Wikiwhy? (or the brain is a terrible thing to waste)

11 05 2009

First of all about the brain.  Got a head injury playing soccer and sustained a skull fracture.  Thankfully no hearing loss or long term damage expected.  It does however get you thinking about how whether the class is virtual/hybrid/or bricks and mortar, you need your brain to do anything while there.  Lots of flashes of mortality and thoughts about how my profession is totally based on my brain and what it would be like to lose any of that facility.   Thankfully everything turned out okay and I can go back to soccer in June.  Hooray for flying elbows, crushing headers, and concussive shots to the face!

Now to some relevant content.  Before I got my melon thunked I was thinking about the myriad uses of a wiki in teaching/learning environments and I thought I’d list a few.  So here it goes in simple bulleted fashion:

First and foremost is the ability to make an easy to access and updateable course site for a class.  Wikis don’t require the kind of skills that full html or php web design take and it means you can make a robust, multi-paged site pretty easily.  For me the most useful aspect of this is creating a much more enriched syllabus that can be constantly changing and allows for relatively simple low stakes interaction by students.  Not only can I quickly post assignments, but I can upload files, post links to online readings, and even embed media where possible.  This means each class session gets its own page which I can build upon for students and that they can easily access.  Rahter than handing out lots of papers or having them run all over creation for different resources everything can be more centralized and they can focus on the content.  It also gives me a space to put materials that I may use for teaching a class (say a performance video or image) that may not be assigned for reviewing beforehand but are now accessible to them at any point after the class.  If they get into it they can even add stuff that they find interesting and relevant.

Second is that wikis provide a platform for working collaboratively and exposing students to different modes of creation, composition, and assignment structure.  I have done a lot of work with students on group projects, and since many of the real life situations they will face once they finish their education require working in groups it seems to me that these types of assignments provide students with the opportunity to experience the world as they will encounter it.  This is particularly true as social media become a daily part of not only our leisure activities but also our workspaces.  It pays to help students experience both the possibilities of these tools for work but also the social dynamics that come to play in these types of spaces and the way they must interact with others while within these spaces.  Along with the social dynamics of the social media space and the composition possibilities it is also always good to play around with the wikis to help students question and rethink the modes of writing that we are used to and how the creation of content is different when multiple voices are contributing to the same materials.  Testing students comfort levels with changing each other’s work and reworking the contribution of others is often an interesting experiment that reveals much about their approaches to authorial voice, ownership, and creative priviliges.

Third is that wikis are eminently useful in getting students to start working within the world of web publishing.  So much of the writing we do these days is aimed at Internet audiences and those audiences are becoming more accustomed to multimedia presentations of content that it behooves us to include in the process of teaching reading and writing an understanding of how to be fluent as a reader and writer of digital information.  Wikis provide a platform where students can experiment with web publishing with a very low barrier of entry.  They learn a little about coding, a little about embedding, a little about formatting, and a little about the relationship between text and other media such as video and recorded sound.  It is easy to make a page, make a link, and expand the site so that the course site as a whole becomes a place for them to contribute and create and not just a bulletin board of information that I post on (which is all very Web 2.0). I find that by having my students hand in their writing assignments on the wiki they are experiencing the next step of digital composition past traditional word processing.  Although they are usually initially just a little scared of it, by the end of a semester they are much more invested in figuring out how to manage and manipulate different media in their writing and they begin experimenting in ways that I wouldn’t have expected.  Even just having them post their work online where their classmates can see it changes the stakes of the writing as they recognize that other people can see what they are posting.  It is amazing how that social aspect can influence their motivation to complete their work a little bit better, and that is a reality of web publishing after all.

Lastly is the history feature of the wiki.  The fact that every iteration of a page is saved in a wiki allows for a history to become apparent.  This is useful first of all because there is no fear of vandalism.  You can always revert to a previous version and instantaeously erase any mischief.  You can also see a user history to see how individuals are contributing to a group project or see if there are any unusual contributions.  Finally the history is a good tool to watch someone’s ork develop, and you can get a little inside their process which has such a tremendous impact on understanding the way a student works and why he arrives at where he does when handing in an assignment.

Well those are some of the reasons why I use wikis.  The more I use them the more I have come to appreciate their capabilities and the value of there almost infinite expandability.  Most wiki setups don’t have limits to the numbers of pages you can create and they also ultimately accomodate other more complicated language schemas within them, such as HTML and Java.  Would love to hear experiences and opinions about wikis and always willing to answer questions for people who have yet to use them and are hoping to implement them in their own pedagogical setups.

How much is too much, How much is enough, and What is expected?

23 04 2009

I use wikis in all of my classes because they are really easy ways to provide simple editing functions for students.  It allows them to have a little experience with online content creation and web design no matter what the content, and I think that in the end they dig that.  I also use the wikis because it makes it really simple for me to gather all the different resources/documents I will use to teach a class.  Links are a cinch, as well as posting readings, and attaching videos or audio.  It also makes it easy to maintain a dynamic syllabus and course description that students can go back to (no re-handing out of syllabi or qorries about lost papers).

There is a problem with wikis however in that they are endlessly expandable. Creating a new page is just as easy (if not easier) than any kind of content addition and the site can grow and grow. The reason that this is a problem is that there really isn’t any kind of artificial boundary to creation that can reign in your expectations of what you should be doing for a class.  This means that (sigh) we have to determine when providing all this extra content is a good thing and when it just becomes too much for students as well as teachers.

Since teachers have started using IT and teaching online there has always been the question of how much labor should be diverted to the use of these tools.  Some of the concern has been that using these tools takes time and if extra work is required should that labor be considered in addition to or replace the amount of work done in preparing for classes without tech.  This has real life ramifications in particular considering that often the amount of labor goes up while the pay stays the same.

But my question here is less about money and more about the value to the teaching/learning experience of spending large amounts of extra time building websites/wikis and adding endless amounts of material for the students because it is easy and because we can.  I think it is important to constantly keep in mind how much is too much and when information or experiential overload can actually detract from the learning experience.  Sometimes I have to remind myself that just because I can post links to numerous sites/readings/videos/images all in one space doesn’t necessary mean that I should do as many as are physically possible.  What seems like a bounty of quality can actually be overwhelming to students (especially if they are grappling with working the tool as it is) and they are often likely to be turned off to all the materials.  This is particularly important when I have a group of students with differing levels of facility with IT tools and and different levels of fluency with digital reading comprehension with the less experienced users becoming more easily overwhelmed by masses of material.  In the end I am trying to be more selective with how the course materials build up from week to week or semester to semester so that there is a logic and comfortable flow to the different types of content they are presented.  It takes a lot of thought however to recognize that as a course site becomes larger and larger that I should practice the same lessons about concision and composition in creating my own pegadogical landscapes as I use in teaching students how to write.  I try and remember that I am not creating an encylopedic resource collection but rather designing a composed course site where materials are clearly organized, well curated, and pointedly relevant to the specific scope of the class.

There is more to this that I want to cover in other posts, like a more detailed analysis of what expectation there is for faculty teaching online and using IT tools from administration and what kind of expectations we set up for ourselves in creating online spaces, but for now I think I am going to stop. Any thoughts, comments, common experiences?  I’d love to hear how people determine where to draw the line with materials.

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