Five Uses For the Federated Classroom Wiki

Ok, I’m playing around with the name of this thing Tim and I are building. If you’re not up to speed on the Federated [something or other to do with education] Wiki, you might want to scroll below and catch up. Or just start with the screencast of the proof-of-concept. Keep in mind when looking at these things, a key idea is that this is *not* all living in a single service on on a single server. You “federate” by linking up your instance of Dokuwiki (set up however you like, locked down or opened up, whatever) to the GitHub repository on the backend that syndicates federation content out to federation members. It’s this combination of local institutional control with a deep infrastructure of sharing that makes the Federated Classroom Wiki different from other stuff you may have seen.

If you’re up to speed, here are some uses I’m imagining.

1. Syllabi and Other Course Design Content

This is the simplest case, really. You’re putting together a class on Cultural Anthropology or English Compostion. You search across the federation find class materials you like and clone them. You edit them for your class and your version feeds back into the system as a complement to (not replacement of) the one you cloned.  As with all Fed-classroom-wiki operations, an edit trail is preserved in the revisions history even though you may host your wiki on an entirely different server. The person whose syllabus you cloned will also be able to see that their work has been cloned, and see if they want to integrate your changes.

2. Technical Instructions

Writing technical intstructions for students (here’s how you’ll use Soundcloud etc.) is a huge waste of time. Usually 95% of the instructions are generic; the remaining 5% has to be customized (do you keep your material public or private, how do you submit work to this particularly class, what features am I particularly pushing you to use). At the same time, pointing your students to generic documents and saying “Hey read these, but ignore the parts where they talk about feature x, and read the parts about feature y with issue z in mind,” is not a recipe for success either. Seach the federation for a step-by-step sheet, clone it to your classroom site, add some quick modifications and you’re done.

3. A Safety Zone for Producing Public Content

This was actually my initial concern and still has some of the greatest potential. I work with a couple faculty who believe in the idea of putting student-produced scholarship on a public wiki, and want to feed their student’s stuff out into the world, and even get comments back. But they have two big concerns:

  • Students need a “safe space” to construct the material, particularly if the material is sensitive or controversial (say, a course on human sexuality). Engaging with a public audience too early in the game can kill student experiementation and confidence, and in the case of trolling can destroy the joy of the class. So they don’t want the traditional open wiki.
  • Secondly, they are grading students on their work, so outside editors changing things on students is not good. What they need to see at the end is the student vision of the subject.

The response to these issues has generally been to make a wiki that is closed to public editing or comment. Unfortunately, this robs the wiki of its special powers. By closing it off, no one can build on it, and the wiki becomes just another sad little ghost town of aborted effort. With the federated approach, you set your wiki to be directly controllable by you (only students can edit and comment on your instance) but you syndicate the content out to the rest of the federation to build on, comment on, and carry forward. Students are able to see what others have done with their content, and integrate those changes if they choose, but the classroom wiki always reflects their specific vision.

4. Building Online Civic Architecture

One of the great ideas of the mid-aughts that has yet to achieve take-off velocity is the idea of students building out their local online civic architecture. The projects I’ve seen around this are really cool — student clubs mapping out community resources on google maps, GIS students documenting the wildlife around local waterways, sociology students researching the causes of homelessness in a county and writing up a report for local lawmakers, history students documenting local landmarks. Unfortunately, these efforts are often fragmented and rely on students producing independent sites from scratch. With the federated wiki students would be able to look for exisiting efforts in their state and extend them. For instance, they could start by cloning a voter information site from another community, then researching and modifying that information to fit their own community. Additionally, since cloning is easy, the material the students from different classes produce could be cloned into a central community space when they are finished.

5. Low Maintenance Cross-institutional Collaboration

This is one of my big ones. We are constantly looking for ways for us to collaborate cross-institutionally, and most of these ways are coordination heavy. But what if my Public Health and Water class and your Hydrology class just federate? My class looks at your stuff and pulls in what is applicable to our Public Health and Water site. You do the same with our content. In the end we have two wikis — a hydrology site with special insights into public health, and a public health and water site with a surprisingly good grasp of hydrology. Other interaction might grow out of this — Skype conferencing, cross-course presentations or twitter interaction, etc. But to start you don’t need a raft of meetings, grant funding, or course releases. You just need to find a class in your federation that is doing related work and ask your students to try and integrate their stuff.

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