Academic Exchange Quarterly     Spring  2010    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  14, Issue  1

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Wiki-based learning in the Art History survey


Sarah Jarmer Scott, Wagner College, NY


Dr. Scott, Assistant Professor in the Art Department, teaches Ancient Near Eastern, Egyptian, and Aegean Bronze Age Art History. 



Wagnerpedia, Wagner College’s wiki-site, is introduced as a content management tool for the Global Art History survey. Desired outcomes were increased student motivation, engagement, and content absorption through the interactive use of the tool.  Assessment during two distinct semesters resulted in ongoing adjustment throughout the period of study.  It is concluded that wiki-sites can be successfully used in the Art History survey not only for content management but also as a ‘Mindtool’ and an aid in Problem-based Learning.  



College professors are today more than ever met with challenges regarding the integration of their specific discipline with that of pedagogy and computer technology.  They are encouraged to embrace technology in their teaching, yet this is a laborious process.  Current scholarship suggests social software has its uses in an academic environment.  Students and educators spend increasingly more time on social networking sites (Jonassen, et. al. 1999), and enjoy the social component (Oblinger 2008; Ebersbach, et. al. 2006).  It is clear that this social component has positive impact on learning (Wheeler 2001, 2008; Richardson 2006).  Wiki-based sites allow text, images, and video to be shared digitally and in the classroom.  Hence they have been increasingly employed in academic settings as a vehicle for content management in many distinct ways (Zimmerman, et. al. 2005, 2008; Yan 2008; Bruns 2008; Vazey, et. al. 2006).


Specifically in the field of Art History, new tools are frequently employed, but results are rarely reported or published.  This is particularly frustrating, as Art History is a field where the use of social learning activities has direct positive outcomes on memory and cognition. (Donahue-Wallace, et. al. 2008).  The purpose of this article is to contribute a case study of wiki-use in an Art History class.  It offers a general look at how this social software can be utilized for course content management and as a tool for critical thinking and skill acquisition (in Problem-based Learning and through use of ‘Mindtools.’).  It specifically looks at how the wiki can be adapted for use in an Art History class, as PBLs have become a major component of such classes (Lindner 2005).  First, an introduction to the project is presented.  Then a brief commentary on select scholarship addressing social networking software use in academic settings is provided.  Following is a case study of the use of a wiki site in the Global Art History survey.  The narrative traces students’ comments, assessment data, logistical pitfalls and triumphs, and modification strategies over the course of two full semesters.[[1]]

Background and Current Scholarship

Wikipedia, since its creation in 2001, has become one of the largest reference Web sites, attracting over 700 million users.  It boasts over 10,000,000 articles in over 250 languages.  Users generate and edit the content within Wikipedia's editing policies and to an appropriate standard (Wikipedia 2008).  Although there are issues with the accuracy of Wikipedia, as well as the validity of its use as a scholarly source, it is an important venue for social collaboration that can be useful in a college education environment.   Wagner College has its own wiki-based site, Wagnerpedia, which is used by faculty and students as an educational tool.  A small liberal arts college on Staten Island, Wagner’s philosophy emphasizes practical application of a liberal arts education.  The use of the wiki is thus highly appropriate for Wagner students as it provides them with a content management resource also accessible to the public, where academic issues can be discussed by the community.


The global Art History survey taught at Wagner is a typical survey course.  In a lecture environment, students are presented with large amounts of contextual and chronological background so they can more fully understand the objects they encounter in lectures, readings, museums visits and discussion.  Case studies of similar intro-level courses show that instructors frequently seek new pedagogical methods because of such challenges (large lectures, too much material, apathetic and passive learners) (Donahue-Wallace, et. al. 2008).  As this study will show, the use of Wagnerpedia has aided in abetting some of these challenges.  The course at Wagner, although it is a requirement for Art and Art History majors and minors, is most commonly taken by students seeking to fulfill a general education requirement.  As such, the class emphasizes skills and concepts applicable in many other disciplines and professions.  Case studies have also shown that new pedagogical methods are frequently sought to aid in such courses as well (Donahue-Wallace, et. al. 2008).


