Authoring Wikis: Rethinking Authorship through Digital Collaboration

By Weingarten, Karen; Frost, Corey | Radical Teacher, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Authoring Wikis: Rethinking Authorship through Digital Collaboration


Weingarten, Karen, Frost, Corey, Radical Teacher


I: The Problem with Individual Authorship

Education in the first decade of this century has been marked by a torrent of new technologies in the classroom, and among the most hyped have been online course management tools and social media such as wikis and blogs. As new tools are constantly invented, new careers like instructional technologist are created, and new software promising better pedagogical results is promoted, faculty and administrators struggle to stay on top of the trends. In this environment, it is not at all surprising or coincidental that the other dominant trend in education has been corporatization. The advent of online teaching tools has largely come about at the instigation of for-profit companies, such as learning management systems (Blackboard, for instance) that market themselves as the future of education but employ an aggressively proprietary business model. These companies have incorporated blogging and wiki functions into their products, making available a certain version of collaborative learning. It is important to ask, however, what we are teaching our students about the nature of collaboration through our very choice of collaborative tools. Specifically, what does collaborative writing teach students about the concept of authorship and how it relates to ownership? In contrast to commercial learning management systems, wilds were intended to create open-source knowledge through an open-source model, meaning that the software is available for free and was often itself designed through collaborative work. As we hope to show in this essay, the open-source collaborative nature of the wiki makes it an ideal tool for teaching alternative constructions of authorship that emphasize collective acts of composition.

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Along with their popular cousins blogs, wikis are among those widely-used digital tools that still carry a kind of mystique for many writing instructors; many of us who have used them in our courses, meanwhile, remain unsure exactly what the advantages are or exactly how to go about assigning them. At its most basic, a wiki is an online platform that allows many users to create and edit a simple webpage or several linked pages. Both wikis and blogs have intuitive features and are easily handled even by users with little or no knowledge of markup language (e.g. HTML), and both have the potential to enhance the social and interactive nature of writing. Wikis are unlike blogs, however, in that posts are not ordered chronologically. Instead, the entire text of the wiki is constantly being revised and updated, and--this is what makes wikis particularly interesting as a tool for teaching writing--any user can edit information posted by any other user. If the interaction of blog writers can be thought of as an online dialogue of distinct voices, wikis are more like a collaborative chorus.

For the past few years, the two of us have been experimenting individually with various online writing tools in our first-year composition classes at the City University of New York (CUNY). We have both taught at Brooklyn College and at Queens College, two of the senior colleges in the CUNY system, where it is hard to generalize about how students react to using technology in the classroom. Some see it as a given, some feel skeptical, and some readily embrace it. Regardless of initial attitudes, we have found that our students--some of whom either share a computer with family members or do not own one at all--have always willingly completed assignments that require internet access. We are aware that the misuse or overuse of technology in the classroom can lead to its own set of problems, yet, as a writing across the curriculum coordinator and a director of first year writing respectively, we often advertise blogs and wikis to our colleagues and broadcast our enthusiasm for the teaching techniques made possible by these digital tools. This essay will discuss some approaches to using wikis as part of teaching writing in college and some more theoretical observations that emerge from using them. …

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