An Exchange with Ken Tompkins

Ken Tompkins wrote me after the DokuWiki entry and had some thoughts about wikis in the classroom. After reading his email I had to check to see whether I'd made the post about ideas for wikis in the classroom or not. He was two steps ahead of me.

Ken has tried wikis in his own classes and had some trouble. He gave me permission to post his email, and I can't summarize it any better than he wrote it, so here it is. Links are my own:

I have tried a number of types in a few classes and have come to the conclusion that they do not serve college educational purposes well at least in the literature classroom. I have been playing with wikis and blogs for years; indeed, I run a Manila server at Stockton and each Literature major is required to have a blog. We have over 1500 at present.

The best wikis, in my judgment, are those that offer relatively stable facts; the TB wiki is a good example as is, of course, Wikipedia. These serve real needs, change when the facts change and reflect present knowledge states.

If this is true, then move the functionality to the classroom. I work really hard NOT to repeat much of the material in my classes. This means that exam questions, paper topics, lecture materials, class handouts are all fairly dynamic. If I were to move such materials to a wiki, it seems to me that I would be putting changeable concepts into a stable environment. For me, at least, and you will probably disagree, this is counter-productive.

Where wikis HAVE worked for me is where I put somewhat encyclopedic content for students to find easy access. For example, I put up considerable amount of background information on medieval medicine, astrology and theory of the humours for my medieval classes. The wiki worked well for this sort of thing. ...

This makes sense to me except for the assumption that wikis are strongest with static content. I began to argue (to myself) that the strength of wikis is that they are dynamic. The most static wikis are like coral, with a strong static center covered in a skin of vibrant (and changing) life. Like a teacher actively listening to a class discussion, wikis can help make apparent the emergent structure of the community's knowledge. George Landow's work with Intermedia functioned a lot like a course wiki might work-- a core written by the instructor which is then linked to and from by students hanging their own work on it.

An instructionist (information-transmission) style of teaching assumes a stable canon for students to absorb. The web is most useful to instructionist teaching as a reference, a rich hypertextual presentation of the canon. In that context, a wiki is merely another tool for constructing a reference website.

Wikis, though, like other hypertext tools, can be about participation. They foster a more constructivist pedagogy by facilitating and making explicit the authorship of the reader, by encouraging discussion and expansion of ideas in a collaborative setting. Of course Ken was there way ahead of me:

... It seems to me that what appeals to educators about wikis is the PROCESS. Here is an environment where constructivist thinking can shine. From this standpoint, I should have created a wiki context and then assigned students to create the medieval content that I had created for them. Fair enough except college students are notoriously uneven in contribution to such endeavors.

I actually did teach an advanced Shakespeare class two terms ago and created elaborate and clear responsibilities for posting article reviews on the plays that we were reading. The best students did the work without hesitation; the weak students (these outnumber the best by 5:1) did little, did poor work when they did it, did not understand the concept of the project or of wikis. What resulted was a very uneven set of postings and, therefore, a very limited class resource.

I think I can hear you saying: Well, the responsibility for guiding the students was yours and if you are not willing to watch them, prod them, coax them, threaten them on a regular basis, then you shouldn't have made the assignment! Exactly.

That's a bit harsher than I'd be, but it's a good point: teaching with a wiki will require a very different approach, and that may not apply to all courses and all classes. Rather than come down hard on the teacher in this case, though, I think this raises proactive questions: what scaffolding does the class need to succeed? What lessons lead up to wiki-work so that every student is interested and able to contribute? How can you set up the wiki to be ready for the students? Ken was ahead of me again (I've reformatted the list):

Wikis, then, seem to work when the following exist:

  • an eager and willing attitude about sharing content;
  • actual content to share;
  • an environment where posting can be mindlessly easy (blogs come to mind);
  • an environment where users can glean content easily and quickly (my biggest complaint about wikis is that they are generally ugly and exceedingly hard visually to get content out of quickly and easily);
  • a wiki language that is easy to learn and use; and, today,
  • a place where the spammers cannot enter (this latter is critical on the TB wiki and is the reason I have locked my wiki up). I also think that they work best when the content is fairly stable.

To that list, which focuses on what the wiki needs, I'll add:

  • preliminary excercises to get the class accustomed to hypertext authoring; and
  • clear guidelines for expected participation levels, styles, and locations ... though take care not to proscribe the creativity.

I also note that DokuWiki, from my experience, does well at addressing the ease-of-use, clarity, and protection concerns Ken raises. He also noted in his email that he's enjoyed Moinx and Tiddlywiki. I haven't tried them, though a quick glance at Tiddlywiki excited me about the possibilities for creating a linear projection of a hypertext reading experience.