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Using Wikis to Create Pedagogical Scripts for Knowledge Communities

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Using Wikis to Create Pedagogical Scripts for Knowledge Communities

Vanessa L. Peters and James D. Slotta

Abstract: This study investigates a new approach that connects scripted learning activities with collective knowledge building efforts in secondary school biology. Using co-design, the researchers collaborated with two experienced science teachers to create a wiki-based curriculum lesson where 103 grade-ten biology students developed a knowledge base of ideas about human physiology, then drew upon those ideas as resources for subsequent curricular activities. Results demonstrate that this innovative wiki lesson fostered collaborative knowledge construction as well as individual student learning.

Keywords: Knowledge communities; scripted activities; co-design; knowledge building; wikis


Knowledge building is widely recognized as an effective instructional approach that engages students within a community of learners. In knowledge building classrooms, student agency is achieved by giving them responsibility over their learning (Brown & Campione, 1996; Scardamalia, 2001). Through negotiating ideas, the wider student community comes to develop its own knowledge base, supporting individual students in the process of intentional learning (Scardamalia, 2001). However, knowledge building has enjoyed more success in elementary classrooms (Zhang, Scardamalia, Reeve, & Messina, 1996) than it has in secondary ones, mainly because of the depth of commitment required by teachers to implement this method (Hoadley & Pea, 2002). Because of strict content requirements, it is very difficult for high school science teachers to adopt a knowledge building approach.

We have extended the theoretical perspective of knowledge building to enable a wiki-based application where students first engage in collective knowledge building, then conduct scripted activities that are explicitly indexed to the knowledge base. While scripted activities are seen by some scholars as directive mechanisms that take agency away from students, when well designed, they can complement autonomous learning processes – flexible enough to allow students to drive their own inquiry (Fischer, Kollar, Hakke, & Mandl, 2007), yet still guide students toward targeted learning outcomes (Slotta, 2004).

Method and Data Sources

Participants were two veteran high school biology teachers and 103 grade ten students from an urban school in Toronto. The students were distributed into four sections of an intermediate-level biology class. The study used a co-design process where teachers and researchers co-create curriculum materials to address a specific educational need (Roschelle, Penuel, & Schechtman, 2006). For this study, a four day lesson in human physiology was designed, where students first built a collective knowledge base (using wiki pages) then conducted a content-focused lesson that drew upon the resources in that knowledge base. All students worked in the same common wiki space, resulting in a single corpus of 23 disease pages divided into categories corresponding to the three body systems.


Data were analyzed according to the different dimensions of the research project: the co-design process, knowledge building, and the scripted activity. Student achievement of content expectations was measured by their scores on the physiology section of the final exam.

Both teachers were able to successfully enact the curriculum in their classrooms with no interventions from the researchers. Although the researchers were on hand to offer support, they were not directly involved with any classroom procedures. The teachers responded to students’ questions and comments about the lesson, including those pertaining to the wiki. During earlier stages of the design process, teachers expressed concerns about altering their regular curriculum to accommodate what was described as a "research-intellectual exercise." However, persistent design meetings resulted in a classroom activity that both teachers were comfortable with.

Knowledge building
Across the four classes, students created wiki pages for seven respiratory diseases, ten circulatory diseases, and six digestive diseases. A wiki template made with the application Ruby on Rails provided students with a cognitive scaffold that automated the addition of metadata about the biology of their disease pages. The researchers anticipated that students would be reluctant to work with their peers’ materials, preferring instead to create a new system disease or disorder page of their own. However, approximately half the students opted to work on an existing page, even though there were many diseases that were not yet represented in the wiki.

Scripted activities
Each pair of students completed a scripted activity where they created and solved a challenge case that drew on students’ collective knowledge base. The researchers had predicted that students would use Google when trying to solve their challenge cases. Classroom observations by the teacher and researchers, however, revealed that students were consulting the disease pages created by their peers. Students’ reliance on their own knowledge base may have been due to the ease with which students could access relevant information. It is also possible that students felt a sense of pride and ownership towards the resources in their community wiki.

Student achievement of content expectations
The researchers were interested in exploring the impact of the knowledge building lesson on student achievement. We compared our grade ten students (n = 100) with the same teachers’ grade ten students from the previous two years who received a more traditional physiology unit consisting of lectures and a lab (n = 67). We compared the performance of the two groups on the physiology sections of the final exam, which employed similar open-ended questions for all three years.

The students from previous years were grouped into one category in order to minimize the probability of Type 1 errors. Results from the analysis revealed a significant difference in students’ scores. Those who participated in the knowledge building activity (M = 7.90, SD = 1.59) had significantly higher scores than students from previous years who were taught with the regular curriculum (M = 8.84, SD = 1.15), p = .011.

Educational Implications

The findings from this research indicate that knowledge building methods can be successfully designed for high school biology classrooms. In particular, the blend of wiki-based knowledge building and scripted activities that target specific content learning goals allowed us to use the wider knowledge base as a productive curriculum resource. This work thus responds to an ongoing challenge of how to make knowledge building activities more relevant for secondary teachers, and opens up possible avenues for future research and theoretical models.


  • Brown, A. and Campione, J. Psychological Theory and the Design of Innovative Learning Environments. In L. Schauble and R. Glaser (Eds.), Innovations in Learning, 1996, 289-325.
  • Fischer, F., Kollar, I., Hakke, J., and Mandl, H. Perspectives on Collaboration Scripts. In F. Fischer, I. Kollar, H. Mandl, & J. M. Hakke (Eds.), Scripting Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, NY: Springer, 2007, 1-10.
  • Hoadley, C. and Pea, R. Finding the ties that bind: Tools in support of a knowledge-building community. In K. A. Renninger and W. Shumar (Eds.), Building virtual communities, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2002, 321-354.
  • Roschelle, J., Penuel, W., and Schechtman, N. Co-design of innovations with teachers: Definition and dynamics. Paper presented at International Conference of the Learning Sciences, Bloomington, IN, 2006.
  • Scardamalia, M. Getting real about 21st century education. Journal of Educational Change, 2, 2001, 171–176.
  • Slotta, J. The web-based inquiry science environment (WISE): Scaffolding knowledge integration in the science classroom. In M. Linn, P. Bell, and E. Davis (Eds.), Internet Environments for Science Education, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2004, 202-231.
  • Zhang, J., Scardamalia, M., Reeve, R., and Messina, R. Designs for collective cognitive responsibility in knowledge building communities. Paper presented at American Educational Research Association, San Francisco, CA, 2006.
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