Wagnerpedia was introduced as a course requirement in AH 118: Introduction to Art History: The Ancient World from a Non-western Perspective during the fall 2008 semester.  The decision to use it as a course tool was influenced by a number of issues raised in current scholarship, including 1) participant satisfaction, 2) community coalescence, 3) increased student responsibility, and 4) better cognition.  College students are texting, facebooking, and instant messaging more than ever (Oblinger 2008) (Ebersbach, et. al. 2006).  Studies suggest that classroom use of these tools results in happier students and satisfied teachers (Jonassen,et. al. 1999).   Scholarship emphatically supports conclusions that these technology-based social networking tools contribute to the coalescence of a learning community (Wheeler 2001, 2008; Richardson 2006); students can more readily function in a learning environment, and educators become part of their students’ community.  Finally, computer technology is seen as vital for educators because it contributes to students’ responsibility for their own education resulting in direct, positive outcomes on cognition (Donahue-Wallace, et al. 2008).  Scholarship suggests that the implementation of user-created content software and web-authoring are capable of this (Jacobs, et. al. 2004).  Therefore, the intention of the Wagnerpedia project was to produce a happier, community-oriented class while increasing students’ memory and cognition. 


According to sociologists who study human learning, tool use is vital in the process (Sutherland 2004; Siozos, et. al. 2008).  Various objects, artifacts, and semiotic systems are cultural product of the period in which they develop.  Today we are living in a print-based world culture that is rapidly changing to image-based; visual technologies, in the field of Art History pedagogy in particular, can aid students in engaging with today’s visual world (Donahue-Wallace, et. al. 2008; Cohen, et. al. 1997).  Educators and students are becoming better at using these new technologies, although they frequently struggle with the learning curve.  


There is no doubt among today’s scholars regarding the imperative of social learning; levels of cognition and retention increase greatly when there is active involvement in the learning process (Bandura 1986; Zimmerman, et. al. 2003).  More importantly, these outcomes are enhanced with computer technologies such as distance-based web learning, wikis, blogs, and podcasts (Zimmerman 2008; Zimmerman, et. al. 2005; Yan 2008).  The use of wiki-based course material has proved beneficial in a number of arenas; educators have been able to successfully incorporate course content while also getting students to be actively engaged with the material (Bruns 2008).  Wikis have also been used to help with problem-solving techniques in the classroom (Vazey, et. al. 2006).  Other studies of wikis in the classroom have shown that wiki-based interaction can be as successful as face-to-face collaboration, and that by using wikis students have more opportunity to interact with content (Coyle 2007). Therefore, the social component of Wagnerpedia was intended to enhance student cognition and absorption of global Art History content.   


Fall 2008

Wagnerpedia was implemented in two distinct sections of the AH 118 during the fall 2008 semester: one comprised entirely of first-year students (the Learning Community, or section LC), the other (section 1) was a mixture of upper classmen.  Each class had an introductory page; here the project was introduced and questions were posed to guide students.   Each class’ introductory page had links to eleven other pages of subtopics, based on each culture covered throughout the semester.  Each of these culture pages had its own introduction and two monuments chosen by the instructor.  Students were responsible for three postings each week: 1-4 sentences each for the culture’s introduction and both monuments.  On overall quality they received a grade of 0, 75, 85, or 95 for each culture’s triad of postings, which cumulatively counted as 20% of their final grade. 


It was possible not only to test how the students in general benefitted from using the site, but also how use differed between the two distinct sections.  Based on formative assessment throughout the semester, and summative assessment through student feedback questionnaires and analysis of final exam results, many issues arose, a few which are discussed here.  Some relate to content-management (use of depth and detail within postings, the need for editing, successful use of the content for studying purposes).  Others relate to student authoring (too many authors wanted to make the same point, lack of citation management, and disregard for link inclusion).


One project goal was to determine how the two classes interacted with the structured content differently.  Various points made it clear that section LC found it more valuable as a repository for research, while section 1 used it more heavily for review purposes.  A comparison of monument entries from each class section illustrated a trend: there was greater depth and detail in the postings composed by section 1 than by section LC.  Summative assessment (questionnaires) supported this observation: (50%) of section 1 reported they felt they had gained a deeper understanding of the information, while the only a small number (15%) of section LC reported this.


