How I Used Wikis to Get My Students to Do Their Readings

Ulises A. Mejias

We have heard the complaint or issued it ourselves one too many times: “They don’t read!”

After carefully planning and selecting the reading materials, we get to class only to find that students—those who actually bothered to crack open the book—did not get past page three because the reading was “boring,” or “too long,” or the author “could have said the same thing in fewer words.” We have appointed the blame for this evil on different things at different times: the educational system, television, the cynicism of the 80s, the apathy of the 90s, and more recently, of course, the Internet and the socialized stupidity it seems to be breeding (Carr).

But can Digital Media provide some simple pedagogical models to promote a more active engagement with that most ancient and passive form of learning: the reading assignment? In this article, I describe the use of Wikis (web pages that people can easily edit as a group) to get students to summarize, ask questions, and comment on a reading before they even meet for class. And while many new—and old—tools can be used to accomplish similar results, what is innovative about this approach is that whereas before reading and writing was something students were supposed to do individually in the isolation of their rooms or the library, now—thanks to Wikis—it is a project they tackle collaboratively as a class. The goals of this critical pedagogy are thus both modest and radical, at the intersection of old and new technologies: to use Digital Media to change the way students interact with texts.[1]

What is a Wiki?

Wikis are destined to be one of those inventions that are so universal, and the need for them so obvious, that perhaps in a few years people will stop to notice their presence altogether, and even refer to them by name. A brief history of the Wiki will illustrate why this is the case. In the beginning, so to speak, the Web was read-only, meaning that people could only browse its static contents. But the inventors of the Web always intended for it to be a read-write Web, a collection of live pages that people could edit and alter on the go. Of course, web pages are editable by those with the right programming skills and the appropriate access rights to the files. But the point was to make it possible for people without programming skills to visit a particular web page and be able to edit it right on the spot.

In 1994, Ward Cunningham came up with an elegant solution: the Wiki. What distinguished Wikis from other collaborative software was the fact that users could edit any web page or create new pages using only their web browser and a very simple editing or markup language.[2] A Wiki allows a community of people to edit and create—simultaneously, in real time—as many pages as they want. The most recognizable example of a Wiki is Wikipedia, which now contains more than 16 million articles or pages, any one of which you can go and edit right now. In theory, in a Wiki no participant enjoys more editorial power than another, for any participant can alter the contents of any page at any time (in reality, depending on the system configuration, administrators enjoy certain privileges like locking or deleting pages, or controlling user access). Thus, the writing of a Wiki is a non-linear process, as various editors can work on various parts simultaneously and concurrently. And while this may sound like a recipe for chaos, the Wiki is practically indestructible because it makes a copy of itself every time a change is saved, allowing the community to compare earlier versions and revert to them if desired.

My Experience with Wikis

I have been using Wikis as course learning environments for some years. For the reasons described above, I find them to be more open or flexible than the traditional Learning Management System (such as Blackboard, WebCT, Angel, etc.). I not only use the Wiki to publish course materials like the syllabus and the schedule, but students use it to publish their assignments, review each other’s work, and collaborate on group projects. Specifically, I will be discussing the class assignment, which involves summarizing and discussing the assigned readings before we meet in class.

Before I begin, I should point out that it is not the purpose of this article to discuss in detail the technicalities of choosing or setting up a Wiki, so I will only briefly mention the two solutions I have some experience with. The first one is a non-hosted, open-source solution called Tiki Wiki.[3] Non-hosted means that I am responsible for installing and maintaining the software myself; my school provides no technical support, no server space, and no help as far as covering the server costs. This can be a bit time consuming, since I have to install and set up the Wiki software on my own server, but it gives me complete control. Furthermore, because Tiki Wiki  is open-source software, it is free to download and use, and makes me part of a community of developers and users that supports the principles behind Free/Libre Open-Source Software.

The other solution I just started to work with is Google Sites,[4] which is obviously hosted by Google, and which you can start using without having to install anything (Google Sites is basically a Wiki, even though Google doesn’t always call it that). The basic service is free, while you have to pay for premium services. Lest you think this is about to turn into an endorsement for Google, let me be clear: when my state university decided to switch to Google Apps for Education as a way to cut costs by providing “free” email, calendaring, file storage, document sharing, etc., I raised questions about privacy, security, and Google’s ability to use the information I generate while conducting school business for its profit (Mejias). But my concerns about the privatization of public education did not delay the arrival of our Google overlords, and so I am experimenting with Google Sites to get a better grasp of what is at stake.

