10 December 2006

Wikis, Usenet, and Conversations

This morning, my son made an offhand comment that wikis have replaced Usenet (and similarly structured threaded forums) for fandom. Ten years ago, fans of a particular television series would head to a Usenet forum right after the broadcast to talk about the plot, the characters, the romances and the intrigues. I used to follow X Files myself, and happily joined in the rehashing of the episodes.

Today, the threaded forum has been surpassed by the wiki, with free, open source wiki software available for download and installation, and free hosted sites providing the technical underpinnings. If you're a fan of Battlestar Galactica, the Stargate series (I happen to like Atlantis), Lost, or the now-defunct but fabulous Firefly, there's a wiki and a community for you.

My son's comment struck me not so much for its connection with fandom, but for its connection with pedagogy. By far and away, the overwhelming majority of cyber-education around the world is delivered via threaded forum software, such as Blackboard, WebCT (now owned by Blackboard), WebKF (a home-spun favourite at OISE), and similar programs. Even if a particular "learning management system" has the capability to offer a wiki environment, it is usually set aside in favour of the more familiar threaded forum.

Why have the fans taken to wikis? Perhaps it's because wikis are more effective at enabling group conversations, discovery and emergence of knowledge than are threaded forums. Coincidentally, I've just finished a paper that examines the effects of threaded-forum pedagogy, and its problematics for adult learners. In the paper, I observe:
Rather than participating in anything that resembles true discussion and collaborative knowledge creation, students effectively state their own opinion for the benefit of the instructor (not to mention the benefit of their marks that are assigned by the instructor), without drawing from the collective knowledge and views of their cyber-classmates, as would happen in face-to-face engagement in a physical classroom. Thomas (2002) sums up these observations by stating:
There was little on-going development and exchange of ideas in any of the discussion themes. Rather, the disjointed and fragmented individual contributions were abstracted in space and time from other students’ contributions. … This incoherent structure of the discussion threads is not compatible with a truly conversational mode of learning. From this analysis it is evident that the virtual learning space of the online discussion forum does not promote the interactive dialogue of conversation, but rather leads students towards poorly interrelated monologues. (Thomas, 2002, p. 360-361; emphasis added)

As Klemm observes, this is a situation circumscribed by the technology itself:
Threaded-topic design typically requires the cumbersome process of opening and closing many messages. There is no way for students to create in-context links from within a given message or to insert text or multimedia into any jointly prepared document, because there are no jointly prepared documents. … Indeed, "discussion" is probably the wrong word to use for this activity, because posted messages are more like monologues. (Klemm, 2002)
Instead, I advocate for a move away from the dominance of a threaded-forum style cyber-education to a form that would be an instantiation of pedagogical praxis that might inform the selection of technology and specific implementation design for a cyber-education environment that is consistent with adult education principles. Thomas observes:
The challenge is for interface design which promotes a more coherent structure and true many-to–many interaction in the virtual learning space. … The online discussion forum has become a ubiquitous element of Internet-supported flexible delivery of education, it is apparent that it might not be the best technology to support the interactive and collaborative processes essential to a conversational model of learning. These new developments must involve the redesign of both the technological support tools and curriculum structures to support collaborative learning processes. Accordingly, such innovation would emphasise the implementation of learning tasks that promote collaborative engagement towards knowledge development and problem solving. It is perhaps this route that may prove to be the most productive means of realising truly conversational modes of learning, given the inherent problems involved in traditional online discussion. (Thomas, 2002, p. 364)
Over the next semester, I'll be analyzing the postings for the cyber-education course we ran in the fall on the History and Theory of Organization Development. The course was architected in a wiki environment and necessitated a very different mindset for the participants - some of whom were able to adapt, and some, apparently, were not. In addition, I'll have the opportunity to help out in configuring the technological environment for another cyber-education course (an action learning practium course) involving both wikis and blogs during the winter semester. Watch for the full paper late in the spring.


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