Author: Toby F. Coley
School Affiliation: Bowling Green State University
Email Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
The following narrative is about a project in MediaWiki (my thesis), though it concerns wikis in general as well, that explores how teachers of writing from across the United States (in the university setting) are using wikis. Therefore, I will really be telling two separate stories here: one is about how I used MediaWiki as a tool for my thesis research, and the other concerns the data I collected about how teachers use wikis as a tool for research, teaching, and writing. Both narratives are discussions of “scholarly” work, in that they take place within the conceptual framework of the academy.
The principle software used in this research, MediaWiki, was developed specifically for the Wikipedia project by a collaboration of programmers offering its users an open-source content management system, which now boasts the largest community of wiki users worldwide. A wiki allows users to edit information contained on the wiki from a web browser. Wikis differ from other forms of management and data entry software such as blogs, dicussion boards, and Blackboard in that they allow for collaboration on an intimate, and yet larger, scale. By this I mean that wikis were created for collaboration and this is what they do best. Take all of the bells and whistles off of discussion boards and the like, and you get something that is easy to learn, easy to use, and easy to implement. In a wiki, the entire community has access to all documents in the wiki and those users can then simultaneously edit a single text. One text, multiple authors.
Wikis also offer a history of changes and edits that allow for users to identify who changed what and how. This feature is indispensable for teachers who grade based on contribution or simply need to verify that students are contributing. A lengthy list of wiki capabilities would extend outside the scope of this narrative. Thus, I shall only name a few to give teachers an idea of what wikis offer. These possibilities include a page history for viewing changes and even reverting a page back to a previous version (allowing for the repair of text from unsuitable edits), a login option so that user access may be limited to class members and student contributions may be identified (though these restrictions may be left off), a basic interface with simple commands and a standardized text entry area (this means a short learning curve), and finally access from anywhere at anytime (files are stored on the wiki and not on students' computers). Those who have ever lost a file and had to start over can sense the benefit of this last option. These are by no means the only functions that are offered on most wikis, just some of the most pertinent to this narrative.
The university that I attended while undertaking this research (North Carolina State University) offers the use of MediaWiki for students, faculty, and staff at no additional charge through the campus library. The wikis are affectionately termed “wolfwikis,” as the mascot of the school is a wolf. Being hosted by a university also means that certain security precautions have been taken, such as restricted access via user login (user name and password). Though the university wiki is viewable by anyone in the public with web access, it is only editable by those with a valid login. This brings us to the main narrative.
Scholarship on wikis has proliferated of late and it is in this intertext that I began research on the project's main question, “how are instructors of writing using wikis in their coursework?” In order to fully appreciate the demands and learning curve needed for incorporating a wiki into research, I began my own wiki at NC State. My hope is to take the wiki public for the composition community at large to use and contribute as needed, in order to add to the base of wiki knowledge in the community.
In the project I used a web-based survey to ask seventeen writing instructors from across the nation about their wiki use in the teaching of writing and I also interviewed three of these instructors personally (these three being located at my university), which constitutes a majority of the research data. The results of the data collection and the thesis can be found at the university wiki(http://wikis.lib.ncsu.edu/index.php/Wikis_in_Writing_Education_Research) and in my thesis (http://www.lib.ncsu.edu/theses/available/etd-03272007-092830/). The university wiki also provided the additional benefit of a central data storage location and allowed me to locate all research related material on an interactive platform that allowed for linking between multiple files (text and multimedia). One of the most valuable resources for me ended up being a linked bibliography that I created. Using the wiki helped me to see my writing and research as an organic process that could change with my needs. This process really emphasized revision for me because I knew that no page was ever static, it could be changed forever, thus the nature of the wiki. One way I believe students will benefit from a wiki is that the wiki tends to engender the idea that writing is a process and just as importantly, writing is never finished: a text is never complete, the author merely gets to a point where he or she needs to stop (deadlines).
