Rethinking a Wiki vs LMS for Course Design

CC0 Public Domain image by kaboompics on Pixabay.
CC0 Public Domain image by kaboompics on Pixabay.

Last year, when I first taught EDU 807, “Learning Tools in Education Technology,” one of my goals was to employ a wiki as a learning management system (LMS) so the doctoral students involved in the course could participate in a more open, collaborative form of social scholarship. I have long been an advocate of using wikis as an organizational space for my face-to-face classes and in professional development workshops, and it made sense to me that students involved in a doctoral program about educational technology tools would be able to adapt the wiki for their own uses as individuals and in small groups, and to collaborate in innovative ways.

One of the other elements of this course was that I asked students – both individually and in small groups – to regularly move across a variety of educational technology tools. For instance, we used at least a dozen different technologies including the wiki, Google Docs, VoiceThread, Vialogues, and (the now defunct) Zaption. There was also an attempt to integrate Twitter as a back channel conversation throughout the semester.

The ideal, however, met the reality of teaching an online course to busy professionals, and the struggle to move between spaces began to cause confusion and frustration. For all of us, the management of so many different tools was a challenge: Where are we discussing the readings this week? What is due next? Where is the link for that article?

My end-of-semester course evaluations reflected the types of concerns that students felt as they moved across so many tools in such quick succession. While they generally enjoyed and appreciated the course, it was clear that using the wiki in the way that I envisioned was one step too many, even for students in a doctoral program exploring ed tech. Sadly, our attempts to make use of the wiki on a regular basis quickly fell to the wayside. Also, as an instructor, I struggled to keep a balance with students turning in their work, providing feedback, updating the online gradebook in our normal LMS, Blackboard, and – on top of that – managing revisions and late assignments.

In short, my best efforts at using the wiki as an open, collaborative space for students to generate their own shared understandings of the course material and to create social scholarship became an unnecessary burden. In rethinking the course for this spring, then, I struggled to figure out how I would push back against the practices and discourses of the standard course management system while, at the same time, updating my course for this spring so as to avoid massive confusion on behalf of my students.

Hence, I am returning to our university’s LMS as the “hub” of our course activities. I struggle with this for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that I’m trying to teach doctoral students how to employ a variety of educational technology tools – building on collaborative, open source ethos – and yet I must return to an LMS that has a decidedly centered to the tool. I also struggle because I want students to know that social scholarship (openness, collaboration, messiness) does not always work on distinct the context of “taking” a course (modules, assignments, grades).

However, I will keep the idea of being “open” moving forward by asking students to blog on a regular basis, as well as to post additional course assignments as artifacts on their own digital portfolios. Also, we will use Twitter as a way to comment upon one another’s work, as well as to share ideas from other scholars.

I am not particularly pleased about having to give up on using a wiki, and yet at the same time I think by centralizing and streamlining many of the more mundane class activities in the LMS, I will be better able to help my students focus on broader goals of social scholarship and critically evaluating educational technologies. So, wish me luck as I reboot EDU 807 this semester!

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Social Network “Fail” Leads to A Renewed Approach to ENG 315

Another semester began this week, and I have been updating my syllabus and wiki site for ENG 315. Last semester, I was quite surprised and delighted by the number of you who asked me about my Wikispaces to Edmodo shift. Well, we learn from our failures, right? This is one that taught me a great deal about digital writing and teaching, and I share a few thoughts here.

First, I realized how dependent I had become on using a wiki, both to prepare for class as well as in class. Each week, I would create a new agenda page and share that with my students. While I could share links in Edmodo, I switched to a Google Doc for the agenda, and that was confusing to many students. In other words, I didn’t find an easy way to put a weekly agenda up and — while I had placed a link to the agenda in Edmodo, asked them to save the doc in their own Google Drive, and sent a link out each week — the document itself became overwhelming. There may have been an easy workaround for this, however that was not the major concern that students had.

Second, I populated our course’s feed with two RSS feeds so they could get updates on educational news and events. There were so few posts from class members in between our regular class meetings each week, that these syndicated RSS feeds would essentially “fill” the front page for the class. Students were not interested in or easily able to search for assignments or posts from their classmates. Again, I could’ve turned off the RSS, and I’m sure that some simple tagging and searching skills would’ve made this a moot point, that it was something that bothered students in a way I had set up our Edmodo course.

Finally, when I would go to use Edmodo in class as a way to take notes on course discussions, or invite them to post a piece of writing, again there seemed to be no convenient way to do this. I could take notes in the Google talk and make a link, or in a post, but that seemed to get lost. Also, when I had students write in class and then post to the wall of the Edmodo course, again became quickly filled with posts and made it difficult to see everything directly.

