Contributor: Pavel Zemliansky
School Affiliation: James Madison University
This piece discusses the use of the open source content management system Drupal ( http://www.drupal.org ), the photo-sharing site Flickr ( http://www.flickr.com ), and the open source wiki platform Mediawiki ( http://www.mediawiki.org ) to teach a face-to-face first-year composition course at James Madison University. The significance of this approach is that it allows those instructors who want to break out of web content development platform supported by their institutions to set up a diverse, media-rich, and very cost effective online space for their classes.
It is a work in progress as only the first four weeks of the course have passed at the time of writing.
In recent years, composition instructors have become more interested in using images and other media to teach writing. Teachers of writing and other disciplines increasingly recognize that, in addition to traditional print literacy, students need to acquire visual and multimedia literacies. As a result, visual and multimedia reading and writing assignments that used to be largely confined to upper-level classes are now commonplace in first-year courses. A simple Google search reveals a wealth of resources on using Flickr to teach various subjects, ranging from geography to writing.
Wikis and other collaborative writing tools have also been gaining popularity and acceptance in writing studies. For example, a simple Similarly, the wikibook Rhetoric and Composition, authored by students in Matt Barton’s class at St. Cloud State University, was voted book of the month by the site Wikibooks, Open Content Textbooks ( http://www.wikibooks.org ), in September of 2006. There is also a growing body of pedagogical advice about ways of using wikis in the writing classroom. Among such notable online resources are Matt Barton’s site ( http://www.mattbarton.net ) and Joe Moxley’s Teaching Wiki ( http://www.teachingwiki.org ).
Together with the benefits that these multimedia and collaborative writing environments offer, integrating these diverse tools into one course platform is likely to present educators with unique challenges.
First-year writing at JMU (GWRIT 103) is taught through one course, which is taken by approximately 90% of the students.
The goals of GWRIT 103, as posted on http://www.jmu.edu/writing, are fairly typical for a first-year writing course:
- Develop and support a relevant, informed, argumentative thesis, or point of view, that is appropriate for its audience, purpose, and occasion (rhetorical knowledge);
- Analyze and evaluate information to identify its argumentative, credible, and ethical elements; students should also be able to reflect on civic responsibility as it relates to written discourse (critical thinking, reading, and writing);
- Demonstrate an understanding of writing as a series of tasks involving invention, research, critical analysis and evaluation, and revision for audience, purpose, and occasion (processes);
- Effectively incorporate and document appropriate sources (traditional and non-traditional) to support an argumentative thesis, or point of view;
- Exhibit control over surface conventions such as syntax, grammar, punctuation, and spelling that are appropriate for the writer’s audience, purpose, and occasion (knowledge of conventions).
Instructors are given considerable freedom in the course design and the kinds of online tools they choose to use as long as the course goals are met.
I teach the course using Ways of Reading Words and Images, edited by David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky, and The New Century Handbook, by Christine Hult and Thomas Huckin. Bartholomae and Petrosky’s book consists of essays which examine the relationship between word and image, and Hult and Huckin’s dedicates significant space to visual and multimedia literacies and collaborative skills. Given the course goals and texts, introducing tools like wikis and Flickr was a natural choice.
Although there are exceptions to this rule, most JMU students are quite computer literate and have little trouble learning new electronic tools. The “default” online content delivery platform at JMU, as at many other universities, is Blackboard. The university is reluctant to support Drupal and other open-source platforms for a variety of reasons, so the few instructors, like myself, who choose to use them, have to find and pay for their own commercial hosting.
I have been using Drupal-based websites in both face-to-face and online classes for three years. I typically set up the Drupal site as a class blog, and students are required to post to the blog regularly as well as comment on the posts of others. I prefer using blogs to forums, which are also available on Drupal because of the easy access they provide to posts and comments. However, this is my first attempt to integrate Drupal with Flickr and a wiki. I am interested in combining the main class site with a wiki and an image-sharing space like Flickr for two main reasons. Firstly, I emphasize collaboration among students through such activities as peer workshop, collaborative essay assignments and so on. A class wiki a natural fit for such pedagogy. Secondly, most of the writing assignments in the course involve some work with images, whether found on the Internet or shot by class members themselves. I decided to use Flickr because it seemed to be the most effective way of sharing and commenting on images, much more robust that image modules supplied with Drupal. I am also attracted by Flickr’s tagging and commenting functions as well as by a large collection of images with Creative Commons licenses. Last but not least, hosting images on Flickr will save me server space and cost.
