Reflections on My Use of Wikis in the Classroom

Wikipedia has fundamentally and finally altered epistemology itself—our commonly held ideas about knowledge. For the academy at large, the significance of Wikipedia is roughly equivalent to that which the Heisenberg uncertainty principle had in the sciences in the 1920s—stating what is not possible rather than what is. It is no longer possible to plan, tax, and budget for universities as if their model of knowledge creation is the only epistemological path. No matter how improbable it might seem that a Web page that anyone can edit would lead to valuable knowledge, Wikipedia makes clear that there is now another model for knowledge creation. And it also recasts the comments of the diplomatic chancellor in a supremely ironic light: here is the leader of a massive state system for knowledge creation stating that “when every one is responsible no one is responsible,” while he, and certainly everyone in that audience, has probably relied upon a knowledge acquisition path—from Google to Wikipedia—for which everyone is responsible and no one is responsible at once. — Robert E. Cummings, Wiki Writing: Collaborative Learning in the College Classroom (online book) (link to quote)

I’ve written previously about my wiki problems, assessing the wiki work, but never really assessed the impact of my decision to turn the Searching the Internet course into a guided research course. Now is a good time to do this as the second iteration of the course is done, and I’m handing it off to someone else. For the most part, people embraced the technology once they understood the purpose of using the wiki – which was hard to explain to some people. It was important to understand that user-created content needs some critical consumption before you trust it. It’s constantly amazing that many people don’t think to question broadcast news, newspapers or media in general, which really is the main goal that I hoped to get out there to people. I think in some ways I failed, more on that later.

One major hurdle that I still am not sure about how to get around (through?) is student expectations of what should go on in the classroom. Using the wiki for everything was conceptually difficult for those who attended lectures in the face-to-face offering. They wanted to discuss the issues in class – and I didn’t persuade them otherwise. It’s the thing I love about classrooms – the discussions therein. I should’ve made a better attempt at summarizing these in class discussions in the wiki, that way there would be a digital record of what was discussed, what the decisions were and where to go post-discussion. Of course, having the discussions robbed them of a crucial piece of the collaborative work – the discussions on talk pages. This discussion serves two purposes. The first being the revelation that the general public have a democratic say in the content published. The second being that hopefully the fact that they’re editing the content means that other non-experts are also editing content, and that means you have to take everything written with a grain of salt (sometimes a pound).

Another classroom expectation that I had trouble with was a small minority of students were just not comfortable doing their own research. They wanted specific instructions from me as to what to do. I was clear in that this course would be unlike other courses they may have taken. I didn’t want the authority of the teacher (and considering the subject matter, let’s face it, people have to get over this authority complex they have – it’s decentralized just like the Internet) and was looking for ways to bust ye olde teacher as authority. I tried telling people that I was not an expert and that my role was as a guide through the material laid out before them. Yes, I wrote it and yes, I researched it. Yes, it could be wrong too. I tried telling people that it wasn’t a course, and they weren’t students and they weren’t doing assignments they were doing exercises. Of course, the exam at the end was real. I tried telling students that I only know this stuff because I looked it up on the Internet. That didn’t work out so well, and I never repeated that one. Nothing will devalue the course than telling the truth. In the end I didn’t try to break this power structure, and it’s one of the reasons I won’t be teaching after this semester.

I disagree with Cumming’s assertion that everyone and no one is responsible for the content. It’s neither. It’s you who is responsible for assessing the information you consume. I think that’s where I’ve failed, not getting this point through, that every piece of information you consume has a bias, a history and a reason. Nobody publishes a story in the newspaper or on a blog without a reason. Some are transparent, some are difficult to read. While I’ve given the students of the Searching the Internet over the last seven years the tools and some experience in using them, I’m not sure anyone stayed with it.

With that said, it wasn’t an all-around failure. I did become a better teacher, more confident in the skills I do have (and able to improve the ones that I’m lacking). The content on the wiki was well crafted, well thought out and showed that when students would engage with the subject, they could become subject matter experts on their own.

Built In Crap Detector

Every man should have a built-in automatic crap detector operating inside him. It also should have a manual drill and a crank handle in case the machine breaks down.

Ernest Hemingway, in a 1954 interview with Robert Manning, appearing in the Atlantic Magazine, August 1965

Howard Rheingold had mentioned this quote a couple of times, and it really stuck with me. So much so, I had to look it up and I’ll be using it in my teaching next fall. I teach a course called “Searching The Internet Effectively” and wanted to overhaul the content as it was mainly designed five years ago, with content refreshes every semester to reflect the fluid nature of the beast. I hadn’t really approached the social side of the web – mainly because I was busy keeping up with changes. There were and are elements missing from the course.

I had realized last year that I hated the method of delivery, which consisted of me lecturing and the class doing squat until I was done talking. Part of the problem is that they’re in rows in classrooms. I can’t make things much better; the politics of furniture, or rather the politics of furniture in a computer lab restrict me.

The content, while adequate for the majority of students, is not as engaging as I’d like. I never seemed to get to the stuff where I really enjoyed, which was talking about discerning bullshit from good stuff on the web. So I’ve spent the last four months off and on collecting data and sites that will help inform learners. I think making content a “treasure hunt” of sorts can help with student engagement, and I’ll still “lecture” but more as a method to ensure that learners who have no prior experience with web searching (which strikes me as odd) still participate and can contribute.

I’m planning on replacing the crappy assignments with wiki-work. If people outside the class contribute great, if not, I think it’ll still be worthwhile. I’ll still have a final exam as that’s a mandatory item. I’ll have one assignment which is a culmination of all the skills I hope students acquire. Remember this is only a six-week course, so it’s not as lengthy as a “normal” course.

Which brings me to the point. Students are going to have a hard time with this – if this isn’t done well. Debunking authority, whether it be subject authority or any other kind of authority, unsettles people and screws with people’s expectations. But building this sort of crap detector in someone’s life is a critical skill to have. It’s amazing how many people are very trusting with content they get on the web and a bit frightening when you extrapolate it to how it can affect people in real life. Certainly the ability of unscrupulous hucksters to bilk someone of money is out there, hopefully skepticism prevails for people in my class.

I really appreciated this post, which begins to illuminate the new construction of authority in a distributed environment. Objectivity, trust, authority… all related and tied up. Hopefully none of this sets off any crap detectors.


Hmmm, dunno what I think about Thinkature, but it seems like a decent little tool. I was looking for a free web based collaborative tool for my Searching The Internet class – came across this. We don’t have elluminate available college-wide (although I would like to use elluminate sessions in my Distance Ed offering of the same course). The idea that I wanted to do is a whiteboard session where people add different ideas as to what web searching means to them – it bombed in class. Terribly. It resorted to me talking and drawing answers out of people. I think one of the reasons it failed was that it just wasn’t something people expected. They expect to come in use the computers and leave. Asking people to get up in front of the class and express how they feel about searching doesn’t work for them. So, maybe using a website will be more in line with what they expect, but get what I want out of them.

As an aside, the whole webmaster certificate course is very silo’d. I don’t know what other people are teaching, I just know my areas. So if I teach something, it’s quite possible it’s been taught before. In another class. It’s also very geared to the web individual. The part that’s missing is that web designers rarely act alone. They interact with clients, other designers to figure out problems, other programmers to deal with database code or scripting and have a brief idea of what consumers want out of websites.