' developing writing skills and sense of community, we relied upon our class observations, analysis of how students used the wikis, and what students said about the wikis and their development as writers. We gathered student feedback from surveys, a class assignment asking students to reflect upon the conduct manual project, the reflective essays in students’ final portfolios and the answers students gave on the SNL and CCC course evaluation forms.
We surveyed students after the completion of Michelle and Polly’s Winter 2007 course and at the start and end of Michelle and Polly and Suzanne and Peggy’s Fall 2007 courses. In addition to a few demographic questions, the surveys asked students to assess their sense of belonging in the classes, their confidence in and development of their writing skills and their reactions to the wikis. (To view the survey questions and student responses, click here.) In the Fall 2007 classes, 30 of 31 students completed the initial survey and 21 completed the end-of-quarter survey.
Since we were formulating our research project while teaching our Winter 2007 class, our data gathering that quarter was exploratory. We did not survey the Winter 2007 students until well after the course ended because we had to wait for IRB approval. As a result, only three of thirteen students, or 23% of the class, completed the survey. However, ten of these thirteen students, 77% of the class, completed a supplemental course evaluation that asked them questions about their development as writers and readers as well as their impressions of the bridge program. You can see these questions and student responses here. Although these questions did not specifically ask students about the wiki, their answers to these questions helped us understand how students saw their writing development as a result of the class. In addition, of the eleven students in this class who completed a reflective essay on what they had learned as part of their final portfolios, seven students commented on the diversity of the class. Students were not specifically prompted to write about diversity for their final portfolios, but to reflect upon what they had learned in the class. Because this group of students had begun the class particularly wary of the students not from their school, we were struck by their comments. We quote from some of these comments in the Building Collaborative Learning Communities? section.
For Michelle and Polly’s Winter and Fall 2007 classes, we also used student responses to the questions listed below. We we asked these questions after students had completed their conduct manual projects on the wiki:
- How did it feel to be in the position of the person giving the rules, rather than the reader being told what to do?
- How did you decide what was important to include and what was not?
- How did writing as a member of a group affect your decisions about what to say and how to say it?
- How is writing as a group similar to and different from writing your own papers?
- After participating in writing a conduct manual, how might you read the work of Dr. Gregory differently?
Student responses to these questions informed our discussion of the conduct manual project on the wikis, and we quote from some of these comments in the Building Collaborative Learning Communities? section.
For each class, we collected any comments students made about the wikis, their writing and the collaborative projects they did on the wikis in their final portfolios and on the course evaluation forms. We had a total of 33 DePaul evaluations from students in each of the three classes, and 14 CCC evaluations from students in Suzanne and Peggy’s Fall 2007 class. We discuss these comments in the Student Response to Wikis? section.
To help us understand how we developed our use of wikis, we compared not only the nature of the assignments we gave students in each class, but also how many words and pages on each wiki came from teachers versus students. These numbers, which we discuss in Technology Transfer and Teacher Learning?, helped us to see the extent to which our use of the wikis was teacher- or student-centric.