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.

Thanks Matt! or the conundrum of grading: PART II

24 04 2009

I thought of putting this as a comment but realized it was bigger than that and wanted to give it its own post.

It is interesting that Matt mentioned performance art grading as a model because as some of you may know I have a theatre background. Furthermore I often think about the grading models I was subject to in that theatrical work when I think about IT grading and often find them useful analogues, so here is a little explanation of how it works and why it is quite relevant:

When I was an undergrad at Swarthmore the grading methodology in my theatre and art classes was very different from any other types of classes.  That was in no small part due to the fact that the deliverables were drastically different because rather than papers and tests we were creating drawing, models, paintings and performances.  Both models worked quite well and ultimately I think both of them have had an influence on how I grade online as well as in the classroom.

The one model that was practiced in my theatre courses was that the bar for completion of wark was set very high, that is they gave us a ton of work to complete within the semester.  It could be designing or performing or directing, no matter what it was it always bordered on the edge of not humanly possible to complete.  The program responded to that by noting how hard you worked to complete the assigned goals and your grade was mostly if not completely based on that accomplishment rather than any subjective evaluation of the quality of your work.  That was very important considering that there are so many variables in theatrical work, such as working with other people and differences in artistic style and preference.  So it wasn’t about how good your design looked or how well you acted a scene, but that you showed that you put effort into your work and were dedicated to the class. In the end the grade served as a reward for hard work and persistence and there was a sense of satisfaction at getting a good grade at the end of a semester.

A similar model was applied for art classes.  Grades in these classes were often based on the progress made in improving your work over the course of a semester.  This balanced out the different levels of artistic capability in the class by focusing more on whether students were really working to push themselves to new level of artistic exploration and invest themselves in increasing their technical skill and ability to think more creatively.  Once again it was not about how “good” your work was but more about how much commitment you showed to improving yourself over the course of the semester.  I even remember one semester where I was at first surprised that I received a low grade by a professor who I had already taken a course with.  Then when I thought about it outside of my haze of frustration, I came to realize that the grades for the two classes really were directly proportional to the amount I had worked towards evolving those two semesters.  It was a powerful moment because rather than having failed at executing a specific task or memorizing certain information I had received a lower grade because I hadn’t completely embraced an opportunity to make myself better.  What better way to employ grades to teach a student life lessons.

So, when Matt mentioned performance art grading it reminded me that these two models have really affected how I grade certain aspects of online coursework.  In particular I think of them when I am grading assignments in discussion and blog formats because I place a premium on participation in these types of spaces.  The reason I place this premium on participation is that I have found that as online conversations evolve (whether in discussion boards or through blog comments or another model) there is a certain point where the students through the communication and conversation inevitablly find their own path through the material to insightful, thoughtful conclusions that are often exactly where I was hoping they would go.  Sometimes they even exceed those expectations.  For me this becomes kind of like the theatre grading model in that if you get them working hard enough and force them to really work the material, they will ultimately find their own path of learning and I would prefer that any day to me telling them what they should know and how to reach a conclusion.  I have seen this in the discussion forums in my Online BA course and I have seen it when my students get into blogging in my courses at Marymount and Cooper and the more I see it when it works the more convinced I am that it works and it does so by putting the process of learning into their own hands. So by building a grading structure based on participation, and repeatedly making it clear that it will affect their grade, I am trying to get them to that space as much as possible because the more they contribute the more likely they are to not only learn the material but also have a powerful role in shaping how they are learning alongside their fellow students; which is what was so great about doing theatre after all.

As far as the art grading structure goes that is actually really valuable for considering how to grade students when learning about these tools IS the content and the tools are not simply a method for teaching materials. When I teach about blogs and wikis it is often the first time that many of the students have used the tools, while some have experience commenting or even authoring their own blogs.  In this environment I try to consider how each student is embracing the assignment of say, writing in your personal blog twice a week or contributing to a wiki entry.  Since these are usually multiple stage assignments I try to trace the path each student is taking and when I think about how they are participating in the experience, I also think about where they have come from and how much they have really worked at it each step of the way.  It is a great way to reflect on how someone is interacting with a new tool and really takes into consideration that so many of our students start at a different place when entering the world of online education or the Internet as a whole.

Hope these little musings and recollections have helped someone out there or just stirred up some ideas.  Also sorry for the length.  Ironic that I tell students to try to keep blog posts short and this one cleared 1100 words UGH!

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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