October 9, 2004

From Gerald R. Lucas


Ever since I constructed my first web site back in 1996, I have been fascinated and drawn to the Internet’s potential to bring people together into learning communities that share similar interests. My first site was constructed for my composition courses when I was a graduate student at the University of South Florida.


Since then, my knowledge of web design, computers, and pedagogy has grown, but I have been looking for a web-based system to allow my students to both learn about English Studies (literature and composition) and direct their own course of study all the while emphasizing the humanistic community that is integral to any study of the arts. While the web remains a key component in my teaching, I have also tried MOOs, chat rooms, and group web site projects, blogs, content management systems, and HTML portfolios all with varying degrees of success. During my experiences with these various technologies, I have come to the conclusion that

  1. students work much better with technologies that they already understand, and
  2. their continued input is necessary for their growth, especially in distance-learning and hybrid (classroom with distance components) courses.

I believe, at this point, that wiki technology brings self-guided participation together with community construction to form a strong basis for the study of humanities in this computer-focused age of education.

A wiki, if you did not follow the link above, uses the philosophy of open source software and applies it to information. Open source maintains that the more eyes to look at a program’s code, the more refined it gets: errors get eliminated, code gets refined, the program becomes more efficient, and the final product represents the effort of a community built on affinity. Open source programmers come together for a common goal; each uses her individual strengths with her eyes on the goal: smart, free software that belongs to the community, not an individual or corporation. Like Eric Raymond’s metaphor, the open source community is like the bristling bazaar that somehow thrives on what should be chaos and cacophony, not the cathedral, built by an exclusive few who maintain control of it through exclusivity, mystery, and rigid hierarchy.

A wiki emphasizes access, both in knowledge and ability. A wiki seeks input for all, suggesting that everyone has something to add to the group’s understanding and education. The wiki does not advocate individual authorship and exclusivity, but, like open source software, thrives on affinity and the many eyes of those who read it and contribute to it. If there is information that could be more accurate, then anyone with the knowledge can fix it. If information needs to be refined or nuanced, the wiki allows anyone with the time and information the ability to make it better. The wiki uses a simple markup language that anyone can learn and retain in minutes.

Wikis seem to work best as venues for reference information, not creative interpretation or individual ideas, necessarily. The latter seems to fall under the purview of blogs. Yes, we all shine individually; yes, we are all personally creative; indeed, we all read differently and should maintain a space that allows us to do just that. Much has been written on blogs and how they have decentered publishing, making individual voices more resonant in an informational world that used to be dominated by those cathedrals of publishing. They allow spaces for dialogue to once again become center, something that many media theorists thought traditional forms of media cannot do. Blogs seem to bring people together, readers become writers become readers in an endless array of links and pings that keep the discussion going ad infinitum. Sites like Slashdot report on current events in technology, and it’s not uncommon for any one story to have thousands of comments, redirecting the authority to the community. In fact, technical queries are often sent to the Slashdot community for advice which elicits reactions ranging from the humorous to the abusive to the constructive. Slashdot seems to be the model for the community blog.

I have tried a similar approach with LitMUSE. LM used to be a well populated and popular MOO, but, frankly, one student a year seemed to like it; most others could never catch on and ended up hating the MOO and projecting those emotions onto the class and its material. MOOs, perhaps with the exception of enCore which is a web-based MOO, require participants to learn basic commands in order to function in the text-based forum, much like one had to learn commands in order to do anything in a command-line operating system, like Unix. Many students found this daunting—much like my early experience with MS-DOS—and would turn off immediately rather than attempt to learn the system. Of those who did learn the basics, most never seemed comfortable in the environment, so I abandoned it after a couple of years in favor of a courseware blog, the LitMUSE that I still use for the dissemination of my course materials.