While I used the wiki in a specific way (research), my study examines many different ways that teachers and students are making scholarly use of wikis. The six main purposes for which wikis are being used in education that are identified in this study are 1) collaboration, 2) facilitation of work, 3) audience extension, 4) knowledge building/reflecting, 5) effective writing, and 6) multimodal literacy. I had originally intended to include research as one of these outcomes, but I wanted to focus on the teacher-specific responses and these pointed above all to the six mentioned here. In the interest of brevity, I shall only include one or two quotes for each outcome.
Based on the research, the “primary benefits” of the wiki for Professor John Lee of North Carolina State University are that “1) Students are able to complete their work over time in a consistently available place and 2) Students can work collaboratively on projects.” Collaboration is key in the wiki. Heidi McKee at Miami University noted that the “wiki fosters collaborative writing and group projects because all have equal access to the composing and revising spaces” and that it “enables people to collaboratively write without hassling with multiple files and/or having to meet face to face.” Considering the second outcome, facilitating student work, Joe Grohens responded that the wiki “makes revision easy and frequent, and fosters student willingness in the writing process. Of the six outcomes, these two share features with various types of management software.
The third important concept for using a wiki, and where wikis really start to separate themselves from other systems, is how it challenges and fosters
audience extension. Gina Maranto responded that student writing is no longer “an opaque transaction between [students] and their instructor, a piece of writing is a
public interaction with their peers, their instructor, and a larger audience.” Greg Dyer responded that one of his goals “in advanced composition is to extend the audience for
our [classroom] writing beyond merely the instructor” by publishing texts on the wiki. Part of extending the audience for students is helping them to realize how members of an audience can construct knowledge through writing. Carl Young stated that the wiki “allows for enacting a constuctivist vision and practice of teaching and learning—it provides a space for students to construct and reconstruct knowledge—to do this individually and collaboratively.”
Grohens commented, concerning effective writing, that “an important goal for me is to make students confident and comfortable with their writing. The wiki supports this by enabling them to write frequently and without too much fuss and judgment. They see that their writing can be reviewed and changed and that it then gets better.” Simultaneously, MC Morgan used a wiki in his College Writing I and II, IntermediateWriting, and Weblogs and Wikis course with an outcome of multimodal literacy in mind. These courses include writing in new modes, but I find that the wiki raises rhetorical issues and choices that are typically hidden in print-prose. That is, writing with a wiki makes rhetoric visible . . . . wikis lower the technical barrier to writing in new modes (hypertext, text-visual hybrids).
Thus, we find that wikis are being used in composition for multiple purposes already, but there is plenty of room for future research, the same research currently being undertaken by scholars like Matt Barton, Brian Lamb, and Robert Cummings. Matt Barton, for example, has each of his classes take part in some wiki assignment which often revolves around contributing to Wikipedia (http://wikipedia.org/) or the online rhetoric and composition WikiBook (http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Rhetoric_and_Composition). Other assignments popular in the wiki include responding to reading assignments and student writing, contributing to the rhetorical analysis of a text, and genre analysis to name a few.
'A Wiki Summation'
One last thing I realized over the course of this project was that wikis have huge potential for writing instructors who understand the rhetoric of the wiki space and the availability it offers students for challenging traditional conceptions of author, audience, space, power, authority, knowledge, and community. The wiki affords opportunities for teachers to guide students in challenging the notion of authorship and ownership of a text, the idea of who comprises the audience and how immediate they are, an understanding of what changes in the textual or digital representation of a text, how power is distributed in an environment where users have democratic access, and what makes up a community and its knowledge.
Ultimately, wikis offer teachers of composition a way to challenge traditional notions of the parts of the communication process, as well as concepts of the interlocutor, audience, reality, and language for students. This is true not only because wikis offer an environment that is completely editable, changeable, and unique to a particular discourse community, but through the idea of the individual and his or her role in that community.
For those interested in using a wiki themselves, a comparison of various wikis can be found at WikiWikiWeb (http://c2.com/w4/wikibase/?LongListOfWikiClones ), Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_wiki_farm), and WikiMatrix (http://www.wikimatrix.org/). Many of the above wiki farms allow for free use of a wiki, with varying levels of functionality and security. For further research on wikis, see the following bibliographies: