What’s the Matter with Wikis?

Wikis as a collaborative and social writing tool – and not just a way for students to cheat by calling something “original” material or for someone to create truth through “wikiality” – are starting to come into the news. But, I don’t think it is enough. For instance:

Recently, Columbia University has begun to embrace the academic aspects of wikis. The Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning has designed a number of wikis to facilitate conversation in classes, and members of the center are among the leading minds on wiki culture.

And yet meddlers, not just altruistic do-gooders, can also update the sites at will. So while the vast majority of Wikipedia’s information is correct and suitable for academic purposes, many students use it as much for procrastination as a tool for researching a paper.

What if a wiki could serve both purposes, however? Project Athena, a wiki in development through Columbia’s Student Government Office, is pursuing that goal. In its most basic form, it would begin as a brochure and then would evolve into an insider’s guide to which bathroom showers at the University have the head installed too low.

Depending on the amount of interference by the office, the site could eventually turn into a campus-wide study guide where users post their class notes, creating a massive form of Cliff’s Notes. (Those involved with the project are calling it a repository for general information on the University, not on classes.)

Wikis Find Their Way Into Academia

As I dig more and more into the aspects of collaborative writing that wikis – and other tools such as Writely – allow, I am more and more intrigued with the collective backlash that still seems to exist about them. The example above shows how it is OK for students to use the wiki to create “repository for general information on the University, not on classes.” Why not on classes? Why not, as others like David Warlick have suggested, ask students to start with Wikipedia and then create their assignments so that they have to verify the facts in the Wikipedia article and, ideally, contribute new knowledge to it.

I was even more surprised when I was working in a school earlier this fall, one that actually doesn’t filter and block Wikipedia, when the teachers told me that they not only don’t want students to use Wikipedia as a source, but that they actively steer students away from it. I asked why. Here is the general outline of the conversation:

  • They said that it wasn’t reliable. I cited the On the Media story that says vandalism last only a few minutes, let alone the Nature study.
  • They said that the articles always come up in the top ten of Google searches. I said that this is all the more reason that they should understand why and how wikis and Wikipedia work, especially as writers learning how to research.
  • They said that the articles were biased. I referred them to Wikipedia’s policy on the Neutral Point of View. I also referred them to the Room 208 podcast on “Wicked Wikipedia” and how students recognize the rights and wrongs of posting to this resource.
  • They said it changes and is not reliable to cite. We talked about putting in dates and times, and the page history that a teacher could search back to. Also, as a footnote, I ran across Wikipedia’s Citation page the other day through someone else mentioning it and wish I could have told them about it.

After that, they kind of shrugged their shoulders and said, essentially, “Hmm, Wikipedia isn’t so bad. Maybe I will try using with my students this fall.” I hope that they do.

All that said, I am still interested in why and how to use wikis and where the resistance is coming from. Is it the fact that we, as educators, are having trouble making the paradigm shift as it relates to the read/write web and how knowledge is made and shared? There are many who think that this is the case, as change is slow in education. And, there are some interesting critiques of digital collectivism that I think warrant attention, Lanier’s essay being one of them.

But, the knee-jerk reaction that we, as literacy teachers, are going ban wikis outright – without talking about the skills embedded in reading and writing on a wiki – really concerns me. I hope to do some more thinking and writing about how we can effectively integrate wikis into the research process, but for now I would highly recommend looking at Paul Allison’s “Ninth Graders Composing on a Wiki” screencast and his students’ wiki. Also, you can look at a post that I used to facilitate a presentation about this topic last fall.

What do you all think? How can you integrate wikis, especially Wikipedia, into the research reading/writing process?

On a related note, you can visit the wiki page that Aram and I are using to facilitate our presentation at MCTE in a few weeks. And, I hope, add to it!

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