Blog Post

Wikis in the Classroom -- Some Thoughts and Questions

This fall, I taught a freshman writing seminar focused on modern and contemporary art in the Maghreb. Most of my students had never taken art history classes before, or studied anything in the region. I used the theme of “the city” as a gateway into the topic – how major cities (Algiers, Casablanca, Tangier) are pictured, how artists engage with these cities, the ways in which the cities become a sort of character in and of themselves within artworks. Inspired by HASTAC and the discussions of technology and pedagogy, and by a missive that had been sent around by Cornell’s Writing Institute about a classroom wiki, I opted to create a class-wide wiki in place of one of the required essays. I will share the experience here, but I am interested in responses to a few questions that I wrestled with.

Cornell uses the password-protected platform Blackboard, and so I set up the wiki there. Students were placed into groups centered around either an artist or an artistic structure. Each group worked together to write a one-page introduction to the topic, using the style that is typically seen in artist biographies (with information about major exhibitions, themes of work, etc.). Then, each student wrote a two-page analysis of one work, one aspect of a larger artwork, or one facet of an arts institution. I urged them to use the vivid and less formal (or perhaps more precisely, less academic) style of arts writing that we had studied that had been published in such forums as Frieze. This process included a draft that was peer-edited and time to work together in class. At the end of the project, once everything had been posted on the class wiki, each student was required to comment on at least one other student’s post.

The class response was overall very enthusiastic. In the past, when I have taught writing seminars, the number of pages assigned starts small (approximately 2 pages) and consistently builds up to a final project of approximately 8-10 pages. This assignment came towards the end of the semester, in our final unit, and forced students to return to a more concise analysis, similar to early assignments in length and breadth, but with the added skills that had come from our work together over the course of the semester. It was gratifying to see the remarkable difference at that point in the semester. The students also enjoyed the change in writing style, and it both pushed them towards ever-increasing clarity and allowed different students to shine in new ways.

I enjoyed the activity, and would definitely assign something similar again. However, I was left with the following questions, and I would love feedback as I continue to think through this intersection of pedagogy and technology. This primarily comes back to a question of: should a class wiki be published on an open platform like Google, or kept on a private, password-protected platform?

One of the wonderful possibilities of wikis is that they can offer new possibilities for creating information on the internet. The class was only possible because it coincided so closely with my own research – culled together from articles found over the past years, information from friends, copies of video art pieces given to me by artists and galleries, and images sent directly from the artists, because much of the information is not readily available or easy to access. This is an underserviced field, and I would love for my students to be able to actively take part in spreading information about these fantastic artists and projects. However, focusing on contemporary art, we were discussing living artists that are colleagues of mine and that know and care what is written about them online. What is the responsibility of a professor, in terms of deciding what can/cannot be published online? Is student writing an extension of one’s own name? If so, does the precise editing process that would then be required for students that are new to this subfield as well as the field of art history overall help them as writers, or stifle the importantly open field of inquiry?

Along this same line of questioning, I wonder about dictating online publishing. I am increasingly aware of my online presence and care what is put online in connection with my name. When so much personal and professional information is gleaned from these online citations, it seems worth being thoughtful about what is available about us. Not even going into questions of online privacy (which I don’t discount), I know that I would not necessarily want my earliest forays into different lines of thought readily available to anyone that Googled me. Moving from my own personal concerns, I then think about the implications of this for students. Is it my role to require this of them? Perhaps (probably) many or most of these students maintain an active online presence with far more sensitive information than their early thoughts about a contemporary art piece. Yet if at 18 – the age of many of my students—I was more forthcoming about my private life on social media, I no longer am. Academic writing is of course not a student’s private life, but I am trying to get at the idea that what we want available about us online at different stages in our lives changes. How, then, does that affect what we require students to publish online?

I would love to hear other experiences of wikis, and how others work through these ideas. To end with a question:

To what extent should we capitalize on the information-sharing capacities of using the internet as a pedagogical tool, and to what extent do we need to safeguard privacy—or an open (private) space without consequences for student exploration? What are the ethics of public or private information in trying to increasingly incorporate technology into the classroom?

