Wikis, Wikis, Everywhere–Part I

This semester I’m using wikis (MediaWiki to be precise) in two of my classes, though in different ways. I’m doing so at Jerry‘s suggestion, despite my greatest previous interaction with wikis being arguing with students about why they can’t use Wikipedia as the scholarly source for their research papers. In two separate posts, I’ll describe the two classes, the plans for the wiki use in each class, and the progress so far.

In my senior readings seminar, I used to have students email me comments and questions about the reading for a particular day a couple of hours before class starts. I would then take those comments and questions and shape the class discussion for the day based on the particular areas of need or interest expressed by the students. This semester, the students post their comments and questions to a wiki page. [I set up one page for each day’s discussion for the semester.] Of course, a large change under this new system is that they now see each others’ postings. [I’ve resisted this before, fearing repetitiveness, copying, and an unfair burden on those who posted first to carry the class.] I’ve found that so far, I was completely wrong. The quality of the questions and comments have gone up from previous semesters. What’s more, they’ve begun to respond to each others’ questions, answering the factual queries and starting to engage the open-ended ones. In other words, the discussion begins before class does.

Of course, I could have just used a forum on Blackboard or some other open-source software (and I’ve used such forums with varying degrees of success in other classes with other assignments). They’d still be able to see what the other students had written and respond to those comments. The advantage of the wiki is that students can more easily edit and/or comment on each others’ work than in a forum, which is either hierarchical or linear (or both). Using the past version function of the wiki I can actually trace the evolution of the conversation as students add material to the ongoing discussion, sometimes inserting themselves in between other people’s comments, sometimes using bold to emphasize particular points that others have made. They haven’t taken to truly editing each others’ work, a common issue from what I’ve heard from those who have used wikis in teaching. [There was a comment deleted by someone else, but that was an accident, for which there was much apologizing. 🙂 ] And I don’t see this lack of editing each others’ work as a problem since I haven’t explicitly asked them to do that.

I hope the quality of posting and interaction remains at the level that it’s at for the rest of the semester. If so, I’ll see it as a great success.

Next time, I’ll discuss the wiki as used in an upper-level lecture & discussion class.

Digital Fluencies–A Reponse

I wanted to respond to failingbetter’s comment on my post last fall on digital literacies, but this response (rant?) seemed to expand beyond comment size. So, a new post was born.

1. I would like to hear a little more about what fluency means and what it entails that is different from skills. Is it just the combination of one’s writing skills with one’s technical knowledge of how to construct/write a blog? Or does it also entail knowledge of the norms of blogging? Is there another category of things that differentiate skills from fluency?

I would crudely define “digital fluency” as the ability to deploy basic technical skills (changing margins or using track changes in Word, participating in online forums, and for some, more complex skills such as website building) in the consumption and production of online materials in a variety of formats. Blogs are just one online format (though perhaps the easiest to engage in–after all, passive consumption is also participation). There are a number of ways that students could demonstrate digital fluency, including appropriate creation of documents, presentations, wikis, websites, forum postings. These things require a wide variety of technical skills, but more than just knowing how to change margins, use email or set up a blog, doing them well requires adaptability, critical thinking, and making clear arguments. [Sound familiar? It should, because digital fluency should be seen as an extension of the core concepts of the liberal arts.]

2. I don’t know that incorporating DL into classes–if they are to be tech across the curriculum–would work. Most faculty only know the skills that they need to survive (no members of my dept. write a blog or know how). I suspect that faculty ignorance would be a significant barrier to making this work (as I understand it).

First, digital fluencies don’t have to be integrated into every class. Still, they do need to be discussed by every department. The advantage of a plan that argues for departmental definitions of digital literacy is that it allows faculty to meet the requirement where they are in terms of their abilities and desires. But here’s the thing: even though no one in failingbetter’s department writes a blog, I’m willing to bet every department member has some goals for students with regard to digital literacy. For example, I suspect his/her department members would agree that students need to be able to differentiate between reliable and unreliable websites. So would it be overly onerous to add to his/her department’s set of goals an ability to consume online information in a skeptical and critical manner? That might be the limit of what a department decides it wants to do on this issue.

One final point of honesty from me on this: I hope that such conversations in each department about what digital literacy means for their students would push some faculty to look more closely at the skills (and fluencies) they themselves have (or might decide they need). [Let’s be clear about something else: “faculty ignorance” should never, ever, be a reason not to do something.]

But I would also hope that such an examination would occur within the context of significant institutional support. One of the things that I’ve made clear in every conversation I’ve had with the various committees involved in these conversations is the absolute need for substantive investment in a variety of support resources and personnel to make this change. These resources would need to be in the form of software/hardware technology support (personal computers and projectors and software licenses must work nearly all the time, or a reasonable substitute made available within 24 hours at most), instructional technology support (people who can take ideas about teaching and show faculty how to implement them), training workshops and summer sessions that people want to go to (even are paid to attend), summer and school-year financial support (or course releases) for those working on such projects, and recognition from the merit and tenure process for efforts made to advance digital fluencies in course and department arenas.

