Memories of Blogs and Wikis

Although this is my first blog post on RamPages, this isn’t my first blog post.  I have blogged on and off for many years. My first blog was on Myspace, and it was a joint blog written by my brother and I in the name of our family dog who had died some years before. Weird, I know.  But it was more of a joke-type blog, and not very serious, so it’s less weird than it seemed at first, hopefully.  After that, I’ve had normal human-operated blogs on Blogger, WordPress and a couple other places.  The two times I’ve had students blog, I used WordPress but allowed them to use other sites if they had a preference, which most did not.

While I like blogging, I’ve had more success  using wikis in my classes.  A few years ago, I used  Wetpaint as a wiki in my 111/112 classes.   If you click that link in the prior sentence, you will find it takes you to wikifoundry, as wetpaint no longer exists as a wiki platform, at least not the way it did a few years ago. The last time I used wikis was in Focused Inquiry 112 during Fall 2010. This is the second semester of a three-semester course that focuses on six skills: written and oral communication, critical thinking, information fluency, quantitative reasoning, ethical reasoning and collaboration. In my classes during that semester, I asked students to work in groups around a particular topic of inquiry. We began by brainstorming on the board all the topics they could think of that might possibly interest them to study.  We brainstormed, drawing lines all over the board that connected one idea to another. Of course, one thought led to another that was similar or completely different, and we filled the board in no time at all. Then, I had the students group the topics in general umbrella categories. Ultimately, students chose which umbrella topic they wanted to study under for the semester, and so students ended up in groups of 3-5.  Some general umbrella topics were as follows: crime, abuse, freedom of expression, government and media.  As you can see, the umbrella topics were very general inquiry frames, and students had a great deal of leeway and options for narrowing their research and focusing on a particular research question.

Although I created a page in the wiki for each group, from there, students took over the site and built it out on their own. Different groups chose different structures, but ultimately everyone had a group area and an individual page which linked to multiple pages of student work.  Students posted ALL work related to their inquiry projects on the Wiki, and nothing was submitted in print. They were encouraged to use links, images and video to supplement their writing. Here is a link to the wiki that houses my courses from that semester and a couple others.  Here is a link one of the collaborative annotated bibliographies that students created in each group. They each located and summarized a certain number of sources (maybe 8-10?), but when they put all the sources together, they had upwards of 30 between them. This encouraged collaboration and fostered the sharing of resources that was a very successful component of the Wiki. Under the umbrella topic called “Funding of Science,” here is a link to one student’s individual project. He was studying the need for funding for particle physics. Another student in that group studied dark matter. In a totally different group, this student focused her inquiry on How Our Attention Deficit Society Reads (Or Doesn’t). Under the topic of “Rights,” here is a visual argument about discrimination against women. This is all very typical work, not terrible and not outstanding by any means.  I don’t remember their individual projects enough at this time to actually pick out those that were the best. I’m sure many were better than those, and if you are looking at the Wiki, you might want to browse until you find some of the particularly good ones.

One thing that stands out to me today as I look back at this Wiki is how useful it is for  seeing the individual student’s process very clearly–with each draft labeled and a minimum of three drafts per student. One thing that I loved about the Wiki was the Top Contributors collage on the homepage. Click HERE to see one of them.  Pulling it up now after all these years, I still remember these students so well, especially those that have the biggest pics in the collage.  Although I can’t remember his name, the guy who is #1 in the collage was very competitive ( in a good way) with the wiki. Every day in class, we would open the Wiki and the students would predict who would hold the winning spots in the Top Contributors squares. This created a healthy competitive spirit that got students excited and sparked motivation. Everyone wanted to have the biggest picture on the homeapage!

For lack of a blog in the wiki, I created what I called my Wiki Journal.  I used that space to reflect on my use of the Wiki in each of my classes. That was actually during 2009, so it was the first time I had used a Wiki in my classes.  I made the journal available so that anyone could see it, and I found that students were very curious about it.  I still remember coming to class and hearing students talking about what I had written the day before. Although I never asked students to read my journal and I rarely spoke of it in class, they knew it was there and I told them that I was keeping it because I wanted to explore the advantages and disadvantages to using the Wiki–and if I didn’t write it all down I would never remember. I was very honest with students, telling them that it was an experiment and that I believed some things about it would be great but that I also expected there to be tech problems from time to time and who knows what other kinds of unexpected troubles. After assuring students that I wouldn’t be mad or penalize them for problems, they warmed to the Wiki immediately and were very receptive to it as a whole.

I was pleasantly reminded earlier to day that my GTA at the time, Ryan Cales, remembers one of the semesters that we used the Wiki. I could be wrong, but I think he remembers it fondly.  It’s a small world, and Ryan is now faculty in our department, and he will be teaching a MOOC this summer with colleagues and me. That MOOC is actually the focus of this current blog, and future entries will be focused on it.