When is a Wiki a Tool, and When is it a Medium? Or Both?

I guest lectured for Babson College professor John Bourne’s MBA course on Social Networking and Virtual Worlds yesterday, and while reading the class’s blog to prep for the lecture, I was particularly interested in a post from one of the students that examined a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The article, On Stupidity (Part 1, Part 2), by Thomas H. Benton (pen name), a professor of english at Hope College in Michigan, explores questions about the dumbing down and anti-intellectualism of America. It focuses on college students and the generational difference between digital natives and digital immigrants.

I’m not interested in debating the issue of whether students today actually are “dumbed down” by technology, because that doesn’t really matter. People have always debated whether young people are less knowledgeable than their parents and grandparents, and they always will. It’s an easy debate to get caught up in, but it answers nothing, and solves nothing.

What matters more is focusing on how technology tools are used to get things done, and how they change the ways people get things done. Benton addresses this well, saying:

That doesn’t mean we should stop teaching the traditional essay and research paper, but it does mean we need to teach students to work in other genres, such as writing for blogs and wikis, creating podcasts and PowerPoint presentations, and participating in social-networking sites. They need to be comfortable in a variety of online environments, understand Web etiquette, know how to protect their privacy and respect the privacy of others, and learn how to evaluate various sources of information.

But such teaching requires a lot of time. It means being constantly available, developing intricate presentations, coming to class early to set things up, and staying afterward for conversations. It requires giving students careful feedback on writing assignments and rarely using multiple-choice and short-answer exams. And it requires looking for new ways to enhance learning rather than relying exclusively on what we already know.

There’s one point in Benton’s comment here that I want to address specifically. He says, “we need to teach students to work in other genres, such as writing for blogs and wikis.” While this is true, it’s also important to understand that tools like wikis are often used – in an organizational context – to produce those traditional essays and research papers.

When several people use a wiki to collaboratively author a document, each person needs to understand that their writing can be directly edited by others, and this is different from an email, Word document, or forum post. In those cases, others can reply to what a person writes, but they don’t have the ability to directly make changes to it.

In a wiki, everyone who has permission to edit a particular page can directly edit what others have written, and it’s important for people to understand and become comfortable with this in order to effectively use a wiki. That’s the specific skill students should be taught, but they also should understand that a wiki isn’t just another tool that’s competing for their attention – it’s a tool that can improve the process and produce a better finished product – whether that product stays on the wiki, or is submitted as a group research project, published in a book or journal, or posted to a web site.

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