Monday, May 21, 2007

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?


Anonymous said...

You said, "I want them to be adaptable producers in a larger world that...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."

Thank you! Skills we can actually use outside of college: adaptability and application. Those kinds of classes are the best kinds, the ones that challenge you but, ultimately give you the greater reward in the end.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing such a thoughtful discussion of the subtleties (and successes) of wikis.

I'm very glad to hear how well they worked for both classes -- particularly in the momentum they provide re: classroom discussion. Seems like it is a v. nice alternative to the more traditional 'reading response' paper as prep for discussion meetings... esp. re: dialogue among a group rather than simply b/w student and faculty.

(Okay, now which part of that are you going to bold-face? Just kidding!)


Alexandra said...

Thank you for this! I'm teaching my first course in a few weeks and I wanted to get students engaged and thinking about the readings before we had class discussions. I set up a discussion forum on Blackboard but I have to confess I wasn't too excited about using the forum as I could see that students could easily just write their own posts without paying any attention to their peers' ideas.

This use of wiki is exactly what I had been looking for! I'm going to try it out, thanks.

Jeffrey McClurken said...

Glad to hear it was helpful. Let me know if you have any questions as you move into the planning stages for the class.

Alexandra said...

Hi Jeff,

I set up my wiki site and everything looks great. Class begins next week so I'm looking forward to see how it works. Although I've blogged for a while, I had never used a wiki site and was amazed to see how easy it is to get a well-organized course site done with a wiki tool.

I'm using PBworks for now as my university doesn't have its own tool so we'll see how it goes. Thanks again for the tips,