[I want a lot, don’t I? What about what I’ve put forward here is unrealistic? Which of the various portions could be implemented most easily? Are they mutually dependent? Critique away….]

Innovation, Open-Source, and CMSs

Over at Running with Scissors, Jerry Slezak has begun a great discussion about innovation. This post began as a comment there that expanded beyond the original point Jerry was making. Building on Jerry’s notion of the UI$ as a new unit measuring “Unit of Innovation per Dollar” and Jim’s point in the comments about the advantage of a close working relationship between tech innovators and the classroom, it seems to me that targeted investment (small grants and/or new faculty/ITS positions) in implementing various open-source (or nearly free) solutions can result in a high UI$ (if I understand Jerry’s new term correctly). Targeted financial and technical support for specific implementations with open-source or freely available tools in a few courses (or even a department) has a much better chance of a good UI$ than adding a massive CMS that everyone has to learn and that not everyone wants to be a part of.

The Counter Argument

One important counter, however, is the argument that standardization (and massive integration of other campus systems) offered by the major CMSs are good things:

1) Because a standardized CMS/LMS is, well, standard. Everyone can use the same interface. Students and faculty don’t have to learn (or relearn) new materials; tech support has one set of training and support materials to create.

2) Because using open-source and free software means using code that is not always ready for prime time. Techno-geeks (of which I am one) are more forgiving of such issues, in part because they can find workarounds for such problems (or accept it as a feature of cutting-edge code).

3) Because of the breadth of offerings. You can hear the sales pitch by the voice-over guy on late-night television: “It doesn’t just manage your courses, it allows you to pay bills, do your laundry and walk your electronic pets!!!!” In all seriousness, the appeal of meeting many institutional needs at once is clear, especially if the package also comes with support from the manufacturer (something less obviously available from the open-source community).*


I understand these reasons are powerful forces in shaping decisions for campus technology. But Jerry’s post is really about innovation, and he is right to recognize that tech investment dollars are limited and need to be spent (invested?) as wisely as possible. Should we be worried that what seems to drive resource decisions at many institutions of higher learning is the notion that “Innovation is good, but stability and uniformity is better”?

UPDATE: I listened to the podcast of Jerry and Jim Groom’s ELI Presentation that was the basis for the post discussed above. In it Jerry and Jim address many of the concerns that I brought up, including noting that enterprise CMSs like Blackboard aren’t going away soon since their stability and breadth still addresses the needs of many people on campuses (albeit not always the students or faculty). Of course, the on-target point of the post and the presentation was that enterprise CMSs/LMSs simply don’t seem to be as responsive to the innovative possibilities for teaching and learning that the vibrant, passionate open-source community members have embraced. The other significant gain for me is the cost of innovation terminology of Jerry’s, UI$. I’ll be using that in the future….

* I suspect that there are many members of the open-source community who are incredibly responsive on support issues, but I’m referring to a formalized, contract-driven support that looks more stable from what we might describe as a business perspective.

Historians Moving on Up

So news reports indicate that the new president of Harvard is going to be Drew Gilpin Faust, a prominent historian whose specialties include the Civil War, US Women’s History and Social History. This news comes just a few weeks after Ed Ayers, eminent Southern historian and academic technology pioneer, was announced as the new president of the University of Richmond. [Full Disclosure: I worked on the Valley of the Shadow Project with Ed Ayers for a couple of years before heading off to graduate school.]

At my very first academic conference, the 1997 Southern Historical Association conference in Atlanta, I attended a panel on which both of these eminent historians presented. I remember being impressed at their presence, poise, and good-natured interactions. Who knew that these two would become University presidents within a few months of each other 10 years later?

I’m happy for both of them, because I like and respect them, but also because it suggests that, despite the reputation of historians as out of touch with today’s world, that these two have found ways to make themselves (and more importantly, their ideas) relevant to much larger audiences.

Both Ayers and Faust, despite a number of years as Deans (Ayers at UVA, Faust at Harvard’s Ratcliffe Institute for Advanced Study) remain active, productive scholars in their fields. I can only imagine how difficult that is given the many drains on their time. As a fellow scholar in their fields of interest, I can only hope that their presidencies will not prevent them from continuing to contribute their significant gifts to the discipline. As an academic, I believe that continuing to do so will also make them better administrators of faculty. As Dean, Ayers also managed to continue teaching a class or two a year, something else I hope he’s able to hold on to in his new position. [UPDATE: The front-page February 10 Washington Post article on Faust’s appointment suggests she’s also continued teaching as Dean.] Such activities remind presidents of where their faculties and student bodies are focused.

I know that this perspective is not shared by all academics, many of whom feel that the president’s job is first and foremost to raise money. As important as that is, I have a great deal of respect for those university presidents who continue to teach and research. Leading by example applies to the administrative side of academia as much as it does the classroom.