Wikis, Wikis, Everywhere: Or, the Wiki as Discussion Starter, Assignment Environment, and Class Project Binder

Faculty Academy 2007 Presentation — [This includes updated material from an earlier post.]

Note–Relevant links are posted on the Faculty Academy wiki page for this session and note that only the registered users in the class wikis can edit them or see all the functions.

This semester I used wikis (an installation of MediaWiki to be precise) in two of my classes, though in different ways. I did so at Jerry Slezak’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. I’ll describe the two classes, the way the wiki was used in each class, and my evaluation of the experiment.

In one course, my 15-person senior seminar (426), the wiki was used as an improved forum to prepare students for class discussion. In the other, a 25-person upper-level lecture class (325), the wiki became not only an improved tool for focusing class discussion, but much of the online presence of the course, including the location of students’ wiki-based research projects.

First, the use of the wiki as a discussion starter
All of my classes involve reading discussions, often of primary source materials. In previous semesters, 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 create a document that categorized those comments along certain common themes. This document, displayed in front of the class, would then shape the class discussion for the day, based on the particular areas of need or interest expressed by the students.

This semester, however, the students in both these classes posted their comments and questions to a wiki page at least two hours before each discussion class. I set up one page for each day’s discussion for the semester.I would then go in, just before class started, and bold the questions/comments I saw as most interesting, most relevant, or most commonly expressed. [Bolding became a source of great pride to some students….]

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 I was completely wrong.

The quality of the questions and comments went up from previous semesters. What’s more, they began to respond to each others’ questions, answering the factual queries and starting to engage the open-ended ones. In other words, the discussion began before class did.

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). The wiki is neither.

Using the “history” version function of the wiki I can actually trace the evolution of the conversation as students add material to the ongoing discussion, often inserting themselves in between other people’s comments.

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 actually, I don’t see this lack of editing each others’ work as a problem since I never explicitly asked them to do that and it’s not what I’m looking for them to do.

This wiki-as-discussion-starter worked in both an upper-level lecture class with once-a-week discussions and in a senior seminar that was all discussion, and required them to post comments/questions on a wiki page before every class period. In 325 – Class discussion started at a deeper level, and the wiki brought out broader discussions than we had time for in class. Plus they were engaged with each others’ ideas before class started. In 426 – Here too the discussions had already begun before class started. Plus it was easy for student discussion leaders to facilitate their own discussion of the readings using the wikis. (Bolding and editing the wiki for their own purposes became common and there was often humor involved, though never at my expense, of course….). 🙂

So, overall, other than that, that use of the wikis was a success in both classes. However, in the lecture class, I used the wiki for more than just a discussion starter

HISTORY 325 WIKI Projects
The lecture class is a course about the History of American Technology & Culture. It’s a class that’s typically 2/3 lecture and 1/3 discussion. Perhaps more importantly, it’s a course that in previous iterations has required students to create their own websites about the history of an artifact of American Technology.

Why not continue the old system?

1) Immense amount of work for Jerry and I, as well as for the students, to deal with HTML, page linking, software.
2) Although I began the web project years ago thinking that students should learn HTML or at least web coding as a life skill, it’s not clear that such as skill would actually be useful to these students at the level they’d be gaining.
3) Finally, students’ sites disappeared as they graduated.

The wiki in this class served three purposes:

1) A place for students to post questions and comments about the readings (as I discussed)

2) A site within which each student could create their own research proposal and then their own research project.

3) A class project binder, by which I mean a place where all of the class projects can be gathered together in the same place, a place where students can find the syllabus and all the assignments, and a place where their work has a long-term home, one that can be pointed to as part of portfolio of accomplishments at some point in the future. [One might describe this as a form of CMS or LMS.]


  • Jerry came in for a workshop session where everyone in the class had a laptop and we did a crash course in the basics of wiki creation.
  • They had a couple of assignments early in the semester, culminating in a proposal site with a bibliography.
  • Then they had to build their site structure (laying out all the pages, but without any content).
  • Two weeks after that, the full site was due.
  • Then a week of peer reviews, using the Discussion tab (and my guidelines) to evaluate each other’s work. [See the guidelines students were given.]
  • Then a week of revision before the final project was due.

Advantages for me:

  • See student work in progress
  • See timing of their works in progress through the history function
  • Recent changes RSS feed allows me to watch from afar (through Google Reader or Bloglines).

Disadvantages for me:

  • See student work in progress
  • See timing of their works in progress through the history function
  • Recent changes RSS feed allows me to watch from afar (through Google Reader or Bloglines).

Why? Because I could see that many of the updates, edits, and wiki site building happened the night before, the morning of, the minutes before the assignments were due. [A longheld suspicion proven….]

