I am working on one of my papers for the American Educational Research Association (AERA) on Action Research with technology. It reminded me of some recently experiences with others around the use of wikis. A wiki is a webpage that is created with wordprocessing skills and uses a single clicksave button to do all of the work of uploading, hosting, and publishing the content on the web. Technically anyone who knows how to use a word processer can work with a wiki. And while wiki's started out as pages that could be changeg, they quickly grew into what I call wiki-webs constructed of many wiki pages. Wikipedia is a great example of a wiki-web, but all of us can create our wiki-webs using free tools like googlesites or many other collaborative tools that are increasing available.
But here is the issue for this blog. Teaching someone who to use the technology is not the barrier. That can be accomplished by watching a video on Youtube ( in the search box type "how to" and any topic...in this case "googlesites".. and you have your video tutor). But what takes time is learning how to collaborate. Most of us don't know how to do that. In the first semester with my graduate students, in a class on distributed learning, I have 15-20 students work on editing an essay and then writing a new single document (Check mindmaps on wikispaces to follow the process over the years). THis is extremely frustrating to them. They don't have the power or responsibilty or experience in changing the words of others; nor are they prepared to have their work disappear as someone else reworks it. But I see value in this exercise in helping them to learn how to write. The strongers suggest strategies that have worked from them, others help shape the process and the essay grows, but in a non linear fashion. Sometimes, the whole process is shifted and starts over. This creates, as you might guess, a high level of tension and sometimes anger directed at me.
Does writing get better in this context? That is an open emperical question with some evidence from Wikipedia. More and more people are coming to see that all of creating knowledge we care about can result in a quality product. But what makes wiki-web different is that it is a living document. There is never a point at which you stop and say...well that is finished...now I can have it edited, spell checked and be done with it. Rather it is ongoing, alive with possiblity. It an be different tomorrow and you may not be able to completely envision where it will go. So each year students work on what the students from the previous year left for them. Sometimes students might work on it during the year, but so far not too much.
But what does happen during the first semester with the students? After students yell at me...tell me this is crazy and many worry about how they will be graded, there is often a change. In the end and into the next semesters, most of them glimpse a new culture-- a new set of values, skills, ways of thinking, and forms or working. This new culture in which we are part of a larger unit that learns as a group is a very different way of thinking. That is what you have to help people learn when you introduce a wiki. The lessons in the technology are not what is stop the migration of it into the workplace. It is, rather, the ways of thinking and working that need to be changed. But they are changing and when they do... the technology will be there to support them.