Wikis in the Classroom

I recently wrote a brief article for the newletter of Cornell’s Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines. Figured it was relevant to the concerns of this blog, so I’ve attached it below along with the link to the Wiki that’s still under construction—once the site’s been properly finalized, I’ll post some final thoughts on the exercise:

Using a Course Wiki to Teach Digital Literacy

In a digital age, the nature of “literacy” is rapidly changing; however, the way we teach writing skills has remained largely static. Most writing seminars still ask students to produce standard academic essays not terribly dissimilar to what they would have been asked to produce twenty or even fifty years ago: three to ten page expositions on a single topic, perhaps with research. The process can be livened up a bit by asking our students to imagine a particular audience: write a letter to a senator arguing against a decrease in farm subsidies, imagine that you’re trying to convince the Secretary of State to increase food aid to sub-Saharan Africa, etc. However, there’s an artificial nature to these exercises, and our students are well aware of that fact. In a field like my own—English literature—it is difficult to even invent contrived “real world” situations that would also lead students to engage closely and analytically with a work of literature. Even when these exercises do help students develop a greater sense of audience and purpose, they usually reproduce familiar genres that often don’t reflect how thoroughly the information age has radically altered how we create, disseminate, and consume the written word

In my current Freshman Writing Seminar, “Metamorphosis: Identity and Change,” I have been experimenting with a collaborative writing activity meant to replace one of the six standard “formal” essays typically required for writing seminars at Cornell. This assignment aims to create an actual rhetorical situation that differs from that of the typical academic essay and it attempts to provide students with instruction and practice in working with new media. For this project, the class is working collaboratively to build a course website utilizing a wiki format. I used Google Sites to create a basic wiki that allows any authorized user to add text, images, and links through a simple editing interface similar to Microsoft Word. The site, when completed, will consist of four separate pages, one for each section of the course. At the moment of this article’s composition, two of the four pages have been completed.

Method for Constructing the Wiki

For each of the four pages (each page corresponding to a section of the course), students are assigned to one of four teams. By the end of the course, each student will have served once on every team. The “Text Creation Team” is responsible for generating the basic text of the page, which should include summaries of course texts and of the animating questions from the course. The “Hyperlink Team” is responsible, once the “Text Creation Team” has completed the text, for adding relevant links. Students on this team are given a brief handout summarizing basic techniques for evaluating web sources and are asked to include only links to material that they judge to be reputable. The “Media and Aesthetics Team” is responsible for adding photographs and separating and rearranging the text into meaningful categories. This team is provided with information about finding and properly attributing Creative Commons licensed photographs. Finally, the “New Media Creation Team” is responsible for generating two unique pieces of New Media (video, audio, narrated slideshows, etc.) to supplement the page.

Participation in each team is required of students, but they do not receive a “grade” for the quality of the work produced. They are told that their final product will be provided to the spring semester of “Metamorphosis: Identity and Change” for a reference and that it will also be made publically available online for anyone on the web.

Implementation of the Assignment

I have been pleasantly surprised by the ardor with which my students have embraced the wiki creation process. While some have simply produced the bare minimum required of them, many have gone above and beyond by continuing to add links to additional online material even after their editing work was finished, by continuing to edit the text of their peers, and by creating particularly thoughtful pieces of New Media. One narrated PowerPoint—an explication of Hegel’s “Master-Slave Dialectic,” which we considered during the first section of the course—was decidedly more lucid than my own presentation of the material to the class and will be a tremendous pedagogical resource for me next semester.

Of course, there have also been challenges. Most notably, I had to tangle with some technical difficulties during the first section as my students and I tried to navigate Google Sites’ less-than-apparent sign-in process. (As it turned out, there was a sign-in button at the bottom of the Wiki, but it was nearly entirely obscured by the dark background I’d set for the page.) I’ve also had to make difficult decisions about how much to intervene in my own students’ writing to make edits for correctness of grammar or of content, and I’ve had to consider how willing I am to let the unbalanced style so typical of collaboratively written documents remain visible in the final published site. Additionally, I’m still working with students on the proper finding and attributing of images—a process often woefully absent in web publishing. As my own name is, so to speak, on the line when a document like this goes “live,” I’ve erred towards the side of too much intervention instead of too little. I may loosen the reins a bit next semester as I become more comfortable with my own role in this new form of public writing.

Student Responses to the Project

In preparation for the composition of this article, I asked students—if they wished—to let me know how they’ve felt about the project so far and whether they preferred it to completing a sixth formal paper. The students that replied overwhelmingly indicated a preference for the wiki over a standard paper both because it provided a “break” from the type of writing they’re doing for the rest of the class and because it encouraged them to work with the course material in new ways. Several students indicated that the new media creation element had been useful for them in mastering the course material, though some also noted that dealing with unfamiliar technology could be time-consuming and frustrating. Several students mentioned that they refer to the wiki while writing their formal papers for the course because it provides a short, informative overview of the current section, and a few noted that the construction and use of the pages helped to add a greater sense of coherence to the course as a whole. One student did, however, say that some of the team activities—adding links and pictures, for instance—did not meaningfully increase her analytical engagement with course materials.

My Assessment

Overall, I have been very happy with how the project is unfolding so far. One of the most exhilarating qualities of wiki creation is watching the site take on a life of its own. I feel like what we are producing together is ultimately not just an archive of the course itself but also an archive of the individual experiences of students. Even though I set up the original site, it is no longer something completely under my control. And that, I hope, is a sign that projects like this one may help to decentralize power in the classroom by actively engaging students in a process of knowledge creation in which the instructor’s role is largely peripheral.

The wiki can be viewed here.

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