Wikis in the classroom, 2012 edition

It’s been years now since I’ve written anything here, but a conversation today on the Eighteenth-Century Questions Facebook page made me realize I ought to update my reports from Wikiland. I’ve been using PBworks for wikis since shortly after they began the site in 2005. (NB: I have almost always participated in “private” wikis, not anything searchable, and I guarantee to students that, no, a future employer is not going to read their notes on Moll Flanders.) Some friends and I learned how to use the platform by playing a writing game called Lexicon and by developing an enormous recipe collection with over a hundred participants. In observing my friends’ use of the wikis, I wanted to find out how the platform could be used to encourage students to write more willingly, to read more critically, and to participate in class more enthusiastically.

As I reported back in 2007, my first few attempts to include wiki assignments in my classes were failures. The assignment to create a page providing well-cited historical context (from a list of suggested topics) for the British literature survey was extremely successful for the students who did well. I recall some beautiful, thoroughly researched projects from about a third of every class. Another third phoned it in so depressingly I had no idea what to do, and another third either plagiarized the entire project (“Why do I have to read books and write about them when it’s just on Wikipedia?”) or could not be convinced to do turn in anything at all (“You will get a zero for this assignment.” “Yes, I understand. I will not do this assignment”). As far as I am concerned, any assignment that a third of my students would rather fail out of the class than write is a bad assignment.

Wiki Rule #1: Wiki assignments should create a reason for students to read one another’s work.

That was the first discovery. Students who were self-motivated or interested in my approval did a great job, and no one else seemed to care. Why would anyone in the class want to read their page on coffeehouses in London or sodomy trials or economic conditions in Ireland? While these might be topics of obsessive interest for yr humble svt, students are unlikely to care about reading their classmate’s pages. So instead, I started having them post 3-page critical summaries of scholarly articles related to the primary texts we were reading, resulting in a class bibliography. Students were more motivated to write clear, intelligent summaries of the articles because students used the class bibliography to find ideas for sources for their research projects.

The drawback to this assignment is that, despite my attempt to get every student to choose a different article, students still tended to pounce on a few simplistic topics (if I never read another paper about how Dracula is actually a feminist novel because Mina knows how to type, I will die a happy woman), and students who do not know what to write about will gravitate toward whatever seems the most popular thing to do.

Wiki Rule #2: Participation in the wiki should encourage students to develop their own individual perspectives, rather than turning them into the Borg.

Here’s where I start sounding like an anti-authoritarian radical. The best class wikis, in my experience, have been ones I didn’t grade at all, but served some incredibly useful purpose for the students. One of the best classes I’ve ever taught, in part because of the wiki, was a six-person freshman writing course in which the students read Nabokov’s Pale Fire extremely slowly. I put up a wiki in which there was a page full of random-seeming words (Automobiles, Birds, Butterflies…), each linked to a blank page, and I asked the students to annotate any mention they find of any of these things, and to add pages for other patterns they noticed. They should consider what information their classmates would need to find their quotation, and how much of the quotation should be necessary for context. I said I wouldn’t grade it; I just know that it’s very hard to see connections on the first pass through the novel, so they may need one another’s eyes to spot things.

Within the first few days, these annotations spawned conversations on the wiki about how to determine whether details are significant, what constitutes the “real” for Nabokov and for his characters, how to interpret passages in Zemblan by breaking down the grammar, and so forth. One student became the class expert on linguistics, another on art history, another on satire and rhetoric. They were excited about posting drafts of their formal writing assignments because they wanted to read the other students’ work, and after doing so, they often developed their own revision plans. While I initially itched to demand more formal punctuation (“OMG… YOU GUYS!!!!”) and citation on the wiki, I held my tongue and they developed higher standards for themselves as they saw contributions from others. (To be honest, though, I got a kick out of seeing how excited they were.) That’s how I learned—

Wiki Rule #3: Wiki participation should be allowed to create positive peer pressure.

When you have a particularly quiet group, and there’s just one student with a hand in the air all the time, you have a negative peer pressure situation. No one wants to be “that person.” So you beg and plead, you firmly call on students with their heads tucked under their wings, you try to get them to talk to one another in small groups—sometimes something works and they loosen up a bit. That feeling of pulling teeth is truly miserable, though. There has to be some way to get them to see starting projects early, eagerly joining conversations, and having interesting, thoughtful contributions as the desirable, fun thing to do.

In several different classes, I’ve asked students to use the wiki to call “dibs” on a part of the text for an analysis paper. In a Milton class of 30 students, each had to write about a different speech of over 20 lines in Paradise Lost. Eager students called dibs right away, wanting Sin’s “Hast thou forgot me, then” or Satan’s “O thou that with surpassing glory crown’d,” and less-motivated students realized they needed to get their heads in the game, lest they get stuck with Belial’s defense of cowardly sloth. Meanwhile, they commented to share some of their ideas about the speeches they’d chosen, and this seemed to inspire struggling students to do some serious thinking. In turn, I could easily see who seemed to be on track to complete the coursework and who needed some encouragement or guidance from me.

Wiki Rule #4: The wiki can give you as much feedback about what you are teaching as it does about what your students are thinking.