The Assignment

Using Wikis to support the reading process and re-engage the text has shifted the roles of instructor and learners. In the old model, the instructor assigned readings, which the majority of learners didn’t do, except perhaps for the model students who read in isolation. During class, because it was assumed that most learners didn’t do the readings, the instructor lectured on the material from the readings, and the model students asked questions. In a best case scenario, most of the learners in fact did the readings, and the instructor could facilitate a more dialogical discussion of the text during class, but students still read in isolation and there was no extension of the reading experience outside the classroom.

In the new model, I tell students that their assignment before we meet for class is to work on the Wiki page created for the assigned reading. I explain there are two parts to the assignment, which correspond to the two parts of a Wiki page. In the first part of the assignment (the part that corresponds to the section of the Wiki page that can be edited), I ask students to collaboratively write the best possible summary of the reading. I tell them that in this part, I am interested in what the author(s) of the text are saying, not in what the students think of the reading. Since Wiki pages can accommodate multimedia elements, students are encouraged to embed images, hyperlinks, videos, or anything else that can supplement the readings. But the bulk of the work consists of students writing, editing and organizing a summary of the key concepts of the assigned reading.

In the second part of the assignment (the part that corresponds to the bottom section of the Wiki page), students are asked to use the “Comments” function of the Wiki to post their individual comments about the text: any reactions they might have, or questions they might want to discuss in class, and so on. I tell them that this is the part where they are allowed to express their personal opinion. I don’t require them to reply to each other’s comments (unless this is an online course), since that is the purpose of the face-to-face class discussion.

In essence, what students are doing is contributing to a set of group notes about the text. Because they are working together, it no longer feels like they are reading in isolation. I have found that by the time we meet in class, the experience of collaborating in the Wiki has not only increased the engagement with the text (I discuss specific benefits below), but the collection of comments at the bottom of the Wiki page provides us with plenty of material to organize the class discussion around. My job as an instructor is then to facilitate the conversation, unpack what was said in the comments, explore disagreements, etc.

Examples

I will briefly describe what a couple of these Wiki pages end up looking like. For an undergraduate seminar I teach on technology and culture, I ask students to put together a Wiki page for the first chapter of Murphie and Potts’ Culture and Technology. This chapter covers the main theoretical frameworks we will be using throughout the semester to talk about technology, and introduces key intellectual figures, many of whom the students have never heard about but whose work we will return to later in the semester. In short, it is a very important chapter, but it is also overwhelming for students not familiar with the field. Furthermore, it comes early in the semester, when students are still figuring out how to work with the Wiki and what I expect them to do in the assignment.

Apart from explaining the assignment a couple of times in class, demonstrating the functioning of the Wiki, and pointing out the reference and help materials available for students to consult on their own (how-to videos, user guides, etc.), I tend to play a more active role in creating the outline or blueprint for the Wiki page early in the semester, leaving the blanks for the students to fill in. In other words, I might create some headings or sub-headings (not all of them), or insert a link or a picture to indicate that this is a possibility. Pretty soon, however, students start to fill in the gaps, and what we might end up with is a page that contains the definitions from the chapter of the main theoretical frameworks (technological determinism, cultural materialism, etc.), as well as a list of key questions that the authors raise, and a directory of the philosophers mentioned, with a summary of their arguments along with a picture of what they look like and a link to their Wikipedia page.

The other example is from the same class, but comes later in the semester, when I ask students to read Heidegger’s essay The Question Concerning Technology. This is a difficult reading for undergraduates to tackle, and for a class to discuss meaningfully in eighty minutes, so using the Wiki to summarize and comment on the reading before class is very helpful. By this time in the semester, students are comfortable with the Wiki, so I give them free reign in designing and organizing the page. In the particular year I’m discussing, what students collectively put together was a page that contained some biographical information on Heidegger (including, as some students reported in shock, his associations with the Nazi movement), an overview of each section of the essay (accompanied by illustrations to some of the things Heidegger alludes to, like the Rhine river or the poet Holderlin), and a summary of the main points of the essay, as understood by the students. Each student also posted one or two paragraphs of personal comments at the end of the page, some liking the reading, and some hating it, but giving us plenty to discuss in class.

Benefits and Lessons Learned

Every semester, during the process of using the Wiki to engage the text, my students come to certain realizations about the process.

 

 

Writing as a collaborative exercise

During the first few days, it is interesting to see how—despite instructions given in class—students approach the assignment. The first ones to contribute to the Wiki page usually craft self-contained summaries of the reading, and then sign their names at the bottom, thinking they have probably satisfied the requirements of the assignment. The habit of writing as an individual author dies hard, especially since they have no previous experience writing any other way. What I usually do is delete their names, break up their paragraphs and scatter the parts across the page according to where each part fits best. Everyone starts to get the idea soon afterwards, although it does take a couple of weeks for learners to become comfortable with the process. We also talk in class about the various roles Wiki contributors can play: not just adding content, but organizing, editing (correcting grammar, spelling, etc.) and formatting (layout, consistency, adding multimedia, etc.).