For each of these problems, I’m sure that I could’ve figured out a way around them, and I know that Edmodo recently released an update as well, so perhaps on these issues would be less of a concern. However, for me and the preservice teachers with whom I work, it just wasn’t the right fit. So, this semester I am definitely going back to a wiki and I will be more intentional about the times we use the wiki as compared to when we choose Google docs.

The other good thing about my “fail” is that it has coincided nicely, or at lease given me a great deal of material for, my experience in the High Impact Teaching Academy that I have then participating in at CMU. Once a month, a group of about 10 faculty, graduate students, and a facilitator from our faculty development center have been meeting to discuss issues related to syllabus design, assignments, implementing writing, assessment, integrating technology, flipping the classroom, and a variety of other topics.

The chance to talk with like-minded colleagues from disciplines across the university has been very valuable. Part of the work that we are doing this year is to create a product that demonstrates substantive change in our teaching practice. I am approaching ENG 315 with a renewed focus the semester, and have created two artifacts over the break that I shared during our first week of class: a “visual syllabus” and this Prezi that outlines my vision for the course. And, I will be moving back to a wiki… so I will share more about thinking later in the semester. Good luck with the new semester and thanks again for sharing your feedback. A number of readers have told me that the comment features on the blog have not been working properly, and I ever moved a number of plug-ins so hopefully commenting will be much easier.

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Making a Change: From Wikis to Social Networking in ENG 315

For the first time in five years, I am starting an ENG 315 course without using a wiki and, instead, will be relying on Edmodo as the primary space for communicating with my students. This is a big pedagogical shift for me, one that (to be honest) invoked a little bit of healthy anxiety when I started teaching a few weeks ago.

Healthy anxiety is good for me as an educator, and since I want to use Edmodo (or educational social networking tools) in smart, creative ways — as well as think carefully about why I have made the shift away from the wiki — I am capturing some of my thinking here.

Wiki Teaching

ENG 315 Wiki Screen Shot
ENG 315 Wiki Screen Shot

My ENG 315 wiki has served many purposes including weekly agendas and assignments, writer’s profile pages, and discussion forums. I appreciate the flexibility that the wiki allows, inviting students to create, share, and comment on work. Also, I encourage students to go back and look at the work submitted in earlier semesters, including a gallery of exceptional work. I would use the wiki to take notes in class, invite responses to discussion prompts, and serve as a space to organize links and other resources. They are able to create links to their Google Docs, but that sometimes works and sometimes (when they forget to make the Docs public) doesn’t work.

The main downfall of the wiki — despite the amount of time that I spend in class to show students how to create new pages, upload files, and find information that I have posted — is that students (at least a few) report that they get “lost” on the wiki. In short, they don’t really know how the architecture of the site works, and they sometimes write over the pages and files of other students, let alone just having trouble getting things posted in the first place. Now, granted, these concerns are usually allayed by the end of the semester, but the general feelings of angst at the beginning of the semester still haunt some of our activities, and I hear about it in my evaluations. They like the wiki, and the integration of technology, but I get the feeling that things could be better.

Switching to Social Networking

ENG 315 Edmodo Screen Shot
ENG 315 Edmodo Screen Shot

So, this past summer I have been thinking quite a bit about how social networks, specifically Edmodo could work as a new pedagogical space. In particular, because it has a mobile app and we can integrate files from other web sources (namely, Google Docs) with ease, I wanted to give it a try. Of course, there is the whole “it looks like FB” approach, and that is something that my students noticed right away as we began last night. Also, their requirements as a part of their teacher ed program have shifted so that they are putting a portfolio online using Mahara, and I think that they could make a link to that easily, too.

I am a bit hesitant, however, because I don’t want to be seen as simply jumping on the social networking bandwagon, nor do I want to give up the viable collaborative features of the wiki so easily. I do worry that the scrolling home screen, with posts disappearing, could cause some difficulty in trying to keep things organized. But, I also think that I will be able to see student work laid out more efficiently by clicking on their name, knowing that they will have attached assignments from their own library to the posts (rather than potentially forgetting links or writing over other files on the wiki). Also, I think that they will be able to share their writing, especially their field notes, in a space that is more comfortable which will, I hope, prompt them to read and respond to one another’s work.

Questions Remaining

So, as I go into this mini teacher-research experiment, I wonder:

  • Will the switch from wikis to social networking have a positive effect on my students’ sense of themselves as technology users?
  • Given my initial nervousness and limited understanding of the Edmodo interface, will I be able to do everything that I have done in the past with wikis in a similar, or at least compatible, manner?
  • Will students feel as invested in creating and maintaining their own “writer’s profile” given that it won’t be as accessible in Edmodo as it is on the wiki (or, at least not as accessible as I imagine it could be)?
  • Will the social network provide more “authentic” opportunities for reading and responding to one another’s work, or will it still be seen as “school” space, only to be used for purposes of class?

Anyone else using Edmodo? Got some tips? Pitfalls to avoid?

