Friday, April 11, 2008

Gettin' Wiki with It

Personally, I like Wikipedia. It has nearly replaced the Internet Movie Database as my go-to resource for determining where I’ve seen that actor playing the criminal on Law and Order or for determining the nutritional value of lentils. I worry, however, that my students don’t seem to understand the vulnerabilities of an open source tool with open editing privileges. They trust Wikipedia as an authority on everything, an honor I’m uncertain the tool deserves no matter how much I like it.

For several years, I’ve tried to explain my concerns to students. I’ve even showed students how I can edit a page with erroneous information and advised them to enjoy Stephen Colbert’s discussion of Wikiality, but I could tell I didn’t make much of an impression. So I decided to incorporate creating a class wiki into my new poetry unit despite the fact that I haven’t used that function before; treading into unknown technological problems seemed a worthwhile cost to shifting my students’ comprehension of what an open source wiki really means.

This week students reached the publication stage of our project. Each student picked a favorite poem from a selection and wrote a personal response to it. Then each student researched and wrote a short summary on the poet’s biography, complete with some recommended websites for further reading. Students turned in each individual assignment in hard copy for a grade. Once all that work had been recorded, students started the wiki. I have thirty students and only four poets. If a student posts first to the poet’s wiki, he or she can put his or her entire biography. However, if a biography is already there, students need to edit it with additional information from their own research or with changes they think would improve it; they repeat this process for the recommended websites, too.

As students built the collaborative wiki, they started to raise their hands for me to come over to their individual computers. “Where do I put my name?” students asked me one by one. “How will people know what I wrote compared to what other people wrote?” Over and over, I explained that wikis don’t provide individual authorship credit, that students' words would be combined, changed, and edited by their peers into a group effort. Now, I can’t lie. Students did not gasp, slap their foreheads and say, “Why I didn’t realize these resources could be so variable! Is verification by consensus really wise?” They took my answer quietly, with a little nod, and repeated, “So I don’t put my name on here. No one puts a name…” Then they got back to work. To me though, it feels like my point finally got through. I think the experience of participating in a wiki has deepened their understanding of the tool in a way I wasn’t successful in explaining with words or examples. As a matter of fact, I plan to ask students to fill in a “Before I thought a wiki _______, but now I think a wiki _________" kind of statement to really zone in to what they’ve learned. Starting a class wiki intimidated me, but I’m seeing real benefits to the risk.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

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