Formative assessment suggested that editing of page content was a problem.  There was a large amount of text, frequently repetitive, resulting in an overall lack of cohesive narrative voice.  The solution was to institute a peer-editing schedule.  Summative assessment suggested this forced the students to think more carefully about their successive postings, and pay closer attention to narrative cohesion.  Again, the questionnaire produced an interesting contrast between the two sections: a larger portion (44%) of section 1 disliked the editing process, while a much smaller number (30%) of section LC disliked it.   


One outcome for the project was to provide the students with a content management tool that would aid them in the absorption of course material.  Summative evaluation in the form of exam analysis suggests this goal was achieved.  Large numbers of students from both sections reported using the site as a resource for exam review (67% of section 1 and 55% of section LC); however, more students in section LC reported this as their primary use of the site.  Section 1 also performed better on the exams, with an average class exam score of 85.  Section LC’s average was slightly lower at 82.  So, the class reporting more intensive review had an overall higher exam score.  Even more telling are the final exam results.  The final exam tested students primarily on material from Wagnerpedia.  Section 1’s final exam average was 86, and section LC’s was 83.  Both classes improved their exam scores when the exam was more heavily reliant upon material from the site. These results concur with studies of other content-driven wiki-projects (Hsu 2007).    


The second broader issue raised by this first semester of study was that of student authoring.  As mentioned above, students frequently posted without regard for what had been posted already.  Formative and summative assessment showed a large percentage (60%) of both sections complained about this.  Students frequently said that the information they intended to post had been ‘stolen’ by classmates who had posted first.  Students in section 1 has less of a problem with repetition as reflected in their feedback questionnaire (55% naming it as their strongest complaint, while 65% of section LC cited it as the major problem). 


Another problem that arose regarding authoring was that citation.  It was expected that students would post from general knowledge gained through reading and class lecture.  However, this contributed to repetition and resulted in ‘shallow’ entries.  Formative assessment proved insightful on this issue, and students were then encouraged to look beyond their general knowledge.  The freshman class (section LC) did an outstanding job in this regard, revising entries to include citations from books, articles, and scholarly websites.  However section 1 did not revise their entries.  Summative evaluations reflect this phenomenon: section 1 reported using outside sources much less frequently, relying more heavily on their class notes.  A very small number of them (28%) reported using the internet to track down information for their postings, while a very large percentage (70%) of section LC claimed to frequently rely on outside sources. 


During the initial presentation of the project to the class student-authors were encouraged to add links to pages both outside (inter-links) and within Wagnerpedia (intra-links).  This is a major benefit of navigating through information on wiki-based platforms and it makes sites deeper in scope.  Neither class section complied with these suggestions, which resulted in pages lacking depth.


By the end of the Fall 2008 semester it became clear that the use of the wiki-site gave students a greater sense of responsibility for their own learning and writing.  Incorporating a graded editing component greatly enhanced their sense of responsibility.  Moving forward with the project mandatory citation and inclusion of links would give the students a greater sense of their role as scholars, and contribute to ‘community’ learning.


It also became evident that student cognition and retention increased through use of Wagnerpedia; it is a clear example of a social learning tool aiding in the learning process.  Students were more readily capable of discussing particular monuments because they had some ‘prep’ time on the site.  Exam scores improved.  To encourage a deeper sense of community involvement, a discussion section on each page would be useful.  Discussion sections are a more subjective format for posting; students interact in this way with Facebook, so they should be able to do it in a more academic environment.   It is also clear that students were consciously aware of the presence of peers in the assignments; this was clearly evidenced in students’ comments regarding the ‘race to post.’ Students felt ownership of the content they posted, and were disappointed to see someone else might beat them to the posting. 


Current trends in teaching the Art History survey are focusing more on skill development rather that content absorption (Miller 1996).  Educators ask questions about analysis, process, and research approach rather than looking to students for content recall (Cothren 1995).  Can Wagnerpedia as a tool be used in this way?  Although by nature an encyclopedia, it is user-driven, so it should be possible to use it to ask questions, rather than to just post information.  This follows the educational trend to utilize computer technology as an interactive tool emphasizing critical thinking rather than just passive engagement.  When used in this way such technology is referred to as a Mindtool (Jonassen, et. al. 1999).  


