Traditionally, society has seen students as those who are “getting ready to enter the world”. Its not uncommon for a student to ask “when am I going to need this [insert skill] in my life?” (as though their life will start once they leave school). I think even students have been conditioned to think that school is a training ground for later when they will take their place as a valuable contributor to society.
Web 2.0 gives us a different paradigm. If you are like me, you feel excited and just a little overwhelmed with all the new web 2.0 tools there are available to you, and you are constantly re-thinking the way you do your job, and even what your job is! School did not prepare me for this! So in what sense was learning at school a ‘training ground’ for my later life? I was a learner at school and i am a learner now. Learning is a continuum.
But the other side of the coin is that students no longer have to wait to leave school to become contributing members of society. Just as they will be learners later in life, they can be contributors now. Contribution can be a continuum, too.
Recently I set my students a task of researching the evolutionary relationships (phylogeny) of a species. The topic is mandated by the VCAA. But instead of reporting the fruