Learning to make connections in pharmacy using Mediawiki
David West and Andrew Wilderspin from the School of Pharmacy explain the Provost's Teaching Award-winning Integrated Therapeutics Project, in which wikis are used to teach students integration.
7 August 2013
"Students create wiki pages for five unrelated topics and then design a map illustrating how the topics would eventually connect to one another via a series of links.
Pharmacy deals with compounds and people and all aspects of the interactions of one with the other. Good pharmacy practice therefore requires integration of a wide range of subject matter.
However, undergraduates typically do not relate the information taught in one subject area with others, despite the importance of these interrelationships. At its root this project was designed to address the problem of the student not being able to make use of the facts they have assimilated.
Considering these issues has taught staff much about how the student learns, particularly within a modular course framework, and this is now affecting the way we teach and assess.
Using the concept of a wiki
The widespread use of Wikipedia has made most people familiar with the concept of topic pages with many interlinking references embedded in the text. Using a wiki analogy our problem could be described as a student mind composed of topic pages that contain no links. In fact, as assessments show, some notional topic pages laid down early in the course also contain little content by the end.
Training students to make connections across subjects
We have used the act of constructing an interlinked wiki from a set of selected topics both to rehearse the content and, critically, to explore the relationships between them.
The end product is not necessarily the resulting information set, but training in the process of making the connections, with the expectation that this will result in a lasting change to their thinking about all subjects.
We aim to accelerate the acquisition of a deeper and more applicable understanding rather than simply knowledge of the facts.
Creating concept maps
At the end of the wiki-construction phase each student generates a 'map' similar to a 'concept map' summarising the most important relationships relevant to the topics they were allocated.
The map is produced in PowerPoint as a single page and submitted electronically for assessment by a committee of experts from all disciplines involved. These maps can be rapidly assessed and clearly identify the good and the weak students.
Each student works only on a subset of the entire wiki, but the exercise of putting topics into context and making therapeutically relevant links within the final map is the focus. The wiki is an exceptionally good tool for this process and the concept map a way of succinctly illustrating the results. Maps like this have been employed previously, but we can find no reports of hyperlinked text or wikis being used in this way.
Timing to make best use of knowledge: third year
The project is introduced midway through the third year, at which point the basic science teaching that constitutes the body of knowledge that needs to be integrated is complete.
Students are rather sceptical at first when asked to regenerate what they see as already in existence. However, by completion most are convinced of its usefulness.
The project is set as an independent activity that also fosters decision-making, especially about what subjects they include in the submitted PowerPoint map. The initial tendency for many is to write essays about each topic with few, if any, connections between them. This is what we aim to change. If all students could write good integrative pages initially (a few do) there would be no need for this project.
Reminding students that content is not the priority - connections are
During the project, there is a constant need to remind students that it is about connections, not content. The purpose of content here is primarily to describe the connections, although it does have the additional benefit of rehearsing it.
Wiki construction is done on the web and Mediawiki – the engine used – is essentially a database to which text is added. All activity is automatically logged and is accessible for monitoring. We have developed various additional scripts that generate information about individual activity, page development and link development. This information is used to monitor the project but also to provide information for a component of the assessment."