Conversation with a WikiChampion: Jude Higdon

1. Why did you choose a wiki?

Grossly speaking, colleges and universities generally see themselves as having two primary missions: teaching and research. The majority of university resources, including technical resources, are dedicated in some form or other to the service of one of these two areas. The Center for Scholarly Technology (CST), my team at the major Southern California research institution where I worked from 2004 – 2007, was responsible for aiding faculty in the application of technology in support and enhancement of teaching and learning (although these lines were not always very well-defined, as instructors are increasingly involving even their undergraduate students in their research). This case study will focus on wiki adoption in this context.

In early 2004 and into 2005 the faculty that we supported were hitting a wall in finding a viable technical solution to meet their needs for intra- and inter-class collabroations. While the University as a whole had invested in a suite of enterprise-level applications for course management (CMS), face-to-face collaborations, and other tools, these often fell short of enabling the kind of meaningful collaborative knowledge-making between and among learners that many of our instructors wanted.

We experimented with many different types of tools, including our enterprise CMS, discussion boards, and blogs, before landing on the sunny shores of the wiki. While it was not a perfect solution (would that there be such a thing), we found that it was the most appropriate tool for the wide range of articulated pedagogical needs from our faculty that we were then able to enact. We invested in an enterprise-level system and began a pilot which would ultimately grow to include nearly 40 instructor-led projects and over 1000 students.

2. What type of wiki are you using?

After experimentation with several wiki clients, we chose one with a robust feature set that we hoped would scale to meet our needs. Our technical team set to work integrating it with our authentication system (Shibboleth) but also maintained the ability to add guest user accounts using the wiki systems native user account system; this became critical to the success of our program. One of the primary limitations of our enterprise CMS system was that it had become _so_ secure that only those who were enrolled in a specific course were able to access course resources. The task of adding other non-enrolled members of the USC community to a course in the CMS were daunting; adding non-university members to a learning community in our CMS was functionally impossible.

This may seem like a semantic/technical point, but its worth articulating, and speaks in some ways to the heart of what makes a wiki great. Certainly, wiki content can be more or less controlled, wiki users more or less empowered to add, edit, and delete content, based on authenticated roles. But in the end the information paradigm behind the wiki is one of inclusion, of community, and of the marketplace of ideas. Adding invested, talented individuals to our knowledge-making conversations who don’t fit into traditionally, pre-defined roles from our organizations should generally be seen as a worthwhile endeavor by the wiki enthusiast. It’s what wikis do, and we needed to make sure that we didn’t hobble the tool with overly-strict authentication systems.

3. How are you using the wiki?

Instructors began using the wikis in a variety of contexts and for a variety of academic purposes. For example, one instructor developed a collaborative research project among her graduate students in the Master of Public Policy program that provided insights into re-developing urban areas ravaged by natural disasters. The research enabled by the wiki, which would ultimately win several prestigious design awards including a place of prominence as a showpiece at the Bienale in Italy, was specifically focused on helping to redesign the 9th Ward of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In perhaps a more classic use of the wiki environment, still another instructor used her wiki as a way to create a collectively-generated knowledge base for her high enrollment course on the history of the evolution debates. Yet another instructor in the business writing department used her wiki as a space for collaborative writing assignments. Another instructor in the computer science department used the wiki as a space for managing multi-semester collaborative group projects – students even shared code among themselves and with instructors in the space. And an instructor in a service-learning organization used the wiki space to collaborate among students in community-focused externships and multiple course instructors who were helping to guide the student experience. We found that, for many articulated needs for collaborative and collective writing, the wiki was an excellent tool that met and sometimes even surpassed instructors’ and students’ needs.

4. Which patterns are in use on your wiki?

We saw many of the wikipatterns mentioned in this book emerge through our pilot and expansion phase. I discuss these below, from the general patterns to the individual.

General usage patterns

The One Wiki space per group wikipattern in many ways describes our overall approach. In a large university setting, we found wiki spaces to be most useful when applied at the unit level of the course. The flexibility of the environment allowed a single tool to serve many instructors’ needs.

Another general wikipattern that we saw emerge was scaffolding. Early in our pilot it became clear that wiki use among our students was much higher when the experience was scaffolded than when it was not. Learners tended to struggle when they were faced with an empty wiki space and provided only general goals for the wiki that had no initial structure. There is a danger in overstructure, however; some wiki projects never blossomed beyond the initial structure, which students later complained was overly rigid, apparently not knowing that they could have changed the structure (or perhaps lacking the confidence to do so).

Specific usage patterns

One specific wikipattern that we saw emerge was the use of overview pages. In several courses, instructors used wikis to allow students to develop personal ePortfolio-style knowledge bases which focused on their research or course project work. As students’ work overlapped and content began to be shared, overview pages connecting themes emerging from student work sometimes developed.

Selective rollback became important for collaborative writing projects. As learners wrote together, inevitably something would be lost in a revision that needed to be restored. Perhaps more importantly, the simple knowledge that selective rollback was possible gave learners the confidence to edit with intellectual abandon, confident that if they “broke” anything the damage was not irreperable.

Another wikipattern in use in some of our classes was BarnRaising. Students in one of our undergraduate marketing classes spent the semester independently collecting and refining research materials for real-world clients. Then, several days before the final presentation, the entire class converged and got the wiki into final, polished form, tidying up links, moving content around, editing one another’s work, and prepping for the big unveiling to the client. This course also made use of the wiki, not email wikipattern; the instructor and the students praised the wiki’s ability to maintain a known current version of the project content – gone the days of wondering who had the most recent version of this document or that document.

The lunch menu wikipattern was popular among instructors using wikis as course web sites. Foregoing more structured (constraining?) enterprise CMS platforms, these instructors used wiki course sites to update assignments, announcements, and other timely forms of course news.

The ThreadMode pattern emerged in the History of the Evolution Debates course mentioned above. In this course, the instructor used a structured wiki to encourage students to hold an asynchronous debate about the course material, chronicling their personal beliefs and insights on each week’s readings. The resulting wiki was a robust meta-knowledge base, not of the course content, but of the classes understanding of the issues relating to the course content, with each participant having a distinct voice that was clearly traceable to the beginning of the semester.

Individual patterns of use

We also found some wikippaterns emerge in the roles that individuals tended to play in the course wiki. Instructors, for instance, liked to serve in the *WikiGardener* capacity, pruning dead content and ensuring that large course wikis don’t go out of control. We’ve also seen *WikiZenMasters* emerge. The wiki site that eventually presented in the Bienale required some aesthetic overhaul before its premiere. Some of the more skillful contributers rolled up their sleeves and made the wiki beautiful.

5. What changes have you seen as a result of using a wiki?

Perhaps the biggest change that we’ve seen is the interest that instructors have in creating non-traditional writing and collaboration assignments. Wikis, perhaps ironically, are a technology that instructors seem to take to more organically than do students; many of our instructors were amazed at the curricular flexibility afforded by the wiki, and were excited to immerse their students in creative, non-traditional research and coursework methodologies. Students often struggled, at least initially, with the wiki environment. However, with insistence and perseverance from instructors, the benefits of the collaborative environment became increasingly clear to learners. Among all of our more than 40 wiki projects, we only had one that was terminated before the end of the semester, and that was because the instructor simply got cold feet. Anyone who has worked in higher education can attest to what an achievement this is; innovation in the classroom generally has the half-life of ^16^ N (i.e., about 7 seconds). Our successes could not have been possible if the tool was not meeting a real, unaddressed need for our instructors and learners.