By Jacob Day, WIC GTA
As the digital world becomes more and more a part of the academic landscape, the ways in which we teach writing must adapt. Many instructors already teach online courses, and almost everyone uses Blackboard or Canvas in some way to supplement face-to-face teaching. Yet, as the climate of the university changes, shouldn’t our pedagogical methods also change? In some cases, this question is completely rhetorical, especially for those who are already teaching online courses and now must change some of their tried and true teaching strategies; some assignments and activities just simply cannot be done online. As more and more instructors find themselves trying to adapt their writing activities and assignments to digital formats, the WIC staff has been frequently asked for suggestions to ease this transition.
While there are many available online resources for the teaching of writing, the wiki is one we would like to spotlight today. According to Wikipedia.com, the best known wiki, wikis are web applications that allow people “to add, modify, or delete content in collaboration with others.” Unlike blogs and similar applications, wikis have no defined leader or owner, and they use a very simple markup language to add content and to structure the site.
For tips and suggestions on how to effectively use wikis in the classroom, we asked Oregon State’s Dr. Ehren Pflugfelder, who is an assistant professor in the school of Writing, Literature, and Film, and focuses primarily on technical/professional writing, rhetoric, and the teaching of writing (http://ehrenpflugfelder.com/). We sat down with Ehren to discuss simple ways wikis can be used in the classroom, online or face-to-face, to better promote a collaborative, virtual atmosphere.
Pflugfelder began by explaining to us that there are many types of wikis, including Wikipedia wikis, which catalogue information in specific ways. Encyclopedic wikis can be used for collaborative projects, but they are best used for editing already existing pages and teaching structure and style, because they have “talk” pages where people can discuss how pages are organized and structured. Pflugfelder cautioned, however: “If instructors want students to create Wikipedia pages, there are a lot of resources on Wikipedia, but they should have students create actual Wikipedia pages—not idiosyncratic assignments that don’t fit the Wikipedia mold. Wiki pages that are not in the Wikipedia style will likely be radically changed or taken down.” If instructors do choose to use the Wikipedia genre as an assignment, there are Wikipedia pages that explain how to write effectively on Wikipedia. Wikipedia assignments could potentially include “meta” elements, where students can reflect on why they decided to keep the information they kept and why they organized information in specific ways.
If instructors do not want to have students create Wikipedia pages, but rather use blank wikis to create new content and pages, there are many types of appropriate wiki applications. There are many websites that can be used to build wiki pages, but some of the easiest and more frequently used are: Wikispaces (http://educationalwikis.wikispaces.com/ ), Wikia (http://www.wikia.com/Wikia), and Pbworks’ wiki ( http://www.pbworks.com/wikis.html). These wiki building websites require creating an account, but they are all free. Once a blank wiki is created, the instructor can then share the url of the newly created page or give students the appropriate login and password. After students access the course’s specific Wiki page, they can then add, edit, and structure content online in that virtual space.
Pflugfelder explained that assignments can be made with these types of wikis to talk about definitions, say in a science course like biology. Students working in groups can, for example, build definitions of something like a plant cell in order to develop a wiki page. If students have differing opinions, then they can choose the definition they believe is most accurate. Those types of changes will be tracked, so all students get credit for participating even if some of their contributions don’t make the final cut.
Pflugfelder also recommended teaching the importance of citations through wiki pages. An instructor can use a wiki page as a repository for information uploaded by students that, for example, might be on an exam—a study guide generated by the students. The instructor can obviously control some of the content if it is not relevant or accurate. But the students would need to provide citations for their information in order to gain credibility with their peers and instructor.
Group research projects can also be assigned using wikis. Pflugfelder explained that many group projects are successful in wiki pages because students can see the structure of assignments and information, and use subsections and links to create additional structure. For example, if the topics of different group projects are completely different, then they can use separate wikis. If topics are related, however, the separate wiki pages can be linked together as subsections. In an engineering course, to give one example, an instructor could have students generate a page about factors of safety. Students could construct the page throughout the term, while the instructor monitors their progress, like journal writing. The instructor can then see if they edited, what they contributed, and when the work was done. Almost any group assignment that requires students to collaborate and contribute information to a singular or scaffold project can utilize wikis in a virtual space.
There are many ways to use wikis for educational purposes. We have provided just a few examples, but please do not feel limited to these suggestions. If wikis might be something you would like to try, and the above examples wouldn’t work in your courses or with your pedagogical approach, consider assignments you already use and try and adapt them to the wiki format in a way that best suits you and your students.