Posted by: Laurie Marks | March 1, 2010

Wikispaces Replaces English Course Website

For over six years, many faculty in English and General Education courses have been using an interactive website designed by former graduate student, Christian Pulver, as an alternative to the university’s learning management system (Prometheus, then WebCT, then Blackboard).  Faculty were becoming aware of the importance of maintaining contact with their students beyond the boundaries of the classroom space and the class meeting time, and of the value of making course materials available online.  They also wanted a site that would be easier to learn to use; that would allow students to post their writing, comment on each others’ writing easily, and create writing portfolios; and that would remain visible to students when the semester ended (when they wanted to retrieve their writing for the Writing Proficiency Requirement, for example).  The purpose-built website did all of this and more, but it required a time-consuming effort to create sites for many new sections each semester.

During the Fall semester, all new websites were set up as UMass Boston Wikispaces, and then they began migrating the previously established sites to Wikispaces.  The migration will continue over the next several semesters, but by the Spring 2010 semester, 85 Wikispaces course sites have been created, and 55 sections were being served by active sites.  (A number of sites are inactive every semester, because not every course is taught every semester.) A template was designed to replicate the familiar appearance of the old website, with the same navigation links and icons, and faculty are learning how to use the Wikispaces interface to do what they were doing before, and more.  Shaun O’Connell, in his upper level course on American Literature and Culture, is using the discussion tool to have students share their responses to assignments.  Tracy Brown is posting audio and video clips to create listening assignments for her ESL students, and then, using digital voice recorders and flip video recorders (available from the media centers in Wheatley and McCormack) to record her students’ own class presentations, and post them to the wiki for their review.  Teddy Chocos is creating a repository of course materials, student work, and images to build community as the students in her freshman seminar study the Concord Transcendentalists.  Joyce Peseroff, as Director of Creative Writing, has created a space where the creative writing graduate students who are serving as teaching interns can share the resources and materials they find for their teaching.

As the English department course site administrator, I have guided this process and offered workshops and faculty support.  I have also used my own writing sections to demonstrate the ways in which wikis can effectively support students’ developmental processes.  I have  found that a wiki course site can help students acquire and practice the moves (both in thinking and in writing) that are markers of academic fluency. The site offers a visual display of a connected and recursive process of thinking and rethinking, as well as creating a space in which class is continuously in session.  (To see examples of these and other wikis, go to  http://umbwiki-users.wikispaces.umb.edu/Wiki+Examples.)  I have found that the wiki, in combination with a “smart” classroom, is especially useful for teaching effective revision: I project a students’ draft onto the screen in the classroom; the students work as a group, both to suggest changes and to explain why those changes are needed; I use the commenting function of Word to preserve those ideas; and then the document is immediately linked to the web page so all class members can refer to it as a model for commenting on each other’s drafts, and for revising their own drafts. 

Because Wikispaces allows the wiki organizer (the teacher) to give members of a wiki (students) editing privileges on specific pages (or on the whole site), students can interact with the wikis in ways that weren’t supported on the old website, uploading files and images, creating links to other websites, and designing their own pages.  Such work contributes to the development of the sort of multimodal literacy that students will need, increasingly, for their academic work and for their life beyond the university.

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