Saturday, 26 March 2011

Working with Wiktionary (Project 5 Evaluation)

After searching around for online possibilities as to how my Gr. 12 EAL students could develop their usage of the most commonly-used academic words (AWL) in English, and after a relatively quick consult with Jeff Utecht, my CoETAIL instructor, we agreed that the students should try the real-world wiki I came across: Simple English Wiktionary, which featured the AWL words. After Jeff and I looked over the many links and possibilities for practice and editing, I decided to have my students undertake editing the Simple Wiktionary for about 80-120 mins. per week.

I have to say that I wasn't too far off the plan I started with. If I consider the Essential Qs:

1) Can academic vocabulary learning and acquisition be fun?
2) Does the use of technology help to motivate and improve the second language (L2) vocabulary acquisition process?
For the first one, I'd say maybe my definition of fun is somewhat distinct from my Gr. 12s' definition of fun, however, according to student comments, some did in fact find the experience to be 'fun.' (See student comments below.)

As for the second essential Q, I'd say that the experience working on the wiki was motivating for some—those who were already comfortable with technology found the set up on the Wiktionary somewhat intuitive and could essentially figure out for themselves how to write (or copy) the code to make the edits. There's even a place on the Simple English Wiktionary called the 'Sandbox' where newcomers can practice working with the required editing codes. We started out there, but apparently didn't spend enough practice time there, according to one of the editors. But there's a second part to this Q—improve the acquisition process. I'd say the time it spent learning to properly edit (and even then we still continued to make errors and frustrate the editors) detracted from the potentially speedy acquisition. Because it took so long to edit, the students ending up working with fewer words than planned, which thus limited the overall acquisition process.

On the positive side, the students performed admirably on their quiz assessment that followed the editing and practice of each set of 5 AWL vocabulary on the Wiktionary. Most scored between 90-100% consistently. For the assessment itself, the students are expected to answer a question, similar to the initial practice questions the EAL teachers created for students to establish a context, and their response needs to demonstrate their understanding and correct usage of the word in a similar context. After working with 10 AWL words, here's what my students had to say about the experience. And we did 'assume good faith' that the students would make a valid attempt at doing the right thing:

The good:
"The good thing about [Wiktionary] is I learned the words [and] shared with other people."
"It was more interesting to use the computer [Internet] to put things [down] for everyone to see."
"I paid more attention to making sentences and grammar... and it was easier to know the word... because we had to know all the things about the word... better than making vocabulary cards."
"I didn't [have to] try hard to memorize [because] I memorized while searching and writing my own sentences."
"It's good to check with the teacher first to check grammar."
"I love to learn how to use new technology."

The bad:
"I was sad when someone deleted my work after I tried my best. I felt denied."
"It was the same thing over and over again—need something more creative."
"It was easier for a computer nerd."
"There was an unknown person controlling the editing."
"It only worked if you liked [doing it]."
"There needs to be more options of what to put on the page."
"I don't like when they keep removing my things."

Here's what was initially planned:
  • Find a picture that (obviously) illustrates the meaning of the word in context and post it.
  • Post a copy of the word family.
  • Create an original sentence that reflects personal experience using the work in the correct context.
  • Locate a practice exercise using the word and include the link on for others to use. Somehow provide evidence of having completed the exercise.
  • Using Bloom's Digital Taxonomy: 'analyzing,' try mind-mapping or 'creating,' after 4-5 words, try a photo story or a comic creation.
Here's what actually happened:
  • Find a picture... Initially it was relatively easy to figure out how to use Wikimedia Commons and find pictures that corresponded to the word meaning. But in practice, the Wiktionary editors did not like the pictures the students would find, and would end up removing them by the next time we opened the Wiktionary. Here, the 'assume good faith' seemed to break down. In 'talking' with the editor, we were told that the pictures were too abstract or inappropriate. We ended up abandoning the picture search after a few times of this (and as a result affecting the 'visual literacy' segment of this project).
  • Post a copy of the word family: this worked OK as long as the students didn't mix up 'word family' with 'related words' and 'forms of the word' found on the Wiktionary. Sorting this out, and revisiting the errors did at least have the students 'rethink' these word distinctions.
  • Create an original sentence... This seemed to be the best strategy, as long as the students paid attention to which definition they were writing the sentence to (or posting a corresponding definition to the the wiki if needed), and as long as I checked the grammar before the sentence was posted. Otherwise, it was just more work for the Wiktionary editor to clean up afterward.
  • Locate a practice exercise... I found several links at 'English Corner' that seemed to work well for AWL word practice.
  • Mind-mapping: In the end, the Wiktionary editors seemed to accept the mind maps the students tried. I found to work fairly effectively. The students could take screen shots of the mind maps they created and eventually learned how to upload them to Wikimedia Commons prior to posting them to an AWL on the Wiktionary. Here's a sample on Wiktionary.
  • We had a chance to add synonyms, antonyms and in some cases where it worked, to put up pronunciation keys. Here's another sample showing the pronunciation key edit, which also shows some of the history of the editing.
I was able to manage overseeing all of the edits to some degree using my RSS feed through NetVibes. (Although the editors would often beat me to it...) After adding the words the students were working on, their edits would come in automatically. I would then go into the 'history' found on any page of the Wiktionary and see exactly what was done. This made it easy to hold students accountable for their work. It also allowed me to let them assess themselves when it came to grading them for the work that was done. There's also a 'My Watchlist' in the Wiktionary where specific word edits can be monitored. The students completed this Scoring Guide after setting up 5 AWL words. I verified their assessment after a relatively quick look at their work.

Overall, the students had lots of practice thinking about the word definitions, the parts of speech, forms of the word and different usages. We have yet to reach the 30 word goal by the end of the semester and for the remaining words, I'm now leaving the Wiktionary approach an optional strategy. I'm glad we took the risk. Despite moments of frustration and disappointment seeing their work disappear and despite the 'assumed good faith,' we started with, we did end up with lots of collaboration and dialogue about how to use these AWL words that more than likely would have never happened otherwise. So, we'll assume good faith here and return to one of the essential Qs we started out with: Does the use of technology help to motivate and improve the second language (L2) vocabulary acquisition process?

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