Monday, July 23, 2012

Is Wikipedia more reliable than the Encyclopaedia Britannica?

This was just forwarded to me by a colleague:

It's a relief to see someone recant their position regarding the "uselessness" of Wikipedia. Academics have been "crowdsourcing" for years...but because we are the established "authority" our ideas are
legitimized. I find it frustrating that Wikipedia is still considered suspect when it's one of the only places for non-academics to engage in and apply active research skills. Wikipedia flags articles with too few
resource articles...and there is an immediate possibility of raising questions about the veracity of an article. Academia doesn't do that. I could also say that any of the statements made about Wikipedia could be compared against academic articles in general. Isn't the better case to be made to do your research well?

Personally, I think that it's critical for students to be taught to engage with any tool at the level of understanding it's strengths and weaknesses. They should know what the drawbacks to using Wikipedia might be, but simply dismissing its use off-hand is a drastic move and perhaps just as ignorant as using any encyclopedia as a sole source for research.

That's just me.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Unexpected Paths

I had the most interesting, surprising, and amazing experience yesterday. It was possibly one of the most gratifying teaching days that I've ever had. I feel compelled to share.

We just finished up with the COM 402 course I teach yearly. I've explained the premise in previous posts, but suffice it to say it's not a "normal" class for me or the students involved. It's run primarily through a Wiki and it represents the place where I've done my most serious investigation about the possibilities of Wikis for teaching, learning, and understanding collaboration. Anyway...we had the final yesterday. Students were scheduled to make final presentations that summed up their work for the semester. As we started the presentations, the presenters seemed a bit stiff and uncertain about how they should proceed (odd considering that we spend so much time in our curriculum dealing with public presentation...and this was a senior level seminar course). After a few minutes, the other students in the class began asking questions of their peers. It wasn't a scrutinizing questioning or a "I'm going to catch you off guard because you're unprepared" sort of questioning...but rather a kind, helpful, and supportive questioning. The students in the audience probed to give the presenters an opportunity to elaborate and discuss their work. And in so doing, we began a meandering conversation that threaded through all of the presentations.

As a quick digression, I should point out that this isn't surprising for this class, necessarily. We've had very rich discussions about a variety of subjects throughout the semester...and I was never certain where discussions would lead. One thread raised questions that led to another that led to another. Oddly, I find myself realizing that our patterns of discussion in the class are reminiscent of the Wiki or threaded discussion experience we have outside the classroom. There is an ebb and flow to the pursuit of the discussion. It isn't as focussed as many might like, but the investigation is tremendously rewarding as students begin to spontaneously make connections...pick up threads...drop others. It's a very natural that I find tremendously intriguing.

In any case, what was remarkable about the class session was that my expectation for formal presentations was completely turned around and co-opted by the class. I don't mean this in a negative way by any means. Rather, the students began to explore their peers' experiences in a wonderful give and take exchange that I couldn't have possibly planned or imagined. Suddenly, the students were engaging with one another directly, supportively. Before anyone realized it, I think, we had only 5 minutes left in our 2 hour exam slot. I interjected and said that I was thoroughly enjoying the conversation and that although our official time was over, I'd be willing to continue the conversation. We took a short break and I was amazed to find that 10 of the 15 students present returned...ready to continue our discussion. So we did. For 2 more hours! I don't know that I've ever had the experience where a class was so ready to explore and exchange ideas. It was amazing.

However, the story doesn't end there. As we left the classroom several of the students commented about how they were hungry...which I chimed in on. Before I knew it, I had been invited to grab a "quick bite to eat" with three of the students. Ordinarily I probably would have declined, but considering the afternoon's discussion, I thought, "What harm could it do?" I joined them at a local restaurant for "wraps" and we began talking again. The conversation continued and before I realized it...another two hours had passed. At which point, students who had to leave for another exam rejoined us (the miracle of cell phones, I suppose) and the conversation continued. All in all I spent close to 8 hours having an extended discussion with students who, a few weeks before, admitted that they really didn't "get" my class. It hit home most when one of the students said something like this...

I've known these people in this class for the last couple of years. We've been friends, but we never really hung out together. I have more fun going out with this group than I do with my friends back home. I think it's because of this class that we became this close.