I hope I am not the only instructor who has cringed upon hearing a colleague report what students say they are learning about the eighteenth century. That’s, er, not quite what… um. Or one thinks we are all happily on the same page until one begins reading responses to exam questions. What the hell is “amriss complaint”? In recent years, I’ve started asking for a volunteer every day to take extra-careful notes in class and post them to the wiki. This solves a lot of technical problems, such as having a repository in case someone is ill or at a sports tournament and providing a refresher about early-semester material before the final exam. It does two additional things that are far more important to me: (1) It tells me when I need to clarify or emphasize something. (2) It makes students see one another’s competence as a resource rather than the enemy.

In discussing this particular use of the wiki, I have found it’s the most controversial among my friends and colleagues, in that it may promote absenteeism. I certainly have not found that to be true, and, in fact, I think it encourages students to realize that a lot has happened when they were gone and they don’t want to miss class again. I get emails from students who know they will be out of town for a tournament asking if I would please thank the note-taker on their behalf, and promise that they will volunteer first when they return. I find it makes them more conscientious and civil, and I certainly still have a strict attendance policy. It seems to make them more aware that it’s a community they’re missing, not just a professor.

Wiki Rule #5: Wikis do not replace traditional in-class discussion; they supplement and provoke discussion.

I cannot tell you how many times I have had students who struggle with speaking in class, due to ability differences, anxiety, or a lack of fluency in English, who have expressed gratitude for the open-ended nature of the wiki discussions. For students who have a hard time initiating a spoken comment, it can be extremely helpful to plan ideas and organize thoughts in writing ahead of time. The wiki can also allow a student to develop and explore a critical persona that can then be tried on more publicly in class. Rather than giving quieter students an excuse for not raising their hands, the wiki gives them a low-stakes place to put words to thoughts in ways that make speaking about those ideas much easier.

This is the main reason why I choose not to grade the work they do on the wiki at all. I set it up with a syllabus and assignment sheets, log them in, and step back. If they ask me to facilitate note-posting, I will. Mostly, I will post extra-curricular events or create pages for them to post drafts for peer review, but this is very different from the kind of Blackboard-discussion-question stuff that I hated doing when I was an undergrad. I don’t want to assign points or take off points for what they do there. I want them to feel free to post a video of a cute lamb while we’re reading Blake, or comment that they’re frustrated and confused by Crèvecoeur, without worrying that Dr. Shanafelt is going to thump them for it. The wiki can only serve my nefarious purposes if it’s a place where they can be honest about how the class is going and what work they’re doing.

Over the 2009-2010 year, I worked with faculty from several departments at Medgar Evers College at City University of New York to develop new assignments and uses for wikis in different disciplines, and the most frequent question I got from new users was “How do you make them do it if you don’t grade them for it?” I don’t. I don’t want to make them do anything. And certainly I’ve had some classes use the wikis more than others. What I know, and what I can tell my students, is that the work I’ve gotten from students who participate actively in the class wiki is almost always better for it. They learn more, they get higher grades, and they enjoy the semester more. There’s your carrot.

Part of all of this has to do with who I am as a teacher and the kind of environment I feel comfortable teaching in, and certainly I have worked with professors who have used wikis in a more directed, graded way. Some departments I’ve worked in have used them as a resource for all of their majors to understand the progress of their coursework, and others have used them internally to discuss the curriculum, assessment, and planning.

Have you used them? Do you loathe them? Do you fear them, but are sort of excited about them? What kinds of assignments and assessment strategies have you tried?

4 responses to “Wikis in the classroom, 2012 edition

  1. Thanks for this update, Carrie. Goes to show that sometimes when it comes to technology in the classroom, that it takes a few iterations before you really recognize how it should work. This confirms my sense that virtual fora like wikis and blogs work best when students (are directed to) use each others’ research, and serve as a scholarly audience for one another that takes on the role of peer review. I also totally appreciate the idea that these virtual interactions do not replace, but only supplement, face to face ones. I’ve been saying this for a long time, but there is now research that supports this view.

    Interesting, too, how you use this forum almost as an electronic journal (loved the random word annotation assignment in #2!), with the emphasis on producing diverse rather than uniform views. Sounds like a lot of fun for both sides.

  2. Today I discovered another excellent use for the wiki. Yesterday I was teaching some Bible history in my Milton class, and, when asked for some dates that I hadn’t written down in my notes, I responded something that I said I knew was probably wrong, and realized later was off by a couple of centuries. (Once we get into BCE, my sense of time gets a little funky.) When the student who volunteered to take notes posted them, I could immediately go in and edit that note with a self-correction and mea culpa. Better for students to learn that professors make mistakes than to have an unnecessarily weird sense of ancient history!

  3. Giving both teacher and students access to an asynchronous forum like a wiki or a blog solves a lot of the problems of “performance anxiety” that beset lecturing. Best of all, you can revise on the fly, and students can always add their comments or questions to get you to refocus discussion. And yes, letting students know that you sometimes make a mistake, but then correct yourself when wrong is hugely important to getting them to volunteer their answers.

  4. Anna Battigelli

    Carrie,
    I read this post with interest and appreciated the insightful guidelines. Can you say a bit more about how you establish a wiki component? I’m interested in how this works technically. Many thanks!