Spring 2009

Based on results from fall 2008, it was decided to continue the study into the spring 2009 semester with one section of the survey class.  This time the assignments were modified so the tool could be utilized as a Mindtool for PBL.  Students were not required to post for every culture, but only for one culture.  Beginning with the existing site completed by the fall section 1, they were asked to re-organize, revise, and add to the existing culture’s site.  Instructions specifically directed the students to improve narrative flow in both the culture’s introduction and one monument, include at least eight scholarly sources and references, and peer-edit one other posting.  Finally, their own entry was revised according to the feedback of their peer-editor. 


This new implementation of Wagnerpedia was more successful.  It eliminated the ubiquitous repetition of content, while encouraging greater depth in postings.  The spring 2009 section 1 class spent less time overall on Wagnerpedia, but their time was highly concentrated on just a single entry.  Students largely reported a sense of great accomplishment as their entries were individually significant, yet part of a large class project (78%).  Postings were carefully crafted, with proper citations, and acceptable bibliography.  Students took ownership of their entries, and reported that they enjoyed doing the research (57%).  Some students commented that they liked the community aspect (44%), and others commented it was refreshing being able to look at peers’ progress as they themselves were working (26%).  Although some students complained about having to re-work poorly composed entries from the previous semester (26%), the majority of students liked that the entries had a history (70%).  They felt satisfaction after improving what had been done by the previous section, and were pleased the site would be more useful for future classes (65%).  Occasionally the spring semester students deleted most or all of what had been posted in the fall 2008 version and completely re-wrote the entry (30%).  Students reported liking the editing component as well, particularly because it forced them to see how others had revised the entries (30%).  Fewer students reported using it as tool for exam review (22%), however, likely due to the fact that they were not forced to look at every culture over the course the semester.  The final exam for the spring class was also heavily reliant upon images on Wagnerpedia, and again the average class score on the final exam was higher (87) than the midterm (83).


After using Wagnerpedia for a second semester it became clear students enjoyed using it more if the focus was placed on one culture and one specific monument.  In the spring semester students were more actively exposed to research methods in Art History.  These methods could be retained as a skill set once the course was over.  A further benefit was the satisfaction they felt about sharing this information with their peers and the public.



The goal of the Wagnerpedia project was to see if a wiki site could be successfully used as a tool for content management in an Art History survey class.  Desired outcomes included increased student motivation, engagement, and content absorption through the interactive use of the tool.

Readers can see in the above narrative that pitfalls were experienced, but after some modification and a second semester of implementation, the site was in fact used successfully.  Students engaged in independent and group activities based on the site which helped them learn course content.  Exam scores improved and research skills were honed, through community interaction on the wiki.  Once the instructor and students became comfortable with manipulation of the tool, it became clear that it was useful as a content management vehicle.  Storage and use of imagery was a major benefit, greatly contributing to the wiki’s use as an Art History tool.


An important concluding point regarding the use of wikis as a tool for Art History course work can be made.  Pedagogical styles in Art History are becoming ever-more based in critical thinking and less focused on content absorption (Cothren 1995; Miller 1996).   Problem-based learning, a learning style in which wiki-based platforms can play a role, is achieving ever more advocates (Miller 1996; Lindner 2005).  Additionally, studies show that interactive exercises within computer environments (‘learning objects,’ or ‘Mindtools’) enhance the user’s engagement with the content.  This has also led students to more actively and successfully learn skills in addition to content (Donahue-Wallace, et. al. 2008; LaFollette 2008; Bransford, et. al. 1999).  This study has shown that the students increased cognition and were highly satisfied using Wagnerpedia for research projects.  Hence, wikis are certainly a valuable tool to emphasize critical thinking and research skills in addition to or in place of content-absorbtion.

[[1]] Preliminary findings were presented at the 2009 College Art Association Annual Conference in Los Angeles.  I am pleased to include a closer look at the project in this current article, which additionally details results from the Spring 2009 semester.



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