Suddenly, I realized that this was something special. I'd like to think that this course was responsible for creating an environment that made this possible. "It was all in my plan," I think to myself. I talk a lot about the potential for collaborative and community-minded learning. Until this point, I never quite realized what it would look like if it worked really well. Seeing it happen...experiencing it along with my students...was truly remarkable. I couldn't help but think, "Wow. I've done something good here." It would be silly of me to think that this was all my doing. After all, it just might be a natural chemistry that would have happened between the students regardless of who taught the class. But for today, I'm reveling in the possibility that this happened because of me and that I made a real difference. That's an amazing feeling I'm going to savor for as long as I can.

Here's the kicker, for me. The core group of students from the class created their own blog about their experience in the class. It's interesting to see the student perspective on this. I'm absolutely in awe and humbled by what they wrote. If you'd like to see their side of the story go to

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Alternatives for Student Engagement

In one of the courses I teach, (COM 201: Applied Communication Design), I was really interested in improving student experiences so that they led more directly into some of our upper level courses. As an instructor of the advertising specialization's Practicum (capstone experience), I realized that we had expectations that students would know certain things (obviously).

As a sidenote, our Practicum has been set up as an advertising agency, where students apply for positions within the agency and work with real clients in the univerisity. In previous semesters, clients included the university choir, the Crescent Players (a university theater group), the Catholic Campus Ministry, the Career Services office, and the Office for Study Skills Enrichment. Work produced for these clients was always professional and everyone was satisfied with the results. However...from an instructional standpoint, we found that the students were doing a lot of backfilling for skills and concepts that should have been learned earlier in their program of study. In some cases the students were completely unaware of what it meant to work in an agency setting and what it might mean to work with a client. Other specific process issues, like conducting background research to inform their planning or writing a clear statement of the client's needs, were not handled as well as we might have hoped.

So...jumping back to COM 201, I realized that I might be able to emphasize and "skill build" a bit more carefully in this foundational course so that, when faced with a Practicum (or internship) experience they would be well prepared. The students would need to know a bit more about how agencies work. What it means to cultivate and foster a client relationship. The repercussions of making misreading client expectations. At the same time, I realized that what I had been doing wasn't necessarily working as well as it could. Student projects were becoming drudgery for me...which must have made them dreadful for students. It wasn't that I didn't like the projects, it's just that the excitement and spark they had originally was fading. So I was faced with two tasks...strengthening core concepts and skills while also providing students with interesting and engaging opportunities.

Considering the name of this blog, and my first post, I suppose you might expect my approach to include a Wiki. didn't. What I did come up with was an approach that I think is entirely consistent with a Web 2.0 sensibility. Technology is central...but I think what makes it work more than anything else is an emphasis on student interaction and control. Let me explain...

In this course, students are faced with learning about communication design processes and concepts. A big part of the class involves students learning how to use Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator (and to some extent InDesign). Initially, assignments involve building familiarity with the programs and testing out basic concpets. Assignments are submitted electronically (I use WebCT/VISTA for this) and the class votes for the "best" projects (based on criteria we discuss in class). The student who receives the highest score (based on a weighted ranking by the class) receives "Tokens" that can be used to trade for various perks in the class. For instance, Tokens can be traded for extra points on an assignment, extended project deadlines, or even changes in the class schedule. This incentive system works surprisingly well. Students can very quickly see the results of their efforts...and feedback is frequently more rich (well received) than it would be if I were routinely grading assignments.

As the semester progresses, the opportunities for earning Tokens becomes more complex. By the third week of class, are required to put together a rudimentary portfolio of their work so far in the semester. The students with the highest Token totals become "Agency Managers" (effectively group leaders) who use the portfolios to "hire" members of their agencies. Once hired, students participate in agency projects. These projects have to do with fictitous clients (derived from class discussion). The agencies compete to land the client and a class vote determines which agency wins the account. The vote also determines the strength of the client relationship, which in turn relates to a weekly Token "pay" that the agency receives from the client. Once a client is landed, the agency then needs to nurture the relationship with the client by either spending Tokens or submitting an extra credit project related to the client's needs. Failure to do so makes it possible for the agency to lose the client or for one of the other agencies to take the client away. The result is a vibrant learning context where students are not only considering the core content of the course (designing effective messages), but also building an appreciation for larger dynamics of the marketplace. Ultimately, the students are highly invested in their projects (they're having fun) and I am more an arbiter or coach that helps resolve disputes and helps them to strategize their project planning. In the end, the students wind up with a portfolio that is much more personal, with more diverse examples of work, that what I had in previous iterations of the course. Below are a few links to some of the things that came out of the course last semester.

