Wikis (part 2): In the classroom

Last week, I explained that wikis are, despite their unusual name, friendly and easy-to-use.  This week: Some pedagogical reasons for giving the software a try.  I think that there are a couple of different ways of thinking about this: designing a wiki-style course, and using a wiki to power a particular assignment.  A lot of wiki evangelism tends to focus on their transformative power, which can be both exhilarating and a bit scary.  I think it’s possible, though, to adopt wikis incrementally, and in the process can do some genuinely new things.

The thing to remember about wikis is that they’re platforms for super-easy collaboration, and that wikis in principle make all aspects of a site, including organization and navigation, user-editable.  This gives users a remarkable amount of power to shape material to suit their ends–which may/may not align with a class’s.

Small Steps

As I said last week, the main way I use wikis is to create a collaborative set of class notes, and then to have the students generate exam questions based on those notes. As you’ll see at the link, I provide students with a template for this assignment, and am fairly prescriptive about the minimum requirements for the notes.  Having said that, I still think this counts as a wiki-type assignment:

  • I could make PowerPoint slides, or something, and simply provide them.  But that turns students into passive recipients of knowledge.  Asking students to collaborate in a wiki–to, for example, generate a 75-100 word main point out of a 50 minute class–puts the intellectual responsibility for a class squarely where it ought to be: on them. For example, most of my classes are discussion-based, so students have to work together to at least some extent to figure out what the most crucial bits were.
  • By having to collaborate with one another in a public space, students get instant feedback as to whether their notes are accurate or high-quality.
  • Although I provide a template, nothing at all prevents students from modifying it to nearly any extent. There are no limits to the notes other than their time and creativity.

The way this assignment works in my classes, students don’t have control over the structure of the class–they don’t determine the schedule of readings, they don’t determine what assignments are worth, or whatever.  But they do create the most interesting record of the class’s activities.  One colleague tried this assignment in a small graduate class last semester, and liked his students’ notes well enough that he printed them as a .pdf and distributed it to the class for them to have as a permanent (i.e., until their comprehensive exams) record of what they’d learned.  And because the notes are student-, rather than faculty-, produced, we can be at least somewhat certain that they’ve really learnned the material!

There are lots of ways to use wikis on small assignments like this.  Any time it might be useful to drag work out into the public arena for comment and reflection, a wiki can help.

The other thing that’s nice about the wiki is that it lets you do group work without the group ever actually meeting (it’s hard for students to match schedules), and it solves the free-rider problem: Looking at the page history, I can get a pretty good understanding of who’s contributed what to a particular assignment.  That’s probably the thing I like best about wikis: They’re both democratic (students are the agents of their education) and sort of Orwellian (I have finer-grained abilities to assess their work).

Big Steps

There’s another way, too: You can simply use the wiki to start the semester with a blank slate, working with students to create a schedule of readings and activities.  The Little Professor had some useful thoughts on this over the weekend:

There have already been some interesting experiments with such “collaborative” course construction.  For example, you’d spend a couple of weeks showing them how to work through the necessary literary histories and online databases, followed by a discussion of goals and priorities (what do we want to know by the end of the semester? do we want to focus on a specific geographical region?), not to mention syllabus logistics (er, wait, is that even in print?).  And, ultimately, a syllabus.  This would also work well as a graduate course, especially in a more advanced seminar.

I don’t have any experience with this, and so won’t comment directly, except to say that I think that this runs a couple of different risks: first, it’s probably brutal from a time-management perspective.  Right now, if you’re teaching 2 sections of the same class, you can probably economize on preparation in some way.  That wouldn’t necessarily be true with an entirely wiki-driven approach. (Which isn’t to say that it’s not worth it!  But if you’re teaching a 4/4 or higher load, you might think carefully about this.)  The other issue is making sure the learning outcomes the students produce are aligned with departmental expectations for your course.  This is fairly manageable: “Let’s build a syllabus that meets these specific goals.”


Some places to look for more information on wikis in the classroom:

Image by flickr user midnightcomm / CC licensed

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