At the end of the semester, I asked each of the students to present their projects in five minutes.

  • They could discuss the content they covered;
  • they could discuss cool things they had done or discovered;
  • they could discuss the process they used;
  • they could analyze the evolution of their site using the previous version (history) function;
  • or they could talk about what they wish they had known.

Their presentations varied, though most said they wished they had started earlier. I even set up a page on the wiki for them to post their suggestions. [Many of which revolved around wishing they’d looked at each others’ projects for ideas earlier.]

But one of the most reflective student presentations included a PowerPoint slide entitled “What Impacted Me The Most” with the following points:

  • The Responsibility/Permanence
    • [Many of the students were extremely cognizant that this was something that would be around after they were finished school and felt that responsibility weigh on them.]
  • Everyone Viewing My Progress
    • As this student pointed out, it was not just me watching them create their sites, it was their classmates (or anyone else who happened to find the site).
  • Citations
    • I made them cite everything (as any research project in history would be) and that process took time and energy (both in getting the citations accurate and in dealing with the wiki formatting to get them to look right).
  • Connections Between Projects
    • This student and others noted how much they enjoyed being able to see how their projects overlapped with each others and with the course themes as a whole.

The Big Finish

One day, late in this semester, a fellow faculty member came to me and told me that one of my students had paid me the ultimate compliment in regards to my wiki site project. She told him, “I’ve never had a project that has been more frustrating, or one in which I’ve learned more.”


Let’s be clear, the goal of the assignment was not to frustrate students, but the process of working through new ways of presenting one’s ideas is not inherently easy.

If students are struggling with the process, but get it done, that means that they are finding ways of adapting to the new requirements, to the new format, to the new expectations. In that way, I hope that they will be better prepared to produce and present information in multiple ways when they graduate.

Despite the increasing use of wikis in business environments, my goal, in other words, was not for them to learn specific MediaWiki skills.

No, I’m much more ambitious.

I want them to be able to think broadly about the presentation of information, about the structure of ideas, about the multiplicity of ways to pass on their perspectives and researched content. I want them to be adaptable producers in a larger world that rarely will ask them to write a 7-10 page formal research paper, but will often ask them to learn new skills, new tools, and to work in new environments (digital and otherwise) and then to apply those new skills sets in reliable/productive ways. [I don’t want much, do I?]

Now, it wasn’t all serious; some of them began to call me Dr. Wiki, eventually to my face…. But, the reaction of the student who made that comment to my colleague suggests that in addition to the research and analytical skills being developed there was more going on for her and, given the student presentations and conversations I had with others in the class, I believe she wasn’t alone.

Thoughts? Reactions?

Ode to a Faculty Academy; Or, My Brain is Full

The process of processing Faculty Academy is always difficult. Sifting through the inspiration and ideas of another amazing two days is going to take a while.

Highlights that stick out at this juncture:

— Barbara Ganley’s two presentations — one an impassioned “call to arms” for the role of slow blogging (writing with reflection and purpose) in 21st-century learning, the other an inspiring yet practical workshop on the way to frame a technology-intensive course around both the content and the individual students in a given class. [The last deserves a blog post of its own, and probably from someone more articulate than me.]

— Claudia Emerson’s online technology coming-out party — three presentations on three different projects, and each of them about a site/blog/work that I wish my students and I had created.

Alan Levine‘s reminder that play and experimentation with non-obviously educational technologies like Second Life and Twitter can provide us with new ways to address educational questions.

— The Teaching and Learning Technology Fellows demonstrating that a little money (a course release), a fair amount of talking, and a lot of support can aid both technology evangelists and technophobes in creating thoughtful, creative projects from which our students will benefit. [And that not knowing at first exactly what you want to do can be a really good thing.]

— Karen Stephenson’s talk about networks of social interaction, of knowledge capital, and the resulting twittering and Twittering about who the hubs, mavericks and heretics of Mary Washington are (and whether or not we need to give them a hug). [Lots more to think about here….] [Thanks to Gardner for his role in bringing Barbara, Alan, and Karen to campus.]

— The success of Martha Burtis and the DTLT ITSs (Jerry, Jim, Andy, and Patrick) in not only putting on a terrific conference (including several of their own sessions), but also providing the moral and technical support that enabled almost every one of the projects we saw presented.

[What? What do you mean you missed it?! Well, there’s always next year. Or you can talk to your friendly neighborhood ITS today. They’re happy to help you implement your ideas, or even to help you figure out what you might want to do. Don’t have an ITS at your school? Ask for one. (But you can’t have ours.) Their presence here is one of the best things about UMW.]

