Thing 8: A Skeptic’s Waffling on Wikis

The definition and background information on wikis I read with mounting excitement.  I had not realized that our coursework was formatted in a wiki, but had several times wondered exactly what name the coursework’s form does have, as it is so perfectly suited to delivering the material–so when I learned its wiki identity, I was already inspired before I began, and nothing I read moving forward did anything but increase my enthusiasm.  Especially exciting was the History factor, each previous version waiting there behind the most recent edit so the progress (or regress) of the collaboration can be followed…even watching the little demo about the camping trip was making me say, “OK–I see what this is for and how it could be used to great advantage, in school and out.”

Now I will be very harsh and judgmental, however:  while the concept of wikis in the abstract was inspiring, actually looking at my quota of five wikis from the list dampened my enthusiasm considerably. I still find the concept to be full of potential.  But when I viewed the student-driven wikis, my old fears about web 2.0’s potential pitfalls were awakened all over again.

In a nutshell:  most of the spaces I looked at (and I know I need to read more and more wikis to make any sort of informed opinion–this is just at first blush, for this assignment) suffered, in my opinion, from a lack of teacher collaboration and bar-setting–i.e., kids left on their own had slipped to a level that didn’t continue to maximize the potential of the medium.   I will give three examples–and in each case I emphasize that I think the IDEA for the wiki in question is wonderful, and that the teachers in question thought up imaginative and educationally-sound uses for the technology. Yet somehow, the result did not seem to me to live up to each wiki’s potential:

Discovery Utopias:  This is an amazing idea–members of a sixth grade class work individually and in collaboration all year on what a utopia might be like, and also examine philosophical questions brought up by the concept of utopia.  Some of the discussion at the outset is outstanding–growing, presumably, out of classroom discussion (and I would love to know if their teacher taught them Descartes, or if they simply arrived at Cartesian conclusions through their own mental investigations!).  But as things went forward, the discussions sorely required a moderator.  The last thread I read before sadly turning away was a discussion of how great it would be to set up a situation where their various utopias could vie for supremacy, with the winning utopia in any conflict taking over the defeated utopia…and since this is utopia, after all, you could have AS BIG AN ARMY AS YOU WANT!  They finally agreed to limit their fighting forces to 1,000,000 soldiers per army, and may the best utopia win.  There is no student malice here, no effort to undermine the purpose of the wiki or of the learning…it’s just a bunch of sixth graders needing an adult to to step in and explain why a utopia would have no need of an army.  An adult post that suggested that students might want to do some investigation of modern-day attempts to create utopias, such as eco-villages, gated communities, etc., received not a single reply, while fighting-utopias comments had hundreds of hits.

Greetings from the World :   This absolutely marvelous idea is, in fact, doing much of what its creator envisioned (furthering understanding by inviting students from all over the world to make representations of what life is like in their country), and it is not the wiki itself that I take issue with here–it is the “glogs” (web-created “posters” of digital information) that I have a problem with.  I went to the link Glogster that allows you to create glogs, and was not moved or impressed–in fact, the opposite.  This is the tool I like least of everything we have seen so far, simply because it seems to me that form so completely outstrips function–the sample student work on Glogster seemed 90% show and very little content, and it also seems that the form itself invites that–very small space, lots of bells and whistles, much ado about nothing.  This seems to me to carry a seductive and undesirable message about the relative value of content and presentation.  To me, this is technology that gets in the way of a good educational outcome.

Thousands Project:  Another masterful idea–a “great question” posed to the world each month all year by a fifth grade class, seeking 1000 answers each month.  But it would be REALLY REALLY GREAT if something in the form prevented the (eventually) numbing redundancy.  Lists in answer to the question “What are you thankful for?” began thoughtfully, but soon were just one list after another repeating Godfamilyfriendshomefoodfreedomhealthpets, etc.  Perhaps part of the power is just seeing that all people everywhere value the same things?  But the few lists where people (adults) had taken the time to be more specific were so refreshing (“How my fish wiggles really really hard when I walk by, to remind me to feed him”).  I am sure that a little more willingness on the part of the wiki’a creator to shape the accepted method of responding would quickly yield more thoughtful results–but that kind of shaping just seems to be taboo in web 2.0!

There just seems to me to be a flaw in the whole ethos of this work, which is the bedrock notion that student users of web 2.0 must have full ownership of their web 2.0 work.  In a sense, I see that that is the point, and I also see that students must learn their standards through trial and error to some extent:  i.e., if you and your friends make a wiki to study for your Scarlet Letter test and everyone gets a C- on the test, then it is probably self-evident that the wiki was ineffective as created, and they will work harder next time or else suffer the same fate again.  But I also worry that  there is an undercurrent in what I hear teachers saying about web 2.0 that implies that the simple fact that the students are collaborating is an end in itself–that buzz in the halls about history and math projects via web 2.0  is the desired outcome.  I am just not there yet!  The desired outcome is intellectual growth at a deep level, and mastery of material and skills.

At this point, I would say that I am completely convinced that a wiki can facilitate this, but have not yet seen an example of one actually doing so–and in the cases where it misses, I fear that the lack of growth and mastery may have actually been caused, or at least masked, by the excitement of the use and corollary mastery of the web 2.0 skills being employed.

Sorry!  I sound like the naysayer of the summer, I know–but I do have growing ideas on how to use this technology at my school.  Next blog!

Thing 7a: From my Reader (Ouch…am I ready to redefine the word “reader”?)

I have read and read.  I have subscribed, deleted, and repeated over and over.  But now I think I have a group of feeds I like, on a personal level at least:  a student blog , an NPR podcast (StoryCorps) and a NYT Book Review feed, and four teaching-related websites and/or blogs that I like, though I am no longer in the classroom–but these are focused on both the practice and the philosophy of incorporating technology into education, so for me in this course they are useful.

Because I am a writer/photographer/graphic designer for my school now, design of blogs (both visual design and logic/information-flow design) is very important to me, and the best-designed blog I have seen so far in both in these senses is the award-winning student blog Moo.  It is beautiful to look at, and takes a simple project (post a photo a day for a year) and plumbs it for all its complexity by using all of the functionality of the blogspot.  I am inspired!

By following this link and that in ways I can no longer remember or re-create, I also have found and read some wonderful articles and sites.  How to manage this, how to share it, how to make one of those line-ups down the side of the blog of great things found?  Don’t know yet!  Looking forward to finding out.  But here are a couple of (to me) fun and useful ones, just linked here until I learn a better way:  Useful Information In and Out of the Classroom , Once Upon a Time in Afghanistan, 100 Awe-Inspiring Black-and-White Photographs, and Presentation21 Make-Over.

Thing 4: Comments on Blog Reading

I love the emphasis on blogging as a reading activity–that seems to me to be an essential component of integrating it into educational applications.  We’ve all read blogs that are just forums for individuals to vent…and vent…and vent…We can encourage our kids and ourselves to get the most out of the phenomenon of blogging by emphasizing the process of read / think / respond as an equally important aspect of the forum.  Thanks for this simple and essential initial lesson!

I enjoyed all of the posts I read, and I will try to model the ideas put forth in Teaching Brevity as I respond (this modeling will serve as my comment on that wonderful post–I have long given my students maddeningly-tight limits within which to write, rather than lengths to reach, so Arthus and I are already on the same [web] page).  For the other four I read:

Sickle-Cell Anemia isn’t Half-bad!:  This class’s Extreme Biology blog in general, and this post and its responses in particular, blow away the idea that students might be at all complacent if left to their own devices to simply blog away on academic matters.  No “Nice post!” responses here–students responded to what they read by going out and doing further research on their own, prompted by their own curiosity generated by their classmate’s post.

Rationale for Educational Blogging:  This list provides some good ideas for educational applications of blogging; my lingering doubt arises from a wish that every list item contained the conditional form.  All of these ideas COULD produce the described results–but the simple fact that students are blogging, as opposed to some other activity, will not ensure that outcome; it still remains for the teacher to set up a well-designed situation in which that will happen.  In so much of what is written about web 2.0, one can receive the impression that using the tools guarantees the stratospheric outcomes.  I would love to hear how the biology teacher who designed Extreme Biology went about framing her parameters, which are now clearly the accepted norm of the activity.  Successful teachers have always shared the characteristic of being able to inspire students to reach for a very high bar and to accept stringent standards of excellence as standard operating procedures.  What I don’t know is how that translates into parameter-setting in this new environment and with these new tools.

Patrick’s Update:    This was wonderful to read.  It made me understand (perhaps for the first time) what is really meant by the many observations made about blogging’s providing of an external audience.  For all of the years that I taught upper school English my students kept journals (which were strictly private–no one else ever read them but me); from this raw material they produced projects at the end of the year which were not private, but public–the whole upper school was invited to come and view the projects, and most did.  This was a powerful learning experience–but what a change, and what bravery required, to make the raw material itself public, and not just public as in a password-protected portal to be read by the class, as in GoogleDocs, but PUBLIC!  I had under-estimated the amount of courage required by this, as well as the extent to which courage can be taught by the experience, and then reinforced by an outstanding community of commentors.  Great learning for me–thanks, Patrick.

Do Schools Kill Creativity?:  This was not what I expected from the title, and I loved every minute of it.  I agree with every single thing he said.  And I do see Web 2.0 as having some unique capabilities for addressing Sir Ken Robinson’s concerns.  The strip-mining metaphor was truly inspiring.

For Thing 3: Web 2.0 musings

Well…I can’t say I fell under the spell of the article we were to read by Steve Hardagan; he left me simply skeptical, which is good, because feeling skeptical makes you think.

To start with the positive:  “The Networked Student” does make me understand the powerful applications for research that Web 2.0 allows, and nothing could be more exciting than enabling students to be more effective and powerful researchers.  I fully believe that well-trained high school researchers, in addition to churning out bang-up theses and projects, can be doing more than creating re-hash research–they can probe, test new ideas, network with others and uncover the seeds of hypotheses that may take them through to their doctoral dissertations and beyond.  So I am NOT a nay-sayer about the educational applications of this breakthrough technology, and I am not so ossified as to believe that student collaborators cannot learn and discover together without a hovering adult to facilitate the process.

HOWEVER:  Some of the (forgive me) immoderate responses to Mr. Hardagan’s post (from its original readers, not from our group), and even the post itself, in its flat statement that Web 2.0 IS the future of education, leave me worried.  There is a difference between teaching students how to research and collaborate and then creating meaningful avenues in school for them to do so, and simply turning their education over to them, to pursue as they see fit on the internet while a “teacher” [read, “Web 2.0 expert”] stands by to answer how-to questions on the process itself.  Maria Montessori in her great wisdom did maintain that humans are self-educating, and that, left to their own devices in the presence of the right tools, children will learn on their own.  But I wonder if middle and high school are the places for that theory to continue to play itself out with Web 2.0 as the tools.  It seems to me that having every student recreate the wheel in every sphere of learning wastes a whole lot of time that those students could spend…well, learning, rather than having to research up the stuff to learn.

In the example given in “The Networked Student:”  If that student wanted to do an independent research project on some aspect of the American psyche, then what was described sounds superlative.  But if that was the COURSEWORK–in other words, if that research was how that student was going to learn what he was going to learn about the American psyche–then I have to say that seems crazier than crazy.  The reason that Ph.Ds with years of professional experience compile the high-points of their findings into TEXTBOOKS is so that students may have a one-stop source for the informational basis they will require before they can begin thinking on their own in a meaningful way about a discipline new to them.  The information is organized in such a way as to guide a new learner into the material in an orderly way, putting basic concepts in place in a logical order.  What is wrong with this model?  Is it is simply that books are less sexy than laptops?

(Perhaps I am influenced by the fact that, in the beautiful mountains of Virginia where I live, only dial-up is available, and loading up even a single page of material takes many minutes–a book is definitely a faster tool for rural learners!)

I feel that to imply to students that well-educated, passionate, and skilled teachers in a field are passe, that they themselves are just as capable as the next person of unearthing, decoding, and digesting unassisted the world’s accumulated knowledge in a field, is a great disservice to them.  Students DON’T HAVE TIME to research for themselves all that they need to learn in high school!!  For students to enter college well-versed in literature, mathematics, science, history, social science, foreign language, and the arts, they need professionals in each of those fields to guide them through the fast track to mastery.  To answer the question, “So why do students need teachers?” posed in “The Networked Student”: Students need teachers to relieve them of the onerous task of having to figure out what to learn, and to spark their imaginations about disciplines towards which they might lack native inclination, so they gain the blessing of a broad perspective.  With all that time they’ll save, they should be able to work in several GREAT collaborative research projects each year, one in every discipline, using the brilliant tools of Web 2.0 to rocket them along to success!

For Thing 3: Lifelong Learning

Certainly, the hardest habit to cultivate for me will be thinking of problems as challenges.  In my non-technology life I do not have trouble with this practice, but I have either been trained or trained myself to think of technology as some combination of a language I do not speak and an arena in which I must defer to experts.  Just as I would never try to translate a page of Hebrew or set a broken bone, I am inclined to think that I must consult a computer-savvy person for technology problems.  It will take a while for me to understand all of the implications of the you’re-the-boss mentality of Web 2.0, and the fact that its every detail is constructed with the goal of making its users free, independent, and equal agents.  I love the ingenuity and energetic promise of this democratic–possibly even socialist!–approach!  (Inadvertently, this comment is foreshadowing something I know will crop up as we move along, which is my extreme discomfort with an implied secondary premise of Web 2.0, which seems to me at this stage to translate as, “We no longer need experts, because sophisticated collaboration and excellent research skills can make experts of all of us!”  But I think that is the topic of our next post, so I will stay on task…)

Most important for me will definitely be Use technology to your advantage.” As Publications Director for my school, I know that it is incumbent upon me to do the work of incorporating as many two-way, Web 2.0 aspects as I can into how the school’s communications and self-study mechanisms work.  The twice-yearly, glossy magazine I produce needs to both appear online, and incorporate questions and topics and invitations to blog (or something!) that can be pursued by the community between editions via tools accessed on our school website.  Alumni could be harnessed as tutors if students could post aspects of AP courses they were having trouble with, to which the alumni community could respond with perspectives from the professional world.  Why could we not have a writers’ blog (or something!) for our very writing-heavy school, where people can post excerpts of works in progress on which they would like feedback or help?  Could students man a weekly “Point-Counterpoint” blog for faculty discourse, where students are the creators of the debate topics, pick the two faculty to debate a topic, and serve as moderators of an ongoing, one-week discussion?  And because we are so writing-centric–how about a grammar hotline?  🙂  Perhaps a weekly diagramming competition?  (Can you diagram online?  Now I may truly be getting ahead of even Web 2.0 and into science fiction!)

In short:  I need to re-envision what communication can mean today, so that our school’s mission of teaching “effective and disciplined communication” to our students is modeled by the way the school itself communicates with its various constituencies and with the world at large.