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2 comments

Greetings Holiday,

Firstly, thanks for sharing your experience using wikis.  I'm teaching for the first time this year, and I'm trying to figure out how to incorporate technology into my classroom.  So far I set up a public course wordpress blog but already I'm struggling over some of the same questions you raised, specifically around privacy and access.  I too am wondering where the line is between my own efforts and students, as well as trying not to infringe on any copyright laws.

Though I think you're right to question the ramifications of posting publicly, I feel that one of the great advantages  of the internet over traditional paper writing is that it allows students work to exist beyond the course instead of disappearing into the ether.  I think we've all written those papers that end living in the shadowy corners of our hard drives.  In your particular case of the wikis, do you feel the information compiled by the students needs the approval of the artists studied?  Would there be a way perhaps before posting publicly that you could add a disclaimer regarding the manner in which you collected the material? In full disclosure, I spent the last summer in Morocco studying Arabic, so I'm very interested in your research and would love to be able to view the wikis myself.  

One further question I had was overall you mentioned the enthusiasm was high for the project.  How would you recommend  encouraging students to participate and then managing grade expectations for the wikis? More specifically did quantity trump quality  of posts, or where you able to find a balance when grading?

Thanks for sharing and I look forward to trying out wikis at some point in the future.

Cheers,

Zoe

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Zoe, An overdue thank you for your thoughtful comments.

I definitely agree with what you’re saying about allowing work to live on in an important way beyond students’ hard drives. I think it is worth taking seriously the idea of a disclaimer to present work in progress. I’m increasingly interested in the important possibilities of making thought processes public. I think it’s exciting to consider the actual process and the accumulation of information as part of the work itself, and I’ve been talking to colleagues recently about using public blogs/wikis as a kind of public study group, as well as within exhibition planning. I love the idea that beyond a finished product, that thought process is available, and open to conversation. The rich possibilities for exchange seem really exciting to me—that is, for opening up conversations between established intellectuals and upcoming scholars – or passionate readers – on the equal footing of a platform like wikis.

Yet I am left with drawing the line on requiring public forums with students and within classrooms. In part, the voluntary nature of wikis written by people that are passionate about similar ideas distinguishes that from the required parts of writing for a class. I take seriously the idea of framing a public wiki with students to say that these are works in progress, but I haven’t found language that I am comfortable with, or examples of how people have dealt with editing student work that reflects on you as the teacher. I did consider the idea of working with the artists and getting their approval, though there is the real life factor of the intense busyness of everyone’s schedule, and thus far I feel like it would be an imposition. But I’m open… and would love the link to your class blog, if you’re willing to share it.

Beyond a question of legality (covered in a wonderful thread here on HASTAC), I think there remains the question of: is this desirable? Do we WANT to push students towards a greater online presence, or is there reason to allow them the luxury of intellectual exploration that is nurtured within a private and contained classroom? (Is a private space for intellectual exploration a luxury right now?)

When I was an undergraduate, a college professor had us do Youtube videos instead of final papers, with the idea that it was adding to public discourse. When I looked recently, thinking about this blog post, I was surprised to see that the video I made five years ago is still there, and has been seen over 900 times. On the one hand, I like the idea that something I did so long ago is still there, that the work I did actually became part of some other discourse beyond that between myself, my classmates, and my professors. On the other hand, my thoughts and perspective have changed since college, and I have mixed feelings about the video – though not mixed enough to remove it. (I appreciate having that power, that being said.)

As for encouraging participation, I think some participation must be required as part of the grade – for example, they will be marked down if they don’t participate (though I did not grade, per se, their comments). Then, I think that what encouraged enthusiasm among my students was my own enthusiasm for trying something new. It’s exciting to explore new technology as a pedagogical tool, and I enjoyed the process enough that my students seemed to be caught up in my enthusiasm. (I also had a lovely batch of students this fall, who were all very involved in the class. I’m not sure this sort of activity would be successful with all groups of students, or with students that did not have a strong group vibe.) I didn’t grade on quantity – in part because I think quality always trumps, and kept my requirements low. I would love to hear how your blog is going thus far!

Do you do research in Morocco? Or were you there only for Arabic?

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