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.]

Process

  • 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….]

Presentations
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.”

Exactly!

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.]

“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….

Confessions of a del.icio.us Addict

In recent weeks, I’ve become increasingly enamored of the social network and bookmarking service known as del.icio.us. I set an account up nearly 2 years ago now, but largely used it as online bookmark storage. Gradually, through several friends (online and off) I became aware of its other features. Caleb McDaniel (formerly of Mode for Caleb) demonstrated the numerous tagging capabilities through a couple of emails and conversations. [Looking at my own del.icio.us account (del.icio.us/kurastan90) you can see that my earliest del.icio.us links are not tagged, or if they are, the tags were added later.] Yet, even with the new tagging making my bookmarks more accessible to me, I was still using it as an amped-up version of my own bookmarks in IE or Firefox. It was Martha who alerted me to the use of a network and “for:” tags in del.icio.us in this post. [For the uninitiated, del.icio.us allows users to add other users to their network, allowing you to see the sites they’re tagging. The “for:” tag allows you to send particular users in your network particular sites in which you think they may be interested.] I began to add various people to my network (first DTLT members, then people from CHNM, and soon others) and realized how many cool sites I had been missing. As I pored over their various sites, I began to mark particular sites for them, and slowly they began to tag them for me as well.

I have managed to convert other colleagues to del.icio.us, and they too have become addicted to the ease, the social bookmarking, the tagging, and the sharing of good sites. At this point, if I run across a link I that I think someone might want, and that person is not in my network, I’m actually a little annoyed. I think about how much easier it would be if I could just add the “for:” tag and they would be able to see it.

I realized recently that I have created a network of people I know (to varying degrees) who scour the internet for me (and I for them). Although we have overlapping interests and therefore look at some of the same sites, we’re different enough that they run across resources I don’t and vice versa. In this chaotic, information-saturated online world, having a few (or 14) expert researchers sharing the best (or maybe just fun) resources can prove an incredible boon.

Now, to figure out how to add this to my goals for digital literacy and to my classes this fall. More to come….

One More Stab at Digital Fluencies

In a previous post I responded to failingbetter’s query about my definitions of “digital fluencies” as it related to students. I was rereading the first of his/her questions and it occurs to me that the query has another layer I missed at first glance.

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’ve been articulating a notion of digital fluency that incorporates technical skills and the ability to deploy those skills as part of a skillful consumption and production of information that I think is critical to students and faculty alike. But failingbetter suggests that there are also rules to online social tools (and the societies they create) that students might need to know. Might digital fluency also include an awareness of the norms of online culture(s)? I’m going to have to think about this some. Any thoughts?

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).*

Conclusion?

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.