Business Index - This is a compilation of the various fictitious companies the student agencies worked with throughout the semester. It shows some of the "extra" work students did to maintain client relationships. Basically clients would have an average relationship with an agency until some extra project was completed. Then the strength of the relationship would improve. If time passed (usually 2-3 weeks), without some extra project, the relationship would worsen. If it remained at "Weak" status for more than a week, the agency would lose the client and it would go up for bid again. This made competition for clients between the agencies quite real...and students took it quite seriously.

Agency Directory - This was the list of agencies student worked with during the semester. I should point out that agencies could do extra work (like creating an agency logo) that would give them an advantage in related Agency project votes (increasing the likelihood that they would win new clients).

Token Leader Board - From week to week we would track project results and accumulated tokens for individuals in class. Students would recieve tokens for voting, making submissions, and winning the vote. Each week the student with the most tokens would gain perks, like adding facts about client needs and additional vote power (their votes count slightly more than those of other students'). The projects listed here were optional and would allow students to earn tokens independent of their agency. This also made it possible for students to get fired from an agency (excluding them from group projects) and still have a means for earning Tokens. Ultimately, this became a straightforward way to track student participation in the course. Every "extra" thing they did, earned them Tokens.

This post does gloss some of the details, but I'm quite excited about the direction the course has taken.I'm working on refinements, but I think the overall structure is solid. If you contact me, I can provide more full details of how I make it work...and I'm always happy to talk this through with anyone that might be interested.

Leap of Faith

I've been putting some thought into the notion of Web 2.0 a lot recently. Involvement with SCSU's Summer Tech program has me reflecting upon this a bit more intensely the past few days. In Summer Tech, faculty interested in technology in the curriculum spend a week exploring alternatives for the clasroom. Some participants are new to some of the technologies and concepts we're discussing, while others have had some good experiences. All in all, I think those involved this year represent a mix as varied as the experiences of our students...and with a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and good spirits. It's a great group.

What I realized working with Summer Tech is that there are some core assumptions I make about using technologies, like a Wiki, in the classroom. I certainly assume that students will "play along" and become as invested (or at least partly as invested) as I am in the technologies I explore with them. At the same time, I also believe that in order for the students to become invested, I have to trust them to take responsibility for their own learning. I'm not suggesting that I leave them to figure everything out on their own, but rather that they apply a spirit of inquiry for whatever subject we study. I often have conversations with colleagues in my department that often boil down to unmet expectations for the students to move beyond a traditional "classroom mentality." As of late, I find myself wondering whether that's not just a product of the spaces we set up for our students in our classrooms. Is it possible that they aren't able to escape the molds of a traditional educational model because we set our classrooms to reinforce those practices?

I think, as often as I talk about it (and I do talk about it every chance I get), I am sometimes my own biggest obstacle to student progress in this respect. I know that students come into my classroom with years of educational experience that tells them that classrooms work in a particular way. They just expect "business as usual." And I quite frequently feed into those expectations by some of the ways I introduce topics or respond to student questions. Ultimately, I want my students to experience something different than those expectations. I hope that they'll make new connections, investigate things that intrigue them (not me), and perhaps discover something about themselves that they didn't know or understand before. But if the spaces I create always involve some element where I am the the "right" interpretation...making the connections for I not undercutting any chances that they will explore and become more invested in their own learning?

