Understanding course concepts in broader contexts

Dr. Jennifer Butler Modaff is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse. She taught with Wikipedia last Fall in her Organizational Communication courses. Here, she discusses her processes and take-aways from the term.

Dr. Jennifer Butler Modaff
Image: File:J Butler Modaff Headshot for Blog.jpg, by JButlerModaff, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

I first read about Wiki Education’s assignment support in the Spring 2017 term. I was intrigued by the possibility of using a Wikipedia assignment in my introductory-level organizational communication course. In that course, students receive a great deal of exposure to the theoretical aspects of the course concepts, but aren’t always as able to use or explain the concepts and theories in terms of anything but the formal definitions that they have been given. I hoped this assignment would remedy that problem while giving students a creative outlet for their ideas.

After completing the instructor orientation, though, I had serious reservations. While the modules were helpful, I worried that I wasn’t technologically savvy enough to engage the product on my own, let alone walk other students through it. I also worried that my entire semester project relied upon a platform and technology that was supported outside of my university. I wasn’t quite sure what I would do if the assignment failed due to technology, but I decided to rely on the Wiki Education name.

After introducing the assignment, I engaged my students in a discussion about how and why Wikipedia hasn’t traditionally been considered a credible source in academia. We then used a critical framework to discuss the idea of whom information has traditionally been available to, and who has been excluded from knowledge production and dissemination. This led to several very interesting discussions on why their participation in a Wikipedia project was important. These discussions helped differentiate this assignment from just another thing that they needed to complete in their college careers.

We also spent time discussing how to translate the skills they were going to learn into resume building skills. These early discussions helped to create a sense of buy-in that was invaluable in motivating the students to work through the struggles they experienced with the technology and the writing requirements of Wikipedia. Throughout the semester, I reminded students of the ‘real-world’ applications of the assignment in terms of working with new platforms, writing styles, and dealing with feedback from a variety of sources.

Finally, I made sure that I fully integrated the assignment into our class material so that it wasn’t just a group project outside of class. At the end of the semester, I had groups take the ideas that they had been writing about and find one teachable skill for which they could train the class. Learning to evaluate and edit Wikipedia truly became a semester long project that students had to think about and work on in a way that traditional papers and projects don’t necessarily lend themselves to. I was able to follow their progress through my course page on Wiki Education’s Dashboard. Throughout the whole project, I knew who was contributing and staying current on their trainings, which allowed me to maintain an active presence in the group’s work and any problems that they were encountering. I graded their training sessions using completion by due dates; students received either full credit or no credit. Although this was a small portion of their final grade, it did serve as motivation to keep them on track.

That first semester I set the assignment up per Wiki Education’s template. That worked, but students had quite a bit of useful feedback on how to improve the assignment. Their biggest idea was that instead of finding random articles to practice their skills that they practice all of the trainings on the article that they were assigned for the semester. They felt this eliminated any sense of busy work and gave them the opportunity to watch their contributions to the articles have an impact over the semester. I am currently using this feedback and already have a sense that the final project is going to be stronger.

Students also suggested that they should have the opportunity to share ideas with me before putting them on article talk pages as they weren’t fully comfortable in the beginning with the idea that all of their work was publicly viewable. I added several planning documents to the assignment so that I was able to give feedback early in the assignment, although later in the semester they were more confident in their skills and topic and enjoyed the possibility of receiving feedback from individuals outside our classroom. I have formalized those planning documents into steps that I am now referring to as minor, moderate, and major edits. Minor edits are those that address grammar and check to see if links are indeed live. For moderate edits, they work on polishing or eliminating unnecessary aspects of the current article, update resources, and work on their ideas for new writing. Then major edits are their actual written contributions to the Wikipedia article. This seems to break the assignment into more manageable chunks and as previously mentioned allows them to practice the skills they are learning in the trainings in a productive manner.

I absolutely will use the Wikipedia project in future classes although I do intend to continue modifying the assignment as I receive more feedback from students and topics evolve on Wikipedia. I can honestly say this has been as much of a learning experience for me as it has for my students.

Header imageFile:Hoeshler Tower.jpgTheTrashMan, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.


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