Using Mediawiki in the English 1101/1102 Classroom

Wiki software, as I’m sure most of us are already well aware, is a tool for creating websites that users can quickly and easily edit. First introduced by computer-scientist Ward Cunningham in the mid 1990s, wikis have become an important and visible part of the internet landscape. The free encyclopedia Wikipedia (which is, by at least one estimate, the seventh most visited site on the web) is, of course, the most famous example of wiki technology in action, but there are many others, including fan wikis devoted to cataloging even the most minor details of popular culture, wikis documenting software projects, wikis for organizing political action groups, and many more. Over the next few blog posts, I’ll be discussing some techniques for using the wiki software employed by Wikipedia, called Mediawiki, in the English 1101/1102 Classroom at Georgia Tech. I’ve decided to focus this post on such a specific teaching situation, in part, because there are a wide variety of already existing resources discussing teaching with wikis more broadly.

In these posts, I will discuss three techniques for using wikis in the classroom: having students interact with an already existing wiki, using a wiki of your own with a structure you have designed yourself, and using a wiki of your own and inviting students to participate in developing the structure of the wiki they are working on. These three techniques are not in opposition to one another. In fact, I use all three in a hybrid method for my fall English 1101 class. For each of these three techniques, I will talk a little bit about the opportunities and challenges that the method provides, the tools and resources available to instructors at Georgia Tech for using this method, and how I integrate the method into the teaching of multi-modal communication (which is, after all, what we’re all here to do!).

This post will focus on the first technique: having students interact with an already existing Wiki. More after the jump.

Using Already Existing Wikis in The Classroom

Having students interact with an already existing wiki, like Wikipedia, in a class assignment can be a good way to introduce students to Wiki technique, and to give them experience writing for an audience. Unlike traditional class writing assignments, which might be read only by an instructor and a few classmates, students who write for Wikipedia really are writing for the world, giving them a sense of purpose.

Opportunities and Challenges

As I mentioned above, considering the audience isn’t just an academic exercise when students write for Wikipedia. By contributing to the Wikipedia project, students are volunteering their work for a global audience. Most importantly, some elements of that audience can (and most likely will) talk back, informing your students of how well or poorly their work has satisfied Wikipedia’s style conventions and content standards. Since all real writing is done for a community, this interaction can provide students with important experience negotiating community expectations.

At the same time, Wikipedia’s community can present a challenge to educators who want their students to interact with the site. Over Wikipedia’s nearly 10 years of evolution and growth, the site has developed a fairly complex set of policies and practices that guide the creation and revision of Wikipedia articles. These policies can seem daunting to novice users. In addition, users or groups of users may be protective of articles they have contributed extensively too, and use these policies to prevent others from making revisions they disapprove of.

None of these challenges should prevent you from assigning Wikipedia editing to your students. To make your assignment a success, I would suggest you take several steps to get your students ready for their interaction with Wikipedia. First, make sure that they review the most important Wikipedia policy, the Neutral Point of View and its sister policies, Verifiability and No Original Research before beginning. Start students off with smaller, well defined and uncontroversial edits to Wikipedia, and make sure they review and understand the relevant policies for these edits. For example, you might ask them to add a source to Wikipedia after reviewing the policy on reliable sources, or to make a style edit after reviewing the Wikipedia manual of style. Move on to longer and more complex editing tasks only gradually, allowing time for students to learn the culture of the site.

You might also choose to use another public wiki, rather than Wikipedia. Most other wiki sites have a less established community with less established policies and practices than Wikipedia. This may provide an environment where students have more freedom to make the changes they want, however it may also provide less clear-cut guidance as to what is and is not acceptable behavior.

Resources Available at Tech

Asking students to edit Wikipedia requires very little technological support. After all, Wikipedia was designed to be edited by “anyone.” That said, the fact that Georgia Tech’s undergraduates are required to have laptops, and the near ubiquitous presence of high-speed wireless on campus means that you can assign internet-based tasks, like editing Wikipedia, without worrying about problems of technological access. All of your students will be able to access the site, and do so at a time and place convenient to them.

However, as a instructor at Tech you also have access to another important resource for this assignment: the skills of your students! Most Tech undergrads, of course, do not enter our classes as “digital natives,” already knowing the ins and outs of wikis and other social media. In my experience, the vast majority of them have never edited Wikipedia or worked on another public wiki. However, most sections will have one or two students with Wikipedia editing experience, and that experience can be quite extensive. Allowing these students to share their knowledge with their peers through group activities and other means can be a great way to help resolve basic media literacy problems and get the class focusing on the rhetorical skills you really want to teach.

Multi-Modal Communication

Editing Wikipedia can be a great way for students to learn about the written, electronic, and visual modes of communication. Learning, and following, Wikipedia’s style rules helps students understand that textual conventions aren’t just arbitrary rules issued at the whim of their instructors, but important tools for facilitating communication and cooperation. Wikipedia is also one of the most densely hyperlinked environments on the internet, helping students to learn about the power of hyperlinks and the non-linear modes of organization they allow to electronic communication. The Wikimedia foundation (the non-profit group responsible for Wikipedia) maintains a repository of freely available multimedia, including images, video, and audio, called the Wikimedia commons. Students can contribute visuals and other multimedia texts to the commons, and use those available on the commons for remixing and redistributing in their own projects. In addition, Wikipedia uses an extensive library of visual elements, called templates, to facilitate the incorporation of design and graphic elements into pages. These templates, while somewhat complex, can provide an entry point for discussing color, chunking, and other elements of page design.

More about templates next time, when I discuss setting up your very own Wiki, and how you might structure participation on such a wiki!

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