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.

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