The current manifestation of LM was my first experience constructing a web site based on open source software: GeekLog uses PHP and MySQL to allow the user to develop and maintain a “web portal,” or a front end for content management. Yet what makes this system different from the web sites I have made in the past is that it allows content to be submitted by other users, not just the author of the site. With a simple login, LM now has a place for discussion, a place for student journals, a set of user contributed links, and even an ability to publish articles to the main site, something that I used to require, but do not anymore. This system works well for delivering content, but many students still seem reluctant to add actual content other than discussion or journal entries. Besides, much of the site still suggests that I am the author and students cannot equal my contributions, especially when posting literary interpretations.

Another difficulty that I have had ever since I agreed to teach World Literature online is that I’m not convinced that literature is something that should be taught at a distance. I have always believed that literature is something done, not venerated as something written by dead white guys. This latter attitude is one of exclusivity, not one that encourages participation, something that is more easily fostered in the classroom, not with individuals behind their own computers, doing what they need to do to earn their individual pieces of paper and the glory of being called a college graduate in the eyes of the community. The implications for the humanities is evident: with increasing regularity, university administrations want more online courses offered. I’m not certain if this is an effort to increase enrollment, or what, but it certainly does not seem to be in an effort to improve the quality of students’ liberal arts educations. I guess with the university becoming more and more of a trade school—emphasis on the pragmatic while the traditional focus on the aesthetic wanes—this trend should not surprise me. So, I have taught World Literature online every semester since it was first offered. The demand is easily three times that which can be accommodated, yet the attrition rate is easily two-thirds. What’s going on here?

I believe that many students think that just because a course is online means that it will require less effort and dedication. I’m not certain where this erroneous assumption comes from; perhaps it’s true in other disciplines, something I should research. However, with the disadvantage of having no lectures, no impromptu close readings, no sense of community trying to arrive at a consensus through discussion, online literature courses I teach end up being much harder. (I’ve taught two: World Lit I and ENGL1102, the second part of freshmen composition that’s supposed to be an introduction to writing about literature.) The students must do additional reading on my blog in order to get some of the material I would present during lectures, and then they are left to their own devices to figure out what the heck Homer is talking about. Perhaps this is my fault in that I don’t have adequate information online, but my experience shows me that many don’t read what I have posted to begin with, and none of them seem to even know what a library is or whether MSC even has one. Thus, they procrastinate because the literature is difficult, and most eventually drop due either to my inability to engage them about the literature (something that I seem to do well in class) or due to their own inability to self-motivate.

I can blame myself all I want, yet that does not mitigate the problem. And I refuse to drop my standards: why should an online class be any less challenging or complete than one taken in-class? No, it should not, though I have—as a last resort—backed off on several of my requirements. Why should I feel as if I’m not doing my job as an educator just because I teach an online class? I should not, yet the onus remains on my shoulders, and like a struggling Atlas, I try to make the best of this. Perhaps literature, and maybe all humanities courses, just cannot be taught successfully online with our current technology?

This is where LitWiki comes in. Based on the idea that we make our own knowledge, and should be allowed to pursue any avenue to that knowledge that we would like to—an idea proposed by many New Media theorists, but most articulately by Ted Nelson in Computer Lib / Dream Machines—LitWiki is based on wiki technology and will allow students to pursue any aspect of their study in World Literature (or whatever online course they’re in) that they want by researching it and linking it with what others have contributed in the past. For instance, I can design my World Lit course to focus on a couple of seminal (an argument for another time) texts. The students will be required to read and communicate per usual on the forum, but they can take up any aspect of the text(s) that interest them and research and develop them on the wiki, tying them in to each others’ contributions. Students will, therefore, be working together; they will be required to research a particular aspect(s) of the text(s) and demonstrate what they have learned by making an entry, or entries, on the wiki.

Perhaps this approach will foster that community that seems so lacking in online courses and, at the same time, will allow students to remain more in control of what and how they study in the particular course. I would love some feedback on this idea, since I will begin using the wiki in the spring, and since I’m writing a paper for 2005's CCCC on the ethics of online humanities courses. I will be developing this further as I research, but initial feedback would be welcome.