Transparency of the editing process

An important moment in the understanding of how Wikis function comes when I show students how to access the “Revision History” of a Wiki page (usually accessed through a tab at the top or a link at the bottom of the page). As I explained earlier, each time a change is saved to a Wiki page, the system saves a copy of the previous version, along with information about who is making the change, at what time, etc. When I go to a student’s user page on our Wiki and completely delete its contents or vandalize it, I notice a brief sign of alarm on their faces (obviously they know I am up to something). But when I show them that, thanks to the Revision History, not only can I compare any two versions of a page and revert to a previous version, but also see exactly who made the changes, they understand that the Wiki provides safety mechanisms that prevent the editing process from devolving into chaos.

Furthermore, I explain how I use the Revision History to track their participation and assign them a weekly grade. Editing the Wiki and posting a comment for each reading is worth a particular number of points, and by using the Revision History to compare various versions of the page, I can see not only who contributed to the page, but the extent of their participation and the grade they should get.

Lastly, I think an understanding of how the Revision History of a Wiki page works has the potential of transforming students into critical practitioners rather than merely passive consumers of digital media. While most of them use Wikipedia, for instance, few understand the ongoing, collaborative process that happens behind the scenes of an article, and the role they themselves could potentially play in the production of knowledge. The Revision History unveils a whole new world of participation to them.

Blended Learning

While I have applied this model successfully in an online learning environment (using the comments sections to carry on a discussion about the reading), what I have been describing is an application of Wikis to support blended (online-onsite) learning. The assignment to collaboratively build the Wiki page is given the week before we meet in class. This gives students a few days to do the reading and put together the Wiki page. During that time, they are not reading in isolation but working asynchronously on the Wiki page, which is an effective way of extending learning beyond the classroom.

The Wiki as object of study

Although it represents more work for them (and for me, as far as grading), most students admit at the end of the semester that this assignment forces them to engage with the readings in a way they would otherwise not do. Some of them attempt to complain about the extra effort required, but they themselves recognize that they get more out of the course because of it. Additionally, students acknowledge the important role that these Wiki pages acquire as study guides in preparing for exams or putting together papers or projects. More than that, these pages become sites of social interaction which document and evidence the effort students put into their learning. It is clear students develop a sense of ownership and pride over them.

Conclusions

Some might see in this exercise an attempt to turn reading assignments into a measurable and quantifiable activity, thereby contributing to a Taylorization of learning. As with all applications of digital technology, perhaps to a certain extent this is true. But as an educator, what I find attractive about Wikis is the new form of literacy they can instill in learners. Wikis allow us to participate in the evolution of a multimedia text, an evolution that reflects the decisions not of a single individual, but of a community of writers. This new form of literacy reflects the textual practices not of isolated authors, but of multiple and simultaneous authors.

By forcing learners to rethink the way they write, Wikis can engender a new understanding of the potential of digital media. This is important because despite the emphasis on social networks, most of the digital media we are now infatuated with cater to the egotistical voice of the individual (corporations have built whole business models around this fact). Wikis are unique because by promoting collective production—not just self-publishing—they allow learners to think beyond themselves and to contribute to something larger than themselves. This is a lesson I do not see replicated in a lot of the so-called social media of our times.

Works Cited

Carr, N. G. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (1st ed.). New York: W.W. Norton, 2010.

Heidegger, M. The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays. Trans. W. Lovitt. New York: Garland Publishers, 1977.

Mejias, U. “Between Google and a hard place.” The Oswegonian. 16 April 2010. Web. 27 September 2010. <http://www.oswegonian.com/opinion/2.4286/between-google-and-a-hard-place-1.1346702>.

Murphie, A., and J. Potts. Culture and Technology. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.


[1] The lessons I will discuss are derived from experiences in small classrooms of up to 25 students. There might be a way to scale this model to larger classrooms with the help of teaching assistants, but I haven’t experimented with it yet.

[2] These days, many Wikis don’t even require a special markup language and allow for direct word processor type editing. For more on the history of Wikis, cf. Leuf, B., & Cunningham, W. (2001). The Wiki Way: Quick Collaboration on the Web. Boston: Addison-Wesley.

[3] See <http://info.tiki.org/>.

[4] See <http://www.google.com/sites/>.

1 Comment »

  1. [...] A. Mejias explains how to use wikis to help students keep up with the reading: In essence, what students are doing is contributing to a set of group notes about the text. [...]

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