In designing the class site, my main challenge was to create a “one website” feel. My concern was that students might get confused by having to use essentially three websites for a class instead of one. At the same time, in order to have a media-rich and collaborative learning experience that I want my student to have in the class, it is necessary to encourage them to function in those various online spaces.
The course online space can be found at http://courses.pz-writing.net/gwrit103sp07 . In designing this space, I had to make two kinds of decisions. On the pedagogical side, I needed to explain to students why they were being asked to work with different media and on different sites. On the practical design side I had to make sure that the links to external sites were logically placed at the top of the navigation toolbar, and that students had clear instructions about all the assignments.
For example, Flickr allows users to create groups, where users can post and discuss images. Groups can have a varying degree of privacy, which is a useful function if you are concerned about your students’ privacy. I set up the class group as “private, by invitation only.” At the beginning of the semester, the students will receive instructions on joining the class Flickr group.
When it came to configuring the class wiki, I initially wanted to use the free and easy-to-set up PBWiki ( http://www.pbwiki.com ). However, I soon began to have my doubts about using PBWiki. For example, one day, the site was down for several hours because of a hacker attack. In addition, the look and feel of a PBWiki site is not very consistent with the rest of the class’s online space, and, as I stated earlier, I wanted as high level of consistency among the sites as I could achieve. For these reasons, I downloaded and installed on my server space the open source and free Mediawiki. While installation of Mediawiki requires some technical expertise, many commercial hosts that specialize in open source software will install it free of charge.
Four weeks into the semester, I can report the following results. The class has completed two assignments on the class wiki. The first one was to create a glossary of important terms from W.J.T Mitchell’s work “The Photographic Essay: Four Case Studies,” which is one of the required readings in the course. The second one was to write a first draft of the collaborative essay based on Mitchell’s piece. During these two projects, students worked in teams of four or five and, by and large, succeeded in both activities. The wiki space did not seem to present students with any significant challenges and, from the anecdotal evidence that I gathered during teacher-students conferences in the fourth week of the course, class members felt comfortable working in the wiki.
From the technical and organizational standpoints, the class wiki is working out well. However, I am encountering some pedagogical challenges common in classes using wiki. As the user named “heather” wrote in her post on Kairosnews ( http://www.kairosnews.org ) entitled “My Brilliant Failure: Wikis in Classrooms,” (available at http://kairosnews.org/my-brilliant-failure-wikis-in-classrooms ) in order for a completely successfully wiki experience in the classroom, one that fulfills the full potential of wikis as collaborative and social-learning tools, teachers must “give complete control” of the wiki to the users. The goal is to “disrupt the class in a good way,” in a way that allows students to take initiative and ownership of assignments and texts they create. Worried that my students would not be able to figure out how to use the wiki, in the beginning of the semester, I provided extensive instructions on how to complete the first two wiki projects, which the students dutifully read and followed. Combined with the novelty of the wiki as a writing medium, the habit to rely on instructions from the teacher for each step they take in the course, led most students in the class to think of the contributions they made to the wiki as “theirs” and therefore “editable” or “revisable.” They felt that writing contributed by their classmates, even in a collaborative paper assignment, was somehow “off-limits” to them and that they could not just go into the wiki and make changes to it. Only one of the eight collaborative teams in the two sections of the course that I am teaching wrote the first draft in the wiki collaboratively, negotiating their text as they went, while the other seven teams chose to assign specific members to contribute parts of the draft. I am not sure whether it is realistic for me and other teachers to expect the kind of shift in understand the nature of collaborative writing in our students in the short time they are enrolled in our course. With this said, however, using collaborative writing tools like wikis might well be the first step towards such a shift.
I have consciously delayed the work with Flickr till later in the semester, to give students time to get used to the wiki. So far, the students have obtained Flickr accounts and joined the class Flickr group. The first assignment will be to find images on Flickr and comment on them in ways that further expand and explain the definitions of terms from Mitchell’s essay which the students had compiled earlier.
As I stated in the beginning, this course is a work in progress. I am not willing to provide any definitive advice for teachers who wish to use wikis and Flickr in their classes yet, because I do not yet have enough data to supply such advice. As the semester progresses, I hope to revise this page to provide additional data.