My colleague Zach Schrag gave a presentation this morning on his Historigraphiki, a wiki he created for a graduate readings course in twentieth century American history. Zach created this wiki because he wanted to figure out a way that students could collaborate on the reviews of monographs.
In the project, each student reads books from the class reading list (or others they find) and then they are responsible for creating or editing an entry for that book in the wiki. Entries are made up of a Summary and a series of Commentaries.
The summaries are fair game for group editing, but the commentaries are to be only the work of the individual students. This means that the summaries represent a consensus among the students, while the commentaries represent their original work (that can be graded).
Zach requires the students to create one new record every other week, because writing the original summary and commentary requires more intellectual work than just adding a commentary or making a few edits to an existing summary.
Did this result in better work by the students? Zach wasn’t ready to say yea or nay yet. Too few students have been through the process to say for sure. What he could say, however, is that it made teaching directed readings easier (no small consideration) and the students who passed through this process did do better work on their comprehensive exams. His conclusion is that this improved performance is largely the result of having them separate out the summary and commentary functions, thereby focusing them more on the commentary as their work, while summarizing what the book said was community property.
Were there any problems? One is that because wiki software is case sensitive, and so students must be very precise with the titles they put on new entries. He gave the example of a student who created a new record for Walter McDougall’s The Heavens and the Earth, but titled it The Heavens and The Earth. This means that the internal links must be to the second title, not the first (and correct) title.
One of the anxieties expressed by several of my colleagues in attendance was what happens when a student writes a not very well written commentary on a book and someone out there in Internet-land (like the author of the book) reads it. Will this nameless person then dash off an angry email to the instructor demanding to know how I could let my students write such things about their books? As a group, we decided to let those people out in Internet-land life with it.
We’ll check back with Zach in a year or so to see how this does in subsequent iterations.