A Wiki Story
As authors, we went to a wiki space to write this article a few months back. What compelled us to do this? More people were realizing that, as teachers, the two of us had been using wikis in our writing classrooms, and we were beginning to get the inevitable backlash of "How can wikis work well?" and "You shouldn't use it because...."
We had been using wikis at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi on our campus since 2002, thanks to Patrick Michaud, who formerly taught there, who created the version that we use, [[http://www.PmWiki.org| PmWiki]]. Susan used the system as a teacher and Tommy used it as a graduate student. (Tommy works at Texas A&M Corpus Christi and is also a PhD student in Technical Communication and Rhetoric at Texas Tech.) When we returned for the Fall 2004 classes, however, we were informed that continued use of wiki might be a problem as Patrick had left the university, and the other major supporter/sustainer of our system, Glenn Blalock, had taken a leave of absence for a year to teach at another university. Their departures left a hole in the system. And even though wiki is fairly simple to maintain, without the presence of Glenn and Patrick, our Vice President who oversees distance learning thought that teachers should be using the university-designated course management system--a system that few people used because of its steep learning curve and lack of flexibility.
Oh, we almost forgot. One more thing happened... One very interesting item.
At our Summer Writing Institute (held for those who teach in our First Year Learning Communities Program), the Provost shared in her welcome speech (much to our surprise as we were hearing it for the first time) that she had received an interesting phone call. Someone had found the wiki page of a first year student wherein the student, in a paper posted to the site, had not given complete credit to this person's ideas. This set off all kinds of panic as to how those of us using the system should handle this. We got the usual responses to new innovations: This should never happen again. We need to protect our students at all costs. And (as is often the case with new technologies) maybe we should just stop using wiki altogether.
We were not unprepared for such an outburst, however. We believe that by addressing the use of technologies such as wikis along with their pedagogical implications in writing classes, we can begin to dispel the fears that colleagues and administrators have when it comes to new technologies. In this text, we will focus on why wikis, as open-source collaborative writing tools, help students to see the social processes of writing more effectively than closed-source systems.
It is our contention that when students are asked to function in an open environment such as a wiki, they do so differently than they do in closed environments, which tend to recreate the teacher is in control of everything, I'm writing only for the teacher mentality. (We define open as being accessible either to a large inner community such as a university community or to the entire Internet community, which most of our student work was until Spring 2005.) We argue that the effects on students' writing processes within an open environment are positive ones. The opportunities that are created through tools such as wikis enable teachers and students to reconceptualize our understanding of how knowledge is created and shared. As Mihalache (2000) points out, the type of new Cyberspace that technologies enable for us "is not a pre-existing void to be filled with moving (and living) particles of matter and thought," but rather is "an entity on the make." He continues to describe this type of space as an "unending surfact of intersecting, but not necessarily interacting discourses." Wikis, we believe, are one such entity and create surfaces/spaces that build more on this interactive nature than other more static online environments do. Shirk (1997) tells us that "electronic links not ony provide new perspectives on the nature and structure of texts but also redefine the creative process itself" (p. 186). And she encourages us to be "willing to take risks with these technologies and not only undego the effort in learning them but also have the desire to experiment with them" (p. 183). Wikis invite experimentation at all levels of the writing process. Students create their own structure/processes/paths rather than just simply filling the voids that are so common in other systems such as word processing programs and course management systems. Theories of writing as process and of knowledge and language as social constructs become real when using wikis. In this text, we explore the intersections of wiki use and practices of knowledge formation situated in our composition classes.