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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