Blog Post

WiTTIE: Developments Continue and Participation Begins or The Right Direction, the Wrong Velocity

The WiTTIE Team has been hard at work over the last few months.  Weve spent most of our time refining our wiki interface, developing support materials, planning with participants around the World, and negotiating the inevitable snags that have arisen along the way.  With this post, Ill talk about some of our successes and some of the struggles that have made these successes fewer and further between than any of us would like.

Most of our summer was spent recruiting participants and organizing our wiki application into something our participating teachers and students would be proud to use.  Recruiting was an interesting and multifaceted process.  Word of mouth was probably our most successful recruiting tool, as several members of our team had vast international experience and all the contacts that come along with such experience.  Likewise, we all knew practicing teachers here in the States, and many of them were eager to take part in our project.  As such, we have developed a group of participants that range from the second grade to the university level and are spread across six continents. 

A participating class in Valparaiso, Chile

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Since we made use of the free MediaWiki software and brought in an extremely bright Wikibooks administrator/programmer to help fill the immense gaps in our technological know-how, building our basic wiki application was a snap!  We purchased server space, installed the appropriate software, and the wiki was up and running, featuring many of the powerful tools that have allowed sites like Wikipedia to flourish.  The next step was customization; after all, the whole point of WiTTIE is to develop an educator-friendly wiki application.  

We started out by introducing a new WYSIWYG editor in place of the standard wikitext editor that comes along with the MediaWiki package.  This wikitext editor displays content in a sort of dumbed-down version of HTML code along with some wiki-specific code.  Anyone whos ever edited a Wikipedia article (or thought about it hard enough to click edit) knows that this editor is intimidating.  Now imagine that youre a 10-year-old Chinese kid whos never seen it before  Can you see why the WYSIWYG editor was absolutely necessary? 

The next modifications we made to the wiki were less technical but no less difficult.  We needed to develop special terms of use and a privacy policy and agree on a license under which WiTTIEs wikis content would be published, ensuring that all of these were thorough, fair, and easy to understand for our often young, international participants.  After a complicated and contentious debate, we agreed on the Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, and this seems to have been the right decision.

A participating class at Old Dominion University

All that work done, we designed the two pilot projects to be developed within WiTTIEs customized wiki.  Right away, we developed the university-level education text based on a model we had implemented in Wikibooks during previous academic semesters.  Designing In Our World (the largely K-12, international pilot project) was slightly more complicated, because we had to come up with the model from scratch!  We arrived at a structure featuring two main content typesCommunity Portraits and Share Your Perspective.  The former was designed to serve as collaborative spaces in which entire classes or small groups within classes could describe their communities to other participants, and the latter designed to provide spaces where individual students could share their takes on fashion, food, film, etc.

During the next several weeks, Cady Pinell spearheaded an effort to develop a series of powerful text/video tutorials explaining many of the procedures teachers and students would need to understand before participating in WiTTIE.  We also began providing instruction for our In Our World participants across the globe.  We sent out weekly emails to each participant detailing the steps they needed to undertake.  These tasks included creating user accounts, user pages, orienting their students, and obtaining their students parents consentjust to name a few.

All the while, our team of programmers worked feverishly to develop additional tools that we hope will enable teachers to incorporate formative and summative feedback and assessment into their wiki pages.  As this development process has continued, weve been forced to realize that the development of technologically sophisticated tools like the ones we envision does not always occur according to our own timelines.  Programmers know this already, but we did not.  As such, weve not yet been able to roll out the peer-review and rubric generator tools we believe will be very useful for educators working with WiTTIEs wiki.  Development of these tools marches on, and we hope to be able to share them with our participants in the near future.

When the undergraduate, preservice teachers began writing in the aforementioned university-level education textbook, we began to notice serious limitations in our WYSIWYG editor.  For instance, changing fonts and font colors was found to be impossible in the new editor, as was copying and pasting content from other wikis.  The rich editor (another name for WYSIWYG) is also severely limited in terms of its formatting capability.  Resizing pictures, formatting tables, and creating textboxes is complicated and not representative of the user-friendly approach wed hoped for.  Finally, the WYSIWYG editor makes it difficult for a user to create links that retain the hierarchical structure allowing for easy navigation throughout the wiki.  Because of all these difficulties, were searching for ways to re-vamp the current editor.  If that proves impossible, the original WYSIWYG editor may be scrapped for good, in favor of another editor.

Getting our participants started has also proven difficult.  Though we have provided weekly emails, tutorials, and one-on-one Adobe Connect meetings, the majority of our participants have yet to contribute meaningfully to In Our World.  We assume that there exist at least two reasons for this difficulty.  First, teachers are exceedingly busy!  In the US and abroad, teachers jobs require long hours and diverse, demanding tasks.  There is little wiggle room for another cool project like ours.  Second, no one likes going first.  Though we had developed some scant sample content, there were no examples of complete Community Portraits after which our participants could model their own.  We think this fact was frightening for many of our participants.

All that said, several schools, including Pollard Middle School in Needham, Massachusetts, the Universidad Tecnica Federico Santa Maria in Valparaiso, Chile, and several classes at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA are developing Community Portraits that promise to be unique and engaging resources that will motivate other participants to jump on board.  Likewise, emerging information about the forthcoming Google Wave technology has excited us, as this may make it possible for our team to incorporate some social networking aspects into WiTTIE. 

As for me, rather than focusing on all the work yet to be done, Im choosing to look at all the things weve learned and the successes weve had in a just a few months of development.  We may not be moving at the velocity wed hoped for, but were moving in the right direction, and thats good!  I look forward to hearing your thoughts and urge you to check out our site by clicking on one of the links in this post.  Well be sharing more about our progress in the coming days, so stay tuned!  J

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