Jerry and the Clickers

The session on clickers by Margaret Ray and Bob Rycroft revealed that students were happy whenever Jerry came into the class room. I think that many of us in Monroe have experienced that feeling before. All hail Jerry & the Clickers (wasn’t that a 1950s group)?

Jim Groom & Claudia Emerson Redux

Jim and Claudia presented (neither for the first time at Faculty Academy) on an online literary journal created by one of her classes. Calling Nonce impressive does not do it justice. Check it out for yourself.

[Nearly 40 people crammed into the room to hear them–Standing Room Only….]

One particular point raised by Claudia that intrigued me was the notion of applying to change that particular class from 3 credits to 4, allowing for a “lab” component (or perhaps recognizing the increased time that developing and implementing some of these skills may take). [I’m aware that there are some complications related to campus expectations for what constitutes a four-credit course. Let’s set those aside for a second.] What do people think about the idea of a “digital lab” component for more credit?

“The Choir’s Getting Larger”

In a conversation today about the difficulty of convincing colleagues of the utility of technology-enabled teaching and a multiplicity of pedagogical approaches, and the concern that the people at Faculty Academy are often the people who have already bought into these notions, one person observed, “We may be preaching to the choir, but the choir’s getting larger.”

I was taken aback for a moment, but then I realized he was right. Just look at the program for the Academy and you can see an impressive array of departments, ideas, pedagogies, and interests, all who add their voices to the mix.

I would add to that (if I can take the metaphor a step further) that I suspect that the larger choir and its members have never been more in sync with the others in the choir, never more engaged with each other as teachers and scholars, never more able eager to see what others are working on, never been more ready to embrace teaching as a perpetual beta.

[Why now? I suspect it’s a confluence of larger trends such as easier-to-use web tools, the rise of digital public learning spaces, and a willingness of students to engage in these online conversations/creations, as well as local strengths such as leadership, infrastructure and support, and the tech evangelism of a key group of people.]

Where do we go from here? Why, back for Day Two of Faculty Academy, of course!

Gardner, Steve, Jerry, and Jim Rock Room B122

Jeff McClurken

I’m sitting here in the panel discussion on “Small Pieces Loosely Joined”. I can’t decide whether I’m more overwhelmed by the lost opportunity in not using the tools they talked about in my classes this semester, or by my excitement in being able to use them in my classes this fall….

Count me in as the newest fanboy of WordPress Multi-User….

The Checklist Phenomenon

Shannon has been blogging about her first-year experiences over at Loaded Learning. In her most recent post she describes her frustration with some of her fellow students who seemed to just be in college to check off a bunch of boxes.*

The checklist phenomenon is one that has always bugged me, though I think I understand where it comes from. It’s easier to go about one’s daily life without having to question everything, without having to constantly reexamine one’s direction, path, education. There is a reassuring certainty to having a checklist, to knowing exactly what one needs to do that is less draining than having to think too much constantly about one’s future or present.

I say this not to rag on college students in particular; I see it in my own life and among my colleagues and our attitudes toward the curriculum. If we know that students will take X set of classes from Y set of categories, then we can be reasonably certain that they have been exposed to a set of ideas that we call “liberal arts” and a major with a particular set of skills and fluencies, and therefore we can rest easy about it.

I’ve been thinking about this assumption lately, however, as our institution reexamines its general education curriculum. I’m not resting as easy as I have been with our Gen Ed course structure. Why? Because what we don’t know with as much certainty is what the students actually get out of these classes, or if checking all those boxes off truly makes them better students or better employees or better human beings. We also don’t know if those students make any connections between the various checked boxes or their learning. [With a few exceptions, we don’t encourage such connections in structural or specific ways.] I’m beginning to wonder if what we need is fewer requirements for specific content areas and more requirements for self and guided reflection by students on their work, their goals, on their education itself.

Of course, that might still create a checklist of courses and/or requirements that students (and faculty) could check off without the kind of buy-in that real learning and teaching would need. Still, it seems like it would be a start in the right direction, an acknowledgement that we as an institution valued the connections between their various classes, between their classes and their learning, between their learning and their lives, and between their education and their participation as members of larger physical and intellectual communities.

Thoughts? How might we implement such an approach beyond individual classrooms or particular instructors or interested students (because I think that kind of breadth is essential the kind of reflected learning)? [Given the audience for this blog, I suspect I’m preaching to the choir here, and, if so, help me figure out what the counter argument(s) is/are. Why wouldn’t this work (and why are they wrong)? :-]

*I think many of us at MW would agree that Steve’s Freshman Seminar should be seen as a success if its only contribution (which this is not) was to encourage this depth of reflective public writing by students.