Oct 23 2013

Wikipedia: When College Students Have an Audience, Does Their Writing Improve?

Douglas College’s Brenna Clarke Gray dishes on ed-tech, social media, Wikipedia and the hybrid classroom.

Because I’m a blogger, Wired’s recent article Why Even the Worst Bloggers Are Making Us Smarter caught my attention. The piece is an excerpt from Clive Thompson’s new book, Smarter Than You Think, and it explains how blogging, for better or for worse, is turning everyone into a writer.

We know that college students — digital natives, millennials, Generation Y or whatever else you want to call them — are well versed in technology and frequently share their thoughts on the Internet via Twitter, Facebook and blogs. Today’s college students, unlike generations of students before them, have something new and unique that is changing the way they write: an audience.

And according to Douglas College English professor Brenna Clarke Gray, the audience factor is having a positive impact on students’ writing skills. Here is an excerpt from Thompson’s Wired article on Gray’s audience experiment:

When asked to contribute to a wiki—a space that’s highly public and where the audience can respond by deleting or changing your words—college students snapped to attention, carefully checking sources and including more of them to back up their work. Brenna Clarke Gray, an instructor at Douglas College in British Columbia, had her English students create Wikipedia entries on Canadian writers, to see if it would get them to take the assignment more seriously. She was stunned at how well it worked. “Often they’re handing in these essays without any citations, but with Wikipedia they suddenly were staying up till 2 am, honing and rewriting the entries and carefully sourcing everything,” she tells me. The reason, the students explained to her, was that their audience—the Wikipedia community—was quite gimlet-eyed and critical. They were harder “graders” than Gray herself.

Finally, an academic use for Wikipedia that professors and students can agree on. EdTech caught up with Gray to learn more about her experience and what she has planned for future classes.

Brenna Clarke Gray is a professor at Douglas College and blogger for Book Riot and Graphixia.


EdTech: Can you explain your Wikipedia experiment?

Gray: When I was a grad student at the University of New Brunswick, I'd been assigned a project in a Renaissance Women's Literature class to create Wikipedia entries for a female author. It was a really interesting exercise because we weren't expecting the community to challenge our points. As a young scholar, that happens in classroom debate but not in the "wild." When I started teaching, I wanted to see if that idea could be used for my undergraduate students to teach responsible scholarship. I discovered that students were often content to get a bad grade from me but didn't want the Wikipedia community to tell them their research was lazy or sloppy.

EdTech: Is there value in public learning?

Gray: Public learning can lead to deeper learning outcomes. Usually, instructors use blogs to dabble with public learning, which is how I started too. The problem is that students read each other's blogs, but they don't develop much of an outside audience. Wikipedia gave me a platform to apply what I knew about public learning and raise the stakes for my students.

One unexpected benefit was that by teaching them to use Wikipedia, they became much better users of the tool. Instead of blindly consuming the content, they understand where the research comes from and how it gets there. In the past, we've told them not to use Wikipedia. That's insane. Rather than saying, "It doesn't have a place in the academy," let's explain to students how it can be used as a tertiary resource. It's not the end-all and be-all of research, but it’s incredibly useful.

EdTech: What does audience factor mean for higher education?

Gray: There are lots of implications for education. For example, we have strict privacy laws in British Columbia, so we need to be really careful about that. The students, however, are pretty comfortable with an audience's awareness of what they're doing. The more we can leverage technology they are used to, the more readily they can connect with a topic.

EdTech: Do you use blogs in other ways?

Gray: I teach hybrid courses here at Douglas College, and I use blogs to get material to students. I've had varying success getting students to use blogs for reading responses, which is why I decided to try Wikipedia instead.

EdTech: Does the hybrid model help you incorporate technology into your curriculum?

Gray: Hybrid teaching is really interesting because it's "sink or swim" for a lot of students. Many don't realize how much work needs to happen outside of the classroom for them to be successful. It's great because you can carve out a little academic space — I use Facebook groups for each class — that becomes part of their daily lives. For example, I taught a Canadian Literature class last fall and those students still post things to the Facebook group over a year later. It's not all the students of course, but I find that about one-quarter of my students get really involved in the online activity. Another quarter usually don't engage as much as I'd like, but they are often the same students who don't engage in more traditional modes, either.

EdTech: What about education technology makes you nervous?

Gray: I think we have to be careful thinking that there is any one style of learning that will work for all students. Everything should not be online, and you can't learn everything in a MOOC. Ed-tech should be about multiplying options for students, not forcing technology on them. I worry about MOOCs as a way to cut costs. I'm a cheerleader for anything that engages students more effectively or gives students more options.

EdTech: What's next?

Gray: I'm teaching a British Literature Survey next semester, and I've made their reading materials from Project Gutenberg texts, so students won't have to buy a textbook. They can either print the documents themselves or use them on a computer or tablet.

I'm also toying with the idea of running a parallel open-source project alongside that class. I'm curious to see if people outside our own classroom are interested in engaging in our classroom discussions, since the content is freely accessible to anyone.

Check out Gray’s website here, and take a look at one of her current course blogs here.

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