Towards a Process for K-12 Students as Content Producers

April 12th, 2009

Beyond the Blog – Leveraging Wikis for Curriculum & Instruction

I am frequently asked to clarify what I mean by "students as producers of content", and how that would fit into a school district’s curriculm. This outlines in brief fashion an approach doing just that using wiki-based collaborative writing technologies.

Our primary use of wikis in the district started out with collaborative curriculum content production. It’s what we’ve been referring to as our "Currwikulum process" for a few years. We crack ourselves up, and can only imagine Elmer Fudd as our spokesmodel.

For the most part, curriculum is still our most imporant use. In the last year or two, however, we have begun to see wiki tools as having a direct connection to classroom writing instruction, place-based educational projects, and other activities requiring student content production. This blog entry is a rough look at how we see wikis for instructional use in the classroom from the viewpoint of students as producers, not just consumers of wiki content.

Constructivist Roots

This process has its roots in constructivist epistemology, and related learning theory. Constructivism in practice is not associated with any single pedagogy, but typically relies on "learning while doing" since the learner is constructing knowledge by his or her experiences.

Although we will not deal in great depth with this topic now, I think its important to frame the process I am describing in a Constructivist context:

  • Students are individuals, and encouraged to explore that uniqueness
  • The place, history and cutlure of the learner help mediate his or her knowledge
  • Interactions with others inside and outside community help shape what is learned
  • Responsibility for learning resides significantly with the student (see Vygotsky)
  • Teachers should adopt the role of facilitator who assists the learner in arriving at meaning through dialogue, and guiding interactions with others
  • Learners should collaborate in tasks and discussions to arrive at shared understanding
  • Teaching others is a powerful way for the student to learn
  • Assessment is continuous, and is primarily feedback or guidance for development
  • Curriculum is shaped by both teacher and learner
  • Learning tasks should be structured in open ended ways to allow for learners to discover and personalize what is learned

Writing Process 2009

The Currwikulum Process also relies on a set of beliefs associated with "Writing Process" models of instruction. This process was once taught as a series of sequential steps, but is now recognized as both a "recursive" (back and forth) and "concursive" (all at once) process. This means the learner is interacting with the text in different modes at different times, reacting to feedback and guidance, and has an evolving view.

These non-sequential stages of the writing process vary by author, but this is a widely accepted description:

  • Planning & Pre-Writing: Getting your ideas, interests, and/or assignment parameters
  • Collaborating: Most workplace writing involves collaborative production of writing
  • Researching: Seeking information to support your writing
  • Drafting: Forming thought while writing about the topic
  • Editing: Deciding what needs to change
  • Reviewing: Getting the opinions of others about what you’ve written
  • Revising: Making changes you’ve decided through editing and reviewing work
  • Publishing: Connecting the writer to the reader by making a finished product more widely available and public

Much has been written by others on how blogs can be used in the writing classroom. Blogs are certainly good classroom tools, and put the writer in touch with the Writing Process steps outlined above.

Wikis – Beyond the Blog

What I am really intrigued with, however, is how wiki’s, with their built-in versioning data and generally more open approach to collaborative content construction can be leveraged in the classroom, and in curriculum work.

Teachers who use do Web 2.0 technologies such as blogs for Writing Process style instruction in the K-12 classroom can use wiki tools as the next logical step. Contributing to a wiki site, such as our Open Content Curriculum site in BSSD, or Wikipedia itself would subject that written content to peer and outside scrutiny and editing by other users of that site.

Depending on the audience of the wiki, this could reach a much wider audience than any typcial classroom blog, and give the students a chance to contribute in a very real sense to the existing content about a topic.

The Darwinian nature of wiki content means that a widely read wiki contribution that "lasted" would demonstrate the value of the student’s contribution. Wikis that have very large readership, such as Wikipedia or WikiHow , for instance, would only allow content to survive that was pretty highly refined by the student.

To put this idea in context, a student who made a meaningful contribution to the seventh most heavily visited website in the world (Wikipedia) would certainly have demonstrated more mastery of a subject than one who handed in a book report to their teacher – an audience of one – on the same topic.

As early as 2007, a University of Washington-Bothell professor, Martha Groom, was starting to see Wikipedia as an alternative to traditional class assignments. She and her IT manager, Andreas Brockhaus, then presented about this experience as the 2007 Educause conference. In March of 2008 they did a ELI Focus Session online presentation with audio and slides that is worth a listen.

In sum, Dr. Groom had decided that Web 2.0 publishing could have some advantages to a traditional assignment:

Groom’s PowerPoint presentation reports that the Wikipedia community subjected her students’ posts to significant scrutiny.