Let me know what you are thinking and I will keep coming back to this topic over the course of the semester.

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Wikispaces announces free wikis for higher ed

For those of you who know my teaching and writing, you know that I am a fan of wikis, in particular of Wikispaces.

From my ENG 315 course to the Chippewa River Writing Project, from my own wiki full of digital writing resources to the wiki for my book, I use their wikis all the times for presentations, workshops, and teaching.

Along with having created a user-friendly and robust product with their wikis, the team at Wikispaces has always been responsive to the needs of teachers, including their free K-12 wikis that now number over 400K. This is not meant to be a straight up product endorsement. Instead, I honestly believe that the team at Wikispaces is working to support K-12 educators in all the ways that they can not just by offering free space, but by offering the time (through email support) and resources to make their wikis pedagogically useful, too.

So, when Sarah from Wikispaces asked me to share a new plan that they will announce next week — free Wikispaces for higher education — I was honored to post the announcement here.  Details of the plan, described by her, include:

  • Our wikis for education are completely private, have no advertising on them, are fully featured, and never expire. And teachers are welcome to sign up for as many of them as they like.
  • The features included in our education wikis usually cost $50 per year — but are completely free when used for K-12 or higher education.
  • We have given away over 980,000 free wikis for education so far, and are committed to giving away at least 2,000,000 in total.
Want more details? Check out this press release (Wikispaces Higher Ed Blog Announcement 2011-02) and watch next week on the Wikispaces blog. Thank you, Wikispaces, for your continued support of K-12 and higher education.

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Mid-Summer Thoughts: Technology Use in Class

Recently, a conversation on our department’s listserve sparked me to offer a rare response. Most of what you need to know about the conversation on the list is embedded in my comments below, and I would welcome ideas for how you help students use technology during class in productive, ethical, and responsible ways.


This conversation about student technology use comes for me at an interesting point in the summer, having just a few weeks ago finished our summer institute with the Chippewa River Writing Project (which was a four-week, laptop intensive experience for participants) and as I plan for teaching and professional development work this fall (in which computer labs and internet access will be a critical part of the work). Having been on vacation and just now catching up on the conversation, I have a few thoughts on this. While I surely sympathize with all of you who have students using laptops for off-task behaviors in class (and have had similar experiences myself), I am quite disturbed by the general tone of this conversation in regards to students, their social skills, and technology uses. To me, the suggestion that we “selectively shut-off the WiFi in the classroom” or “forbid in-class use of laptops and any of those smaller things” is akin to something like censorship, an act that we would rally against.

While I am not condoning the use of Facebook during class time or other types of distracted behavior, I think that there are two aspects of this issue that haven’t been addressed — the ways in which we invite students to be academics and our own pedagogical styles, both in relation to technology. For the first, I find the suggestion that students not use the internet during our classes or outside of class to be ridiculous, as it is our responsibility to teach them how to use it productively, ethically, and responsibly for many purposes, not the least of which is communicating with us, engaging in research, and creating digital texts. For the second, I think that we all have a responsibility to think about the ways that we ask, even encourage students to use technology in our classrooms, above and beyond simply taking notes.

My experience — having taught in labs for the past three years and with the writing project this summer — is that simply setting norms for technology use and, periodically, revisiting these norms will eliminate most of the problems and help you learn from your students how best to employ technology. If you want them to take notes, why not have an interactive Google Doc with the day’s agenda posted for the all to take notes, post questions, and add links to pertinent web resources? If you are worried that internet searching and instant messaging is killing their critical thinking ability, then why not engage them in online discussions and model the types of responses you would expect them to give? In other words, don’t blame the technology causing bad behavior when you have opportunity to employ it in productive ways.

As I have done with undergraduates, graduates, and teachers in professional development settings, when we were having trouble with off-task behavior this summer, I simply paused in class one day to ask everyone to brainstorm with me in a grid about the positives and negatives that the laptops had for us as teachers and learners. Many people expressed great appreciation for the fact that they could be connected to one another in class through our wiki, Google Docs, and other collaborative technologies. Some were concerned that these technologies could be distracting when they couldn’t get the right log in password or find the right settings to make changes on a website. Many admitting to quickly checking their email or Facebook during class time, and agreed that it should not be done while others were presenting their teaching demonstration or when we had a group discussion. In fact, we agreed to make an effort to ask for “lids down” moments when we really wanted everyone to attend carefully to what was said in this face-to-face setting and “lids up” moments when we wanted them to do something hands-on with their computers.

In short, I fear that this discussion about limiting students’ technology use in class treads on very dangerous water, as we are fortunate enough to have the computer labs that we do have and making broad claims that we would want to turn off the internet or ban technology all together seems, at best, anti-intellectual and, at worst, a violation of students’ right to learn in whatever manner they see fit.

