Contributor: Dundee Lackey
School Affiliation: Michigan State University
I discovered wikis-the course-tool most beneficial to my teaching-simply because I was fortunate enough to begin my work as a teacher of writing as a graduate assistant in the First Year Learning Communities (FYLC) Program at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. In this program, students sign up for “linked learning communities, comprising composition, a first-year seminar, and one or two core curriculum courses” (“FYWP”). The successful functioning of these learning communities required some easy means of facilitating the sharing of ideas and plans across multiple members of each learning community’s faculty, including several pairs of composition and seminar teachers, as well as one or two core curriculum professors.
In my first year, the program attempted to use WebCT to accomplish this, installing a “back door”—a universal guest name and password that any FYLC teacher could use to have a look at what was going on in any other classroom. While this was somewhat successful in that we could easily see what assignments and materials other teachers were using, this failed to facilitate the sharing of day-to-day activities that really make or break a writing class. We needed, it seemed, another layer. The next year, all seminar and composition teachers were required to begin publishing course materials and daily class plans on a wiki. This choice of technology helped us to provide greater consistency in student experiences, but further, it enriched all of our teaching practices, simply by providing each of us with a rich and ready source of lore. (Need a new idea for teaching citation styles? Mike’s good at that; go look at what he was doing last week. Need an invention idea to help students discover a research topic? Cathy has some interesting ones....) And now? There it is-an insitutional memory-bank. I still benefit from the practices of those I first taught alongside, despite the miles between us and the time that's passed.
How Wikis Help Us
Four years have passed since I was first introduced to wiki. I still occasionally use “closed,” proprietary course systems (like WebCT and Angel) for very specific purposes (usually “private” purposes, like posting grades); however, I rely on wikis for the vast majority of my software needs. I find them more accessible to students and more easily organized (and reorganized!) to suit my course designs and learning goals. One can easily create pages for individual days, topics, or students, and create multiple hyperlinks to the same page. I use a wiki to post daily plans, writing projects, and all manner of resources for student writers. I also teach my students to use the wiki, and invite them to add resources to our shared pages as well as to use their individual wiki pages to share drafts, publish writing, and more. We have also used them to write collaboratively (as in the case of this class-authored annotated bibliography, a successful process we're taking on again this spring-this time with two classes contributing, a collaboration made possible by the software.)
While I’ve no doubt these things could be accomplished using tools like WebCT, Angel, or Blackboard, there are things wiki facilitates that these do not. Teaching students to create wiki pages and upload materials has proven a very useful way of helping them conceptualize web site architecture, laying the groundwork for another form of writing/publication. Further, while the page you are now reading is simply designed in order to show how easily one can publish to the wiki, the technology also permits us to upload images and display them in line, and to use color and font formatting to customize pages. Making sound and image part of our daily learning experiences-our environment, even-also allows me to subtly encourage multimodal research. All this, I believe, encourages students to be mindful of and to practice visual rhetoric skills, skills that are increasingly useful in our society.
Wiki also helps us talk and think about writing as a process, and a rhetorical and social one at that. Clicking the history tab on any page provides me with a great way of illustrating revision. The public nature of the wiki encourages students to consider potential "real-world" audiences (who could, in fact, even be the author of the source the student is using or writing about). Any of us can modify the wiki in a matter of seconds to provide a space to capture some unforeseen, but fruitful, event in our class, which, I think, highlights that writing is an ongoing process of discovery and invention. That same ease of editing or publishing makes it practical to draft with students on the screen(s) in front of us-and wiki keeps a record of the changes we make, underscoring, again, the idea of revision.
Publishing full daily class plans is obviously useful to students who may want to revisit resources or activities, but it's useful to me as well. All of my materials are organized and accessible to me anywhere. Further, any one of the courses I taught could easily be converted to an online/distance-learning class with little modification. We’d just have to add a link to the (Angel?) chat rooms in order to hold our class discussions—which should be private—in a private space. The wiki is public, and that, for many reasons, is its strength. Because it's all-out there, online, accessible to others-I’m mindful, always, of how the online presence of my courses enacts my beliefs, commitments, and intentions. Perhaps that's why, for me, our wiki facilitates praxis.
Is it worth your time to wiki?
YES. I feel I can say that with great certainty because learning wiki requires the investment of only a few minutes. You need to know how to:
- create new pages. (This can be done in seconds.)
- upload files.
- create links to internet pages and other wiki pages.
With these three skills, you can do just about anything. When you're ready to add a few bells & whistles, you just need a wiki to browse-then you can use edit mode to look "inside" other people's pages, and figure out how to add (for example) color and line to improve usability (and aesthetics, as desired). From there, the sky's the limit! I've never learned to use WebCT or Angel with the same facility I have in wiki; despite much greater effort, I never can manage to organize them in ways that feel really accessible and welcoming. I also dislike the closed aspect of those systems, when what I most want my students to understand about writing is that it's public, and participatory, and...conversational...except you can revise.
The wiki helps me build community and position our learning as part of larger conversations. It provides my students with spaces to make their own, so they can get the feeling of joining in a conversation, rather than just fulfilling a deadline. Wiki helps me to plan, to illustrate, and (most importantly) to adapt. It's been well worth the few minutes it took to learn it, yielding dividends far larger than anticipated. I've never looked back. Wikis are my teaching technology of choice, and I’ll preach on them to anyone who cares to listen.
For more information about wikis...
For comparisons of and links to wiki software...
First Year Writing Program, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. “FYWP: Goals and Objectives.” First Year Learning Communities Wiki. 26 Jan. 2007. http://firstyear.tamucc.edu/uploads/English1301/1301objectives.htm