Of the 34 individual, and 14 group projects entered into Wikipedia articles on globalization and sustainable development :

  • 1 article was deleted in less than 24 hours
  • 4 articles were deleted after discussion by community members
  • Most content was merged into existing articles

Some of the deleted and merged content may have fared better if the students had had prior experiences with the conventions found in the wiki syntax. Mediawiki training or smaller posting experiences prior to the summative publishing event may have helped a great deal. Professor Groom, and her students, however, found the experience more worthwhile academically than preparing a traditional term paper.

Our school district had already been encouraging our teachers and students to use our system in a similar process this for a year or so at at the time of Dr. Groom’s presentation. The BSSD wiki also uses Mediawiki software, like Wikipedia, and all of our students must learn how to post basic wikitext content as part of our regular curriculum. We currently have 11,500 student and teacher created pages of content.

When the AP wire story came out, we talked in our office about howgreat it was to see universities "getting it". Has the practice become more widely reported?

Wikipedia itself has a School and University Project page now, and even a WikiProject Classroom Coordination area staffed by volunteers to assist educators. Templates, and a discussion area help guide gives teachers tips and advice on how to go about including Wikipedia editing as a meaningful academic experience.

Professors from twenty-nine (29) collleges and universities have registered projects so far. Interestingly, not a single public school or school district has registered. Although I don’t personally believe that teachers or students would need to be registered in order to use this technique in schools, it is rather discouraging to see only Higher Education represented in the sample of participants.

Other news stories are popping up, however, showing increasing use at the university level. One professor at the University of British Columbia, for instance, views students publishing to Wikipedia as, "a much larger stage, more of a challenge than a term paper".

Last January Dr. Jon Beasley-Murray offered an automatic "A+" to students who had article nominated by the Wikipedia community to "Featured Article" status:

As an experiment, last January Beasley-Murray promised his students a rare A+ grade if they got their projects for his literature course, called "Murder, Madness and Mayhem," accepted as a Wikipedia Featured Article."

In May, three entries created by nine students in the course became the first student works to reach Wikipedia’s top rank.

Their articles, about the book "El Señor Presidente" by Nobel prize-winning Guatemalan author Miguel Ángel Asturias, ran May 5 on Wikipedia’s home page.

How Could Wiki Contributions & Editing Be Evaluated?

Perhaps one of the barriers to wider acceptance is a way to quantify and "grade" student alternative products posted to a wiki. Even in our district, where all know the basics of Mediawiki editing, teachers expressed doubts about how to evaluate student-contributed content.

Martha Groom’s approach to grading included a pie chart that divided up how university students were being graded on a "word count" model assignment of roughly five pages in length:

This grading schema would provide the professor with some straight forward, traditional evaluative experiences, such as the Proposal (20%), First Draft (20%) and Reflective Essay (10%) components accounting for roughly half of the project grade. The actual posting of the content to Wikipedia would be easily provable, and is worth another 20%, and brings us up to 70% of the grade.

The remaining 30%, however, is much more difficult to deal with for instructors. How, exactly, is Peer Editing (20%) and Revision (10%) evaluated in a wiki environment?

Well, all wiki pages have a revision history that can be viewed, and Mediawiki is certainly well equipped to provide instructors with this information if they know how to go about finding it. However, the data is reverse linear, and somewhat cryptic to the unitiated.

Here is a view of the raw "history" page for the Wikipedia article "Eskimo":

If you look at the full size version you can see lots of notations and a reverse chronological order of changes to the page that go on for several hundred entries. It’s very difficult to say what any one user’s contributions amounted to in the overall article.

It seems intuitive to me that student-contributed content that "lasted", or was "changed less" over time in a high traffic wiki would be of higher quality than that which was removed by other users or moderators. The problem for educators then becomes one of visualizing and quantifying the raw data from the history page for the article, and deciding the relative importance and "shelf life" of the contributions.

Fortunately, some new tools exist that offer great promise for visualizing wiki contributions, and gauging the frequency and lasting impact of user contributions.

The most exciting is the Palo Alto Research Center’s new WikiDashboard tool. Originally designed by Ed Chi, and Bongwon Suh at PARC’s Augmented Social Cognition lab for Wikipedia use, this tool created quite a buzz when MIT’s Technology Review published an article earlier in February of this year. The story was picked up by users at SlashDot, Digg, Reddit, and other popular sites, which drove enough traffic in to bring the PARC servers to their knees. You can view Dr. Chi’s presentation video online.

To give you an idea of how much better the WikiDashboard is for looking at page contributions "transparently", here is the same Wikipedia article "Eskimo" when viewed in the PARC WikiDashboard tool:

The full size view of the screen makes it far, far easier to visualize the contributions to the page across several domains. It takes the top user contributions and distributes them over both a scatter plot of activity, and and graph of relative impact. The viewer can select a much more comprehensive list to check on the activity of any user, and can also "drill down" to user-specific activity. Live percentages of user contributions to total article appear in brackets next to the user’s handle.

