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Alchemical Musings

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Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Wikibases and the Collaboration Index

On October 27th I attended a University Seminar presented by Mark Phillipson. The seminar was lively and well attended, and Mark managed to connect the culture of wikis with their open source roots.

Sometime soon I plan on elaborating on ways in which software, as a form of creative expression, inevitably expresses the values of the creators in the form of features. But right now I want to focus on the taxonomy of educational wiki implementations that Mark has identified since he began working with them.

Here is how Mark divides up the space of educational wikis
  • Repository/reference - eg Wikipedia
    • A website whose primary function is to create a repository of knowledge on a particular topic.
  • Gateway - eg SaratogaCensus
    • A website whose primary function is to collect, assemble, and present references to external sources
  • Simulation/role playing - eg Holocaust Wiki
    • A "choose-your-own-adventure" style simulation/game environment
  • 'Illuminated'/mark-up - eg The Romantic Audience Projects
    • An environment that provides tools for detailed exegesis on primary sources, where the students are instructed to leave the source material unchanged, and create subpages with detailed commentary on supplemental pages.
I think this taxonomy is accurate, but doesn't completely capture one of the most interesting educational implications of wikis - the process of creating them.

In particular, I can think of a number of variations on the repository/reference wiki, where the final products might all look similar, but where the "collaboration index" might differ substantially (for more on the popularity of the repository/reference, see Database as a Symbolic form, Manovich 2001).

Wikis are a very flexible tool, whose usage can vary from a personal publishing tool, to a simple Content Management System, to a collaborative authoring environment. Additionally, while wiki software doesn't usually support the enforcement of a strict workflow, policy can be stipulated and adhered to by convention (like in Mark's class, where the original poems were meant to be left intact).

Consider a few different applications of reference wikis in the classroom:
  • One way Publishing
    • A simple means for instructors to publish and organize information for their class.
    • Examples include:
      • Instructional handbooks, assignment "databases", completed examples
  • Collaborative Mini-sites and/or subsections
    • Exercises where individuals or groups work on subsections of a wiki which are combined and referenced within a single larger site
    • Examples include:
      • Students dividing large assignments amongst themselves, each sharing their own results with the group.
      • A site like the social justice wiki where groups of 3-4 students each worked on a reference element of the site.
  • Collaborative Websites
    • Sections of the site where everyone in the community is supposed to be contributing content
    • Examples include:
      • Common Resources, Glossary of Terms, and the larger information architecture and organization of the entire site.
  • Portals and Meta-tasks
    • Also, consider that due to their flexibility, many wikis end up being repurposed beyond their original conception, and begin to serve as portals, where many meta-issues and conversations can take place beyond the assembly of the content itself. Some of these tasks include mundane administrative work, like students forming groups, coordinating assignments, taking minutes, and scheduling time.

While the end results of many of these collaborations might certainly all look similar to each other , perhaps the differences in the process by which this content is developed is crucial in capturing part of what is happening with wikis in the classroom.

This analysis probably also has implications relating to the archiving and the use of a wiki environment in a classroom over time. If the act of creating the wiki is central to what the students are supposed to learn from the exercise, then should they start with a fresh wiki every semester? How is the experience different when they are contributing to an existing system (or even have access to prior versions of the project)?

For more on this, see Mark's comment's on CCNMTL's musings blog.


Blogger matt curinga said...

The uses outlined here focus on the published content of Wiki's. I want to add another model to the list.

For educational purposes, I think that the process can be equally important. Wikis are a natural fit for developing writing process; editing, revising, collaborating, etc. The meta information about revisions and discussions, which is built into the Wiki, can be a powerful tool for teaching and learning.

11/14/2005 04:51:00 PM  
Blogger Jonah said...

Yes, exactly. That's where my "collaboration index" fits in. Blogger destroyed my nested lists, and this post ended up hard to read, but I agreed completely with your idea in my analysis of Mark's initial taxonomy.

I have also been reading Manovich a bit more closely for another class, and his discussion of Database vs Narrative (linked to in the post) is very insightful and shouldn't be missed.

11/14/2005 07:00:00 PM  
Anonymous mark phillipson said...

I'll jump in with agreement here - the process of using wikis in a class setting is often more interesting than any 'finished' production. But what we have, in these early days, are various models of class wikis floating around, and an increasing (though small) number of instructors wondering what this 'wiki' thing can do, anyway. So a real taxonomy will have to be something of an archaeological project - an artifact-based reconstruction of scattered primitive societies.

In the case of our brave little RAP, it isn't quite the case that students were told to leave source material unchanged - in fact, the process of collectively 'marking up' source text, in a public forum, was very much at the heart of the class. If you look at John Clare's maudlin poem 'I Am' in RAP, for example, what's most interesting about it? I'd say it's that the isolation claimed by the speaker ("I am the self-consumer of my woes...") is complicated, to say the least, by students linking in & out of the text (graphically evident by words troubled into hyperlinks, and little boxes connoting anchored linkbacks from elsewhere in RAP).

Is this marked-up version of Clare's poem instructional in & of itself? Well, sure - click into some of the student's linked thoughts, you'll learn a thing or two (if only about the caliber of undergraduate writing at Bowdoin). But what's most important is the process that all this marking up suggests. Source text is not inviolable, not fixed. It is dependent on collaborative production, open to disruptive interpretation. Student decisions transform text. It's all about process.

Can all this be shoved towards terms that line up with the Manovich essay (which I agree is a stimulating read)? In loftier moments, RAP might hope to have connected a 'database' of source text with the narrative of what happened to this text in this class, ending up as a "catalogue of discoveries being made." Kaufman's description of an avante-garde film near the end of the essay isn't so different from the experience this wiki archives:


An ordinary person finds himself in some sort of environment, gets lost amidst the zillions of phenomena, and observes these phenomena from a bad vantage point.... But the man with a movie camera is infused with the particular thought that he is actually seeing the world for other people.... He joins these phenomena with others, from elsewhere, which many not even have been filmed by him. Like a kind of scholar he is able to gather empirical observations in one place and then in another. And that is actually the way in which the world has come to be understood.


Be this as it may, to approach a class wiki from the outside is to deduce process - to understand the way in which the world has come to be understood by the makers of that particular project. That ain't easy - especially if we can't see valuable meta-info about instructions, versions, revisions. But to look closely at even just the public side of class wikis is often to appreciate, I think, just how much of a pedagogical process this tool can capture.

As for that 'collaboration index' - a most welcome refinement. If this taxonomy is to develop into something beyond a broad and introductory gesture, many more such refinements will be necessary.

11/15/2005 10:23:00 PM  

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