Jan 312019
 

In 2013, I experimented with using a wiki in some of my classes for the first time. In those first experiments, I was learning what a wiki could be used for, how students interacted with them, how to fit them into the other assigned work and, most alarmingly, how to manage and host a site used by dozens of people simultaneously. It was a lot and things changed quickly as I learned and improved.

Since those first projects, I’ve never not included a wiki component in at least one of my courses each semester. My expectations have changed dramatically though because students responded without the enthusiasm that I naively and laughably assumed they’d have. (Hope springs eternal, right?) In fact, students were often openly resistant to the project for a variety of reasons. Some of these were:

  1. a sense that the wiki made a course they took to fill a requirement more difficult than it would have been if they’d taken something else.
  2. a genuine ignorance about how to use a computer for anything other than opening a browser and clicking on links or opening a word processor, typing with minimal formatting, and then printing.
  3. a distaste for the aesthetics and UI of a site that was different from Facebook, Instagram or [fill in the blank].
  4. a sense that the old guy in the front of the room was trying to “play computer” with the kids and didn’t get that there was an app that did [whatever the day’s assignment was] so much better than the wiki did. “Maybe we should be using that, sir?”

A lot of my energy in the early years of using a wiki was spent figuring out how to get students past these initial objections to the project.

Early on, I made the first of these worse by being unable to explain what the wiki was for and how it would help make the course better in terms students could understand. I knew why we were doing the wiki and what it was for, but what I knew was embedded in and dependent upon a context my students didn’t share. So I was still doing the basic pedagogical work of figuring out how to speak what they needed to know in terms they could understand. In terms of assignments and requirements, I was working from hunches, experimenting and it would take me some time to get a handle on both what to assign and how to explain why I was assigning it. After the first two wiki projects, I scaled back expectations so I could figure out through experiments how to speak clearly about what we were doing and why. This took some time, but I think I’m there now.

The second problem, student’s inability to use a computer—which was often (nearly always) paired with an obsessive, continual use of social media on their telephone—caught me off guard, but it was easier to address than the first. A wiki is perfect for posting how-to instructions and examples. I wrote and recycled these year after year and now have a set of mark-up pages ready to drop into each new wiki. These work.

The final two objections I kept running into were different in kind from the first two. In both three and four, students, confronted with something they didn’t want to do, were offering a reason why the thing they didn’t like was in fact crippled by a failing that made it worth ignoring. The first semester I ran the project in a class, I took these objections about aesthetics and alternatives at face value without recognizing that this was just a familiar classroom swap: the real student-side problem—I don’t want to do this—was being replaced by a teacher-side problem with the assignment. This isn’t mean-spirited or manipulative on the students’ part. It’s just being a student and is exactly equivalent to complaints that a book is boring. I don’t change the booklist to match what they want to read; instead I explain why it’s worth reading what we are. But it took me a few semesters to realize that, confronted with complaints about the wiki being ugly or awkward or old-fashioned, I just needed to explain why we use a wiki rather than [fill in the blank] and what the look and UI of the wiki make possible. This responds to the real problem—I don’t want to do this—by showing them why doing the project is useful. This too works.

I’ve kept using the wiki all this time because I think that exposing students to structured writing and to hypertext is valuable and that the combination of metacognition and practical skills required by the project equip them to be better students. Now, has that been the outcome semester after semester? No. But I’ve never had a semester where the wiki has been a failure. Students figure things out and do the work and usually do it well, which given its scale and how difficult I found it to organize and manage initially feels like a success.

(Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes things have been incredible. One year for example, through a quirk of scheduling, I taught an intact group of students two semesters in a row. We built a wiki together in the Fall and they reacted with familiar dismay and crocodile tears over having to do extra online work in an old-fashioned platform. Everything worked, but they were a vocal group and, when I was planning the winter term, I decided not to include a wiki on the syllabus. But then, three or four weeks into that second semester, they asked if there was anyway to reactivate the previous semester’s wiki because they were annoyed at having to organize and prepare the work they were now having to do without the wiki because doing the work was harder without it. Now I don’t want to exaggerate: what they wanted was mostly the ability to coordinate group work with shared buckets of materials and lists that they could edit together, things in other words that they could do with something like Google Docs. Still, they were thinking of these tasks in terms of a persistent set of linked documents rather than one-off document lists. This was important and I was happy.)

So looking back, what I see in these experiments is a productive encounter between my initial enthusiasm for what I believed possible with the project and the predictable, not completely unreasonable questions from students about why doing work on the wiki was worth their time. I’ve learned to address these and in the process, I think I’ve learned better how to use the wiki in class, how to integrate it into required classwork, and also how to present it to students.

Now a new semester is starting, and using these experiences, I’ve completely rethought the wiki project. The new project is more extensive and is more tightly integrated into the core assignments of the courses, both of which are big changes. I’m writing about it here now because what I hope to do over the course of the semester is to speak about those changes in some posts and comment on how things have gone.

But as a starting point, I wanted to look back over the past few years, partly as a transition, yes, but partly as an acknowledgement of the completely unglamorous work of sticking with the wiki long enough to get a sense of how to use it better. And perhaps most importantly, it’s a way to acknowledge that work depended upon the cooperation and support of students who sat in my course doing their best to make things work as I figured things out.

So acknowledgements made, it’s time to move on and to talk about how the new project is put together and how it works out. I’ll get to that soon…

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