So, for me, I think embracing Web 2.0 as a concept involves a "leap of faith" of sorts. I can't say that I've always been successful, but when I think about those cases where I have had success, it's because I've made a move to pass on control of learning to my students. In the case of my "Internet and Advertising" course, the students are ultimately charged with helping me co-create and investigate the content for the course. I don't presume that what I tell them is all they can or should know. I simply try to set up the possibility for them to start thinking about connections they could make as they explore a topic. The biggest problem I have, and one that gets voiced to me by colleagues frequently, is that in order for any of this to happen, I have to relinquish control of what happens in the classroom. I'm never completely comfortable letting go completely. I always strive to make clear what my expectations for the class are. But I do give the students the latitude to investigate, explore limits, and just test things out. Are they always on target? No. In fact, there are many times when I think they're missing the mark completely. But that becomes a teaching opportunity...a point where I can say, "Ok. Let's think about this for a second. Are we really considering this fully? How else can we consider what's happening here?" And it's in that discussion that some of the best connections are made by the students. They begin to see things differently. You can almost see them working things out. Do they all make the same connections? I don't know. And I'm not sure that's the point. If it's my mission to help them to become better critical and creative thinkers, is it always necessary for them to reach the same ultimate conclusion that I have expected for them? I don't think so.

I can imagine that there are those that say (because I've heard it said), that the nature of the discipline they teach requires students to learn specifics...facts that students just need to know. I appreciate that point of view. I'm not suggesting that student exploration of topics changes that. What I do think about a lot is what sort of space is set up for students trying to learn those "need to know" elements. As an example, I think back upon my own undergraduate experiences (and graduate experiences as well) where I had to learn specifics and be accountable for them in some way. My most successful experiences were in study groups. My classmates and I would get together and talk things out, come up with examples, quiz each other...anticipate what the instructors wanted from us. Eventually I wound up creating review sheets and mock exams for my study groups (should have been a clue that I was destined for the academy!). But should it be any surprise to me that it always seemed like I took the lead in the study groups? That I always seemed to know some of the concepts just a bit better than my group partners? I didn't always outperform my friends (test anxiety was always a big issue for me), but I always found that those study experiences helped me learn the material so much better. My point is that content can be seen as "facts" that need to be learned, but are there ways in which we can help students learn them better. If we didn't believe that were possible, textbook companies certainly wouldn't be making a killing on study guides and instructor's materials. But perhaps the challenge we all face is how we might construct a space in which the students are invested in their learning...perhaps in ways they (or we) hadn't understood before. If we close off possibilities for the students to explore and question, they may not ever find what works for them. On the other hand, if we simply dive in and say, "Here are some ideas...some givens...what do you make of these?" won't our students have more opportunities to discover what works (or doesn't)? Will it always work? Hardly. But I think the potential for it to work out in positive way is well worth the risk.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Web 2.0

In my mind, Wikis are on the edge of what folks discuss as "Web 2.0". For a quick synopsis that explains a bit about what Web 2.0 means and its implications, you can check here:

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

First Post

This is a first post, so as a backgrounder, I need to state up front that I'm talking about Wikis in the context of teaching a specific class. I think the techniques I'm dealing with apply to any class, but all of the experiences and observations will be least at this COM 402: Advertising and Promotions for the Internet. It's a senior level seminar course. I should apologize to anyone reading this other than myself in advance because I'm mainly writing as a way of solidifying my thinking. I'm sure this will be haphazzard at times, but I guess I believe blogs are a journey anyway. I'll fill in details as I go so that folks interested can get caught up. Minimally, I can say I'm an Assistant Professor at Southern Connecticut State University. Our school is located in New Haven, CT. The location brings all sorts of interesting teaching dynamics, not the least of which is a student population that is diverse, largely overcommitted with personal responsiblities, enthusiastic and bright. Regardless of what might come out in future posts (semester stress will undoubtedly sneak into my narrative in spots), I really like ths students here. At times I am frustrated by a general lack of preparedness students have because of their backgrounds, but ultimately it's an interesting challange to help them grow beyond what they come into school with. I hope that I inspire them to be more than what they thought they could be...or realize how much potential they really have. Some have been so squashed by circumstance that they don't realize how truly gifted they are. The problem for teaching is that many times, even if they are aware they have a talent, they're not sure how to take advantage of it. So I feel it's part of my responsiblity to help them discover their own potential and, if we're lucky, understand how to make that work for them in their lives. A bit more longwinded than I thought I'd be, I guess this leads up to why I have such a passion for using Wikis. Hidden in all the other benefits, I see a Wiki as providing an opportunity for students to engage in a process of self discovery. In writing or developing other content for the Wiki, they're really finding out more about what they can do. It causes reflection...and that strengthens a sense of personhood and identity. So...with that said...on to talking about Wikis.

