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July 6, 2005

Penn State's Wiki-Based Pilot Program


For most freshman college students, the first-year composition course is an important introduction to the rigors of college-level writing and thinking. As digital media begins to take a more central role in scholarly discourse, many colleges and universities are redesigning this gateway course to incorporate modes of thinking, writing, and interdisciplinary learning specific to the networked medium.

Penn State's wiki farm pilot program is one example. It allows teachers of freshman composition to propose and teach interdisciplinary wiki-based courses. Instructors Richard Doyle, Jeff Pruchnic, and Trey Conner argue that students in the pilot program produce better work than students enrolled in traditional versions of the course. The peer-reviewed wiki environment contextualizes grammar and mechanics, and motivates students to proof their work carefully in order to impress their audience. Critical thinking skills are also honed, as students compete to post the best, most original argument.

The self-governing ecology of the networked wiki format also creates a fruitful environment for discussion and debate. The wiki places control over the direction and duration of the discussion into students' hands. This allows them to become skillful at negotiating the, sometimes volatile, terrain of public debate. Richard Doyle notes the success of these public forums. He says that in the years he has been teaching the course there has not been a single "flame war" (a term referring to the online exchange of inflammatory remarks). Doyle also points out that in wiki-based courses, "students are learning how to interact responsibly in an information-dense environment." He says, "Students are being trained to deal with the fluid environments they are going to find themselves in."

In a typical wiki pilot course, each student produces about 100 pages of material and must read, comment on, and grade their fellow students' work. Doyle's course "Rhetorical Ecologies" is a great example of the advantages inherent in digital learning environments. The requisite "textbook" is done away with and replaced by open source materials that are available online.


Jeff Pruchnic's course, Coding for Corporate Survival, uses the wiki format to support collaborative projects. For example, class problem #1 asks students to create a preliminary report for the fictional consulting firm of NeuVex, hired by Penn State University to design, construct, and integrate an automated, online room-reservation system. The students work in teams and submit their reports as editable online wiki documents.

Students in Pruchnic's class are given the tools they need to define the problems and search independently for solutions. The instructor helps out by posting relevant business news on the "Announcements/Hot Linx" section of the home page and assigning online readings, but, in general, students are expected to make these investigations on their own, using the teacher as a mentor and guide. This stands in stark contrast to the prefabricated problems and solutions put forth by traditional textbooks. As Richard Doyle puts it, "this is a learner-centered environment, the teacher is there to act as coach or zen master, making periodic interventions."

Posted by kim white at 9:43 AM