Post written by 6 minute read
May 24, 2011

Using Wikis to Increase Student Meta-Awareness of Discourse Production

Contributed by Rik Hunter

Many educators have asked students to work collaboratively on wikis. Take for example this list of school and university projects using Wikipedia. And the increasing adoption of wikis for teaching was the focus of Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop’s recent New York Times article, “For More Students, Working on Wikis Is Part of Making the Grade,” in which she describes how students at several Singapore universities are being required to collaboratively write articles—in one example, on digital media in India (it’s unclear from the article whether these students are writing for Wikipedia). The professor involved in this project explains how his students learning has improved through a writing-to-learn approach. Rather than memorization of information for exams, students had to engage more profoundly with the material in order to write about it. Moreover, he’s using the assignment to put students in a public writing situation and help students gain a broader and deeper notion of audience, one in which they not only edit each other’s work but also receive feedback from readers beyond the classroom.

I could go one regarding the benefits this professor describes, but instead, I want to focus on a topic that fundamentally speaks to teaching about writing and teaching with Wikipedia or wikis in general. I’ve been interested in the often-at-odds mindsets that come with conceptions of individual and collaborative authorship as well as how these mindsets manifest in school and voluntary sites of writing such as Wikipedia. In my teaching, the aim has been to help students recognize these mindsets and learn about the “conflict and tension between the values, beliefs, attitudes, interactional styles, uses of language, and ways of being in the world which two or more Discourses represent” (Gee, 1989, p.7).

Based on my research on the World of Warcraft Wiki (WoWWiki), I’ve found it’s necessary for contributors to have the ability to shift mindsets when writing in a particular context. That is, from what I’ve seen on the wiki’s talk pages, those contributors who are less skilled in collaborative authorship stand out, for example, in the way they will use “I” and “my” to talk about their contributions, while more experienced contributors tend to use “we.” I see something similar in my writing courses. For instance, I’ve had students who started new articles on Wikipedia and come back later to find it marked for deletion. The initial response is panic: “Will I still pass the assignment if my article gets deleted?” Or students want to know how I will separate their edits from those of others. Of course, I expect these reactions. That they worry about the grade is natural in the context of school. What students come to see is that the text they have contributed to Wikipedia is no longer theirs alone. It can be revised by others: deleted, moved around, expanded. They have to learn how to work with others, and separating out who did what loses importance, hopefully. It makes for a productive conversation, and I often find myself going back to Candace Spigelman’s (2000; 2004) work on writing groups. She found that more experienced writers “shared common ‘insider’ knowledge about writing theory, processes, and strategies …” (2000, p. 119) and that less experienced writers had difficulty in their peer review groups because did not share these beliefs, values, attitudes, and practices regarding writing. She suggested that novice writers needed to learn how to be more like the experienced writers before they could fully benefit from writing groups.

Both my research and Spigelman’s point to the importance of uncovering the ways of being a particular kind of writer in a particular situation. Having them write on Wikipedia is one way to accomplish this goal. It’s less about what they’re writing or how well and more about helping them develop a meta-awareness about how that writing is organized by circumstance—in this case, what it means to write somewhere other than in school and as an individual.

What I’ve described here is similar to what Robert E. Cummings wrote about in his Inside Higher Ed article: “Before they begin writing to Wikipedia, however, we use a series of low-stakes writing assignments to learn about the “discourse community.” We learn about the five pillars of Wikipedia, we read the Wikipedia film style guide, and we consider how we will react if our contributions are removed or criticized.”

In contrast to my assignment, Cummings broaches discussions about Wikipedia’s culture before asking students to contribute to Wikipedia rather than after. But the activity we’re both asking of students is to go beyond writing for Wikipedia and consider what it means to participate in a discourse community. In addition to Wikipedia policy and guideline articles that explain how to participate on Wikipedia, part of learning to work on Wikipedia, I would argue, includes asking students to examine what happens between writers on article talk pages and why talk pages serve an important function in the collaborative writing process.

Schneider, Passant, and Breslin (2010) report that recent studies of Wikipedia have found that “Talk pages have been added more quickly than articles, growing at a rate of 11x, compared to 9x for articles. Over a 2.5 year period, edits to Wikipedia Talk pages nearly doubled from 11% to 19% of all page edits, while article edits nearly halved from 53% to 28% of all page edits” (p. 2-3). They add that Viegas (2007) found articles with talk pages had been edited more and have more editors. I think it’s fair to say that more revision will result in better writing. And while I haven’t studied whether more talk results in more revision that results in better writing on WoWWiki, my experience tells me that “featured articles” have many—sometimes dozens of—contributors to talk pages and are generally much longer than talk pages of non-featured articles. More importantly, talk pages are one of the main sites of enculturating newcomers.

At the end of the day, I want students to be able to recognize the characteristics and norms of the writing culture they find themselves within. To ask and answer certain questions when entering a new writing situation, such as What kinds of knowledge count? What methods of knowledge construction (e.g., collaborative) are valued and effective? Study of and participation on a site of writing like Wikipedia can give students powerful knowledge that helps them to navigate through future writing situations.