First off, I make a few assumptions about the course. First is that I am working to create a community of understanding that evloves throughout the semester. By this, I mean that I aim to decentralize my role as instructor (particularly as an authority on a subject area) and empower students to generate course content. I don't know that students necessarily understand the implications and it's been a while since I've thought them through myself, but the bottom line is that I believe that this mode of instruction leads to high levels of engangement, investment on the student's part, and an overall better understanding of subject matter. Second, and in direct relation to the previous point, I hope to serve as a coach/mentor for an intellectual line of inquiry. I really want the students to think and explore concepts and techniques for discussing topics. I want them to collaboratively define and make some conclusions about the topic at hand (advertising on the Internet). I also want them to explore what collaboration means and what the possibilities provide for any creative endeavor. Most of what I'm saying here is quite esoteric, but with the students we'll approach it on a straightforward, applied's what you can do, now try to do something with it. From time to time I'll act as devil's advocate, interrogating their choices and approaches. At others I'll ask them to take a step back (to a Meta level) and really think about what's happening in the course of the interaction. My interest here is less in coming to real conclusions about advertising and more about helping students to better understand their own communication behaviors and how it intersects with technology. Because the course is in a Communication Department, I feel pretty comfortable in this sort of exploration...though I don't feel that there's room in the curriculum or interest on the part of the students to really pursue the questions I'm interested in an a heady, esoteric way (as I am wont to do). Advertising in this case is mearly an incidental...a contextual basis for discussion...but the real interest is in what a Wiki is, how it can be used generally, and how it can be used to enhance instruction.

It's pretty amazing to me how odd getting started on this endeavor is. I had taught the course previously and didn't keep a strong journal or log what was happening. The best I have is reflection on the previous Wiki I created. My previous experience with the course was definitely rich, frought with all sorts of pitfalls and obstacles. I hope that at some point I'll be able to incorporate those experiences into this blog. It's been about a year since I last taught the course. I had forgotten how much background I needed to cover in the class before we could really jump in. Most of my students don't have Internet least not at the level I'd hope.'s starting from scratch for the most part. It's going to be a challenge getting them up to speed and working on projects.

Right now I'm in the "Agenda Setting" process. The students were given a worksheet that asks them to list five things in one of 4 categories: (1) My skills related to Internet; (2) My skills related to Advertising/Promotion; (3) What I'd like to learn about (related to the course); and (4) Things I notice/find interesting about Internet advertising and promotion. I'll use the other 3 categories for other aspects of the course, but not so much for building the agenda. I took the worksheets and compiled a list from the "What I'd like to learn" category. I sorted and combined similar topics/questions. Then I split the topics into 4 basic categories: Tech Stuff, Personal Skills, Advertising Concepts/Issues, and Nature of the Industry. I distill the lists down to a manageable length. I think 10 is about the most that can be handled. I think the first two had 9 and the second 2 had 10 topics this time. Tomorrow in class I'll ask the students to individually rank the lists in order of importance to them personally. Each list gets a separate ranking and the students can also add an additional point to a list for ranking if they'd like. Then they'll split into groups and agree upon a ranking for the groups. There are 19 students in class, so we'll have 4 groups. Taking a cue from my colleague Linda Sampson (we co-taught a course recently), I'll likely give the students a different colored sheet to give the group rankings. It's a logistical thing, but it helps a lot. I'll weight the rankings, looking for the top topics. Ultimately we'll be able to look at about 10 topics or so during the semester. Once we have topics, the students will sign up to be discussion leaders and each week they'll be responsible for creating a new Wiki entry for their topic and leading an in-class discussion. Those who aren't leaders will need to read the posts and will have to respond or add to the topic entry before the in-class discussion. Scheduling is a bit tricky, but in the end I think that's a minor compromise for the results the exercise generates.

Oh...this is important, too! Their first assignment was to "Pick their Textbook". They each had to go to a bookstore or library and find a book that they'd like to use for the class. The interesting part of that is we'll wind up with 19 different textbooks (possibly more or less depending on duplicates or whether they want to use more than one). I asked them to bring their book to class so they can use it as a guide for what they'd like to work on this semester. I know there's more, but I'm's too late to be thinking so much. Until next time...