I am planning on using wiki’s in two different writing courses this fall, a junior level Communication course and a first-year student English course. Why use a wiki instead of in-university software platforms? The primary reason is pedagogical: one must have an audience in order to learn how readers comprehend your writing. The secondary reason is ideological: writing is – in essence – public. Writing is a medium for transposing abstract thought (perception, interpretation, knowledge) into a code that is accessible to others. Most students entering college have written only for themselves and a teacher. In this regard, young people have been trained to think of writing as an intimate activity, as a means of self-expression to known readers, or as a form of personal creativity without limit or constraint.

Learning to write well requires a range of specific skills, none of which can be learned in isolation. One must become familiar with the places where the point(s) one seeks to convey break down for the reader, and experiment with strategies for clarification. Is it a matter of organization? Diction? Assumed commonalities of experience, perspective, or belief? Is the reader an idiot or is the writing vague? Chances are high the reader is as intelligent and perceptive as the writer, but the junction between two distinct minds is not easy to navigate. Writers need to learn how to chart a course in their writing that others can follow – and not just the safe “others” of a teacher (who is supposed to be on your side, helping you learn) and classmates (who are struggling with the same requirements and conditions).

Students entering college in 2007 have probably been instant messaging, texting, and emailing friends and family for years. Many are already exposed on the internet through Facebook or other forums. Do they know what potential monsters they have created which will return in the future to haunt them? If someone seeks to present them poorly based on something that turns up in a Google search, do students have the rhetorical skill to defend their words and re-present themselves favorably? Where else – and when? – are students going to develop these skills if not in a course on college writing? Hence, the value of a wiki is that it does open student writing to a wide, random audience. Students must learn what readers who do not know them take from their writing – but this can only occur if their writing is available. At base, the unique quality of writing as a medium lies in this ability to convey meaning to people one does not know: the match between what readers understand and what the writer intends to convey is the best test of writing quality.

Although the students in each of the writing classes I will teach are at different levels in their college careers and most of the assignments will differ, some cross-pollination and skills development will be possible. Each class, for instance, will have the opportunity to create their coursewiki in their own image. Previous class samples are available, and possibilities abound. Do students learn more through a wiki forum than other kinds of platforms or programs? That is a hard comparison to make: individual students learn as much as they push themselves to learn, no matter what the teaching environment. Writing publicly opens more channels and possibilities for feedback (pro and con, “good” and “bad”, critical and supportive) than a closed environment.

Evaluations of the writing courses in which I have used wikis indicate two general themes: students believe they have worked harder than their peers in other classes, and consequently (albeit reluctantly!) students believe they have learned more.