For more detail on how to read the statistics, please see the PARC’s guide to both article, and user statistics in the WikiDashboard display, or read their FAQ page.

Guide to Article View

Guide to User View

BSSD WikiDashboard Tool Up and Running

Since our district had been using Mediawiki for several years with collaborative editing for curriculum content, and student use, we began talking with Dr. Chi late last summer about piloting an instance of the WikiDashboard in a K-12 environment.

The PARC scientists were very helpful, and we now have a fully functional installation in place on the BSSD Open Content Currwikulum site. On any page on the site, simply click the "Show WikiDashboard" link in the upper right corner to reveal a visualization of how that content got to where it is today.

Click to view WikiDashboard

Clicking the link toggles the WikiDashboard on or off, and reveals the pattern of edits for that page of content. Each of the series of edits is represented as a gradiated bar, and when clicked shows more detail on the edit. The relative weight of users contributions toward the total article, and patterns of user contributions become apparent.

Detailed view of edit history

So What?

Now assessing the value of any contribution is still tricky, and in our thinking we would not only be assigning credit to students who had "lasting" contributions. That would be a badge of honor, or a sign of exceptional work.

Students would also get credit for the process of engaging in the contribution, for any dialogue as other page contributors debated the merit or worthiness of the content, and for identifying where content was needed in context of what the classroom work going on.

At the level of our wiki in BSSD, students who identify holes and needs to flesh out standards and resources to support those standards are certainly demonstrating understanding. Finding and linking key instruction resources to support instruction demonstrate understanding.

However, at the Wikipedia or WikiHow level, students would need to spend time finding contributions relevant to their classroom work that were realistic, and attainable. Can a K-12 student make a lasting contribution to the Wikipedia page on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity? Possibly, but it would be a small change in a very difficult topic area where other "experts" are well represented.

Could that same student from rural Alaska who has been involved in traditional whaling in the Bering Sea since he or she was very young contribute meaningfully to the Wikipedia article on "whaling"? Absolutely. The current article has only a cursory mention of Inupiaq Eskimo whaling.

Wikipedia Whaling Article

Not to diminish the quality of this article, but it would clearly benefit from some additional information on the subsistence hunting of whales as practiced numerous Alaska Native villages. This is practiced in five of the villages in our school district, and our students participate directly in this activity as crew members, and even as "strikers" (harpooners) from the time they are young. Their fathers and uncles are on the International Whaling Commission that is mentioned in the paragraph above.

Digital Foxfire

Could a K-12 student anywhere in the country, rural or urban, find something that he or she connects with, is passionate about, or is particularly relevant to his or her "place"? I would think so. That is the beauty of place-based education, and writing for an authentic audience. Think about the "Foxfire" project in Appalachia in the 1970’s, and the wonderful work done there having students write and publish about their folkways as "experts". Urban students have just as much or more to help document in the cities surrounding their schools.

I think that Groom’s parameters would be unlikely to work for us at the Wikipedia, or "many eyeballs" level for our use. Perhaps a five-page, traditional essay or term paper format is good for some items where an article is being started from scratch. This "entire article" format may also work better for our district wiki system, which even with 11,500 pages has many, many areas that need fleshed out.

With Wikipedia, however, it is very difficult to find a topic that is completely untouched. Does that mean K-12 students have no area that they can demonstrate content or concept cometence on? Not at all. It just means that the contribution is likely to be smaller, less a portion of the total knowledge base posted on that topic.

Look at the projects Groom’s students contributed as an example. Does the fact that most of that content got merged with existing article content mean that they didn’t have an impact? No. That would be viewing the entire structure of Wikipedia incorrectly, as the pages are collaboratively constructed, not expert driven. Their contributions did end up getting absorbed as part of the whole. They should recognize that in a collaborative effort with Darwinian roots, that is a significant event.

I think a clarification should count on the Wikipedia level. A paragraph that becomes a major contribution to some articles. Just the act of editing, of rewriting for clarification, or the uploading of needed pictures should certainly count. You have to know what is wrong, or what is missing in order to improve something.

Baby Steps in Progress

The potential for the WikiDashboard in a K-12 setting is tremendous, and although our biggest immediate need is with curriculum development, we expect teachers to have a much easier time making sense of student contributions as part of their classroom work.

Next fall we will be training teachers in how to use the BSSD wiki site first as outlet for student work, and then as a springboard for actual Wikipedia contributions much like some university professors are beginning to now.

We will be very interested in collaborating with like-minded K-12 or higher education classes as we move forward, but see this as a natural extension of the Writing Process approach into Web 2.0 classroom tools.

Posted by: John Concilus


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