Beyond that, I haven’t even addressed some of the latest research about how young people perceive technology use in their own lives and the social shifts that are happening because of it. If we ignore these shifts, it is at our own peril, because students will find other ways to learn. For more on that, I recommend that you check out this book (available as a free PDF download) — Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media (MIT Press) and this FRONTLINE Special, Digital Nation.

My hope is that we can continue to talk about productive uses of technology, both for our students and for our teaching while not simply resorting to the “kids these days” kinds of comments that have been evident in the earlier threads of this discussion.


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Sessions at Wisconsin State Reading Association Conference

Tomorrow, I will be presenting two sessions at the Sessions at Wisconsin State Reading Association Conference. Here are descriptions of the sessions and the related presentations:

From School to Screen: Why Digital Writing Matters (9:30 – 10:45)

Without question, writing continues to change in the twenty-first century. Teachers, administrators, parents, and other stakeholders value the teaching of writing — and see that our very notion of what it means to be literate is evolving —  yet continue to wonder how best to teach writing in a digital age. Based on work with the National Writing Project, we will discuss practices that hold promise as we develop understandings of what it means to write digitally, create spaces for digital writing in our schools, and extend assessment practices that account for the complexities of writing in a digital world.

Creating Your Digital Writing Workshop (1:30 – 3:30)

Digital writing tools such as blogs, wikis, digital stories, and social networks can contribute to what you are already doing in your writing instruction as well as appeal to a new generation of students. Building on the principles discussed in the first session, we will explore how new ways of thinking about well-established practices in the writing workshop—student choice and inquiry, conferring on writing, examining author’s craft, publishing writing, and broadening our understandings of assessment—could be updated for the digital age. With examples of how to teach digital writing throughout, this session will help you create your digital writing workshop. Join the Ning!

For both of these presentations, I want to acknowledge and thank my many colleagues from the National Writing Project with whom I have been able to collaborate in my research, teaching, and professional development work.

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Looking for Feedback on the Idea of a Digital Writing Project

As we prepare to head to the NWP Annual Meeting and NCTE Convention in just about a week, I am also plugging away at our Chippewa River Writing Project Continued Funding Application. I have come to one of the most compelling parts of the report, at least for me… the point where we reflect on the summer institute and think about what that means for our site. So, here is where I am at right now and, in the spirit of collaboration, I look for any insights that you might be able to offer me here as I try to articulate my vision of our “digital writing project.”

Thanks in advance for your feedback and I look forward to seeing many of you in Philly next week!

From the CRWP CFA — Troy’s Reflections on the Summer Institute:

Our summer institute, from its inception, focused on a clear integration of literacy and technology. In seeing ourselves as a “digital writing project,” we began our work with the intent that a “web 2.0” ethos of collaboration, creativity, and commitment would infuse our work. As we reflect on our experience as leaders in this first summer institute, and review the comments of TCs, we see that these elements were present. In terms of collaboration, we relied heavily on the wiki and Google Docs as spaces to share all of our work, from our initial writer’s profile to our responses to teaching demos to our own personal writing. Teachers began the institute with the expectation that they would, indeed, become part of a collaborative and connected group, largely enabled by the technologies that we chose.

In terms of creativity, we invited participants to engage in literacy and technology not just from a functional perspective (although, getting the technology to simply function was sometimes a problem!), but from critical and rhetorical perspectives as well. Our use of digital storytelling, for instance, highlights this perspective. While inviting participants to create their own digital stories, we also analyzed the stories that others had created to get a sense of what worked, what made the digital stories more than simply a collection of images set to a narration. By constantly moving back and forth from the technical to the critical and rhetorical aspects of composition – both analog and digital – we feel that participants were better able to articulate what was creative about their work, as well as why that approach worked.

Finally, we look at the commitment or level of engagement from participants. While we are happy to report that participants in our summer institute, like participants at countless other institutes, reported that their summer experience was, to use an oft-quoted phrase, “life changing,” we were also surprised to see the level at which they believed the digital aspects of our work influenced them. For instance, one participant may sum it up best by responding to the “most important thing” question from the final SI survey conducted by Inverness: 

The most important “thing” I gained is confidence with some interactive technology to implement in my classroom. I think implementation of the Wiki will benefit my students. Their mindset is that school work isn’t “real” work, and I’d like to change their mindset. Use of the Wiki will assist, I believe.

Simply stated, we “wikified” our teachers’ beliefs about what it means to be a writer and teacher of writing. Like Wikipedia, where many contributors create a collective whole that is, indeed, much more than the sum of its parts, we feel that our summer institute, with its focus on “collaboration, creativity, and commitment” allowed participants to see writing, and digital writing, in an entirely different perspective. We hope, like all NWP sites do, that this new vision will help inform the ways that they teach writing in their classrooms, especially in the ways that they integrate technology.

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