ENG 704: Enter the Wiki World

This is based on an earlier post, now retooled for ENG 704.

This post is for my ENG 704: Teaching Writing Online class, but others are welcome to read it too. Oh, the wiki. So lightheartedly named, so prone to being fundamentally a part of what we do online that we don’t even think of it unless we think of Wikipedia. Much of the muttering about Wikipedia takes it from the wrong angle anyway. I will mention the topic Wikipedia and academic writing, then move on to the real topic, which is wikis. We who teach at the university level should not waste our breath on debating Wikipedia as a source. Why should we? It is an encyclopedia, which is already a category of sources we do not accept for source support. World Book, no. Wikipedia, no. However, it IS a great place to get general knowledge and find other sources in the works cited for first-year composition students who otherwise have a hard time getting started.

So, what should be a minor and dead debate masks what should be lively investigation into a pretty powerful tool for  the writing class: the wiki. Matt Barton, who has also written about wikis in Computers and Composition, started using Tikiwiki over ten years ago as his main interface for his classes. Matt Barton’s Tikiwiki is no longer in use, but is still visible through the wonder of the Wayback Machine and is worth looking at to see how a wiki can be used as a multi course LMS.

When Barton started using Tikiwiki I also began using an open source solution for writing classes–Drupal. I still remember talking with him at either Computers and Writing or the CCCC about our different approaches. He struggled in those early years with the blog component of Tikiwiki and I had no real use for anything but the blogging in my classes; it was like we were in different universes: wiki-world and bloggy-world. I bring this up because both approaches were very effective; there was no one right way. Since then, I see that his students do set up and use blogs and I have used wikis in my writing classes for compiling a glossary or for topic brainstorming and source collecting. At one point he had his students write a rhet/comp textbook using Wikibooks, a project that my students collaborated on with them one semester. It is still up and usable, but I would not currently recommend Wikibooks for compiling a text. When I did a similar project for basic writing using my ENG 721: Theory of Basic Writing students, we started with Wikibooks, but switched to Google Sites the second year due to Wikibook’s administrators and their inflexibility. The book, Not Just Basic: A Basic Writing Textbook is still out there and ready to use.

Now, I don’t think many people will see FYC (first-year composition) as a place to write a textbook; graduate students were a big part of those projects. However, FYC is a good place for the kind of compiling and categorizing that wikis do best. Here are some ideas for wikis that are especially good when teaching writing online:

  • Brainstorming for topics. Use a wiki like you would groups and the board in your classroom and have a multitude of topics compiled, only this way, they can also easily be categorized and searched.
  • Collaborative research. Separate the class into four or five research groups that each have a general topic, possibly based on a readings section of your text. Have them do collaborative annotated bibs–full citation plus a brief abstract for each source found.
  • A glossary. This would be more useful in a creative writing class where there really is a lot of specialized vocabulary learned in the first course. When students compile the glossary themselves, the knowledge sticks with them better. It also lets you see and correct areas where they misunderstand what a term means. Make sure they paraphrase rather than simply quote the book. I’ve found that quoting by rote in this assignment leads to incomplete knowledge or even the wrong idea, like a student who asserts that “a line” in poetry is a sentence because that’s what the book said. Well, the book didn’t say that of course, but  the incomplete phrase quoted made it sound like that. In other words, help them break out of rote-answer legalism.
  • Something else. Wikis are very flexible and I don’t claim to have the only ideas about their use. Remember, Google Docs is based on a wiki engine, which is why it has “histories” and can be worked on by more than one writer at the same time. Collaborative writing using a wiki is the one way to make collaborative writing truly accountable.

The good thing is that most LMSs have a wiki component built-in, even Blackboard. Go ahead and use it; they are fairly simple to figure out and use. However, if you have your own domain anyway, set up a new subdomain for a full-powered wiki. Try it out first for yourself. Back in 2006-2007, I used Dokuwiki to organize my project research; it ended up being a great space for project management and for spinning out threads of research. Do something like that for a while and you will be more apt to be successful when you add in classroom projects for your students.

 

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Author of the poetry collection The Tethered Ground and Professor of English at Missouri State University. Contact me for readings or for workshops on writing/publishing and on teaching writing online.

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