“…we have to learn to read in order to learn by reading.”

Mortimer Adler
The Reading of “Reading” (1940:18)
How To Read a Book: The Art of Getting a Liberal Education

Are the Freshmen Smarter than Us? asks a junior, after reading comments by first-year students on using a public wiki for a (required) writing course.

Prior to today’s Technology Fellows’ Seminar, I had been working on a post titled, “A method to the madness, or madness in the method?” Managing and facilitating two public online courses is a huge amount of work. No spontaneous dialogue has yet developed, although we are moving closer to that possibility. So far all the interaction has been structured through assignments of the “low stakes” variety, meaning they are not worth a huge percentage of anyone’s grade (although they count). As checkbox notes, there are “two very different opinions” being expressed by students in the two writing courses engaged in these “themed” courses, concluding “there is a big difference somewhere”:

There isn’t one comment [by the first-students] that says they don’t like the blog, publicity, or the focus on online gimmicks. This is a strange contrast to our Comm 375 class where many, including myself, have been very critical of the focus on online interaction. ~ checkbox

There are, in fact, criticisms from the first-year students but they are muted in comparison with the juniors. A solid handful of the first-year students are invested in improving the wiki, whereas some juniors seem more invested in resistance (a phenomenon I can relate to intrapersonally as well as value interpersonally).

Shorty763 (“I love the smell of critiquing in the morning“) suggests a practical (I’d say pedagogical) utility of blogs and wikis is keeping “animosity up…Th[e] fear of thinking your being too cruel or maybe to kind to someones paper is alleviated by using blogs.” Shorty763 references one of the first-year students:

I never thought I’d say this but I sort of like how other people, not just my teacher, are giving me feedback on my writing. It’s many different views and many different ways to help me improve my writing. ~ yepp0628 (comment #10, positioning students for written interaction).

I’m excited that ShiningintheWind (a junior) gave the title, “Adding to the Conversation” to her review of first-year students’ responses to feedback, explaining: “The Wiki and the blogs create a dialogue between writers.” Another junior’s observation compliments this view:

Through this avenue of communication and the fact that our writing is being posted for anyone to see, we are able to become involved in conversation with people who have an interest in what we write. ~ Keithjagger

There is room for caution (even as the positive evidence from these excerpts and other interactions continues to accumulate). For instance, balderdash1 expresses concern about scrutiny, citing introversion and hoping “my paper isn’t next.” I’m working on compiling all the specific criticisms – although the wikidesign teams have already clarified (and confirmed with the first-year students) that the biggest issue seems to be navigation.

As the Tech Fellows discussed linearity and non-linearity in our seminar today, I kept thinking: the wiki’s navigation system is extraordinarily linear. This is counterintuitive to the basic assumption that equates linearity with traditional print, and non-linearity with hyperlinked online code. The students (aha!) are not necessarily “lost” in the wiki because of its nonlinearity. They may be struggling because they expect nonlinearity and are confronted, instead, with a rigid linearity: unless one inserts links constantly to go from embedded pages to other embedded pages, the only way to get around a wiki is to “page back” an entire chain, and then “page along” another chain to your destination. Hidden code, the ease of WYSIWYG, and the loss of an orienting visual structure online results in the paradox of a print-like linearity that is too linear. (Luckily the wikiteam has some exciting ideas for addressing this matter. Hopefully we can get some of them implemented.)

In addition to expressions of dissatisfaction are admissions of the wiki’s unique benefits. For instance:

“frustrating yet…excellent,” writes anon136, continuing, “one thing people like is that students of different class years can interact with each other and read each others work, which Steph has made possible through the juniors reading freshmen work on political action, and visa versa.”

I hope to pull more of these explicit compliments out of students posts, too, although few are unadulterated. I am fascinated by the thoughtful mix of “pro” and “con” in many posts. The use of the wiki seems to have galvanized students to grapple with a range of positive implications and ideals, while simultaneously confronting discomfits from periodic confusion to (what may amount to) culture shock. Hopefully hopefully these tensions are balanced for the majority of students, and we are all going to continue to learn how to write more clearly and effectively about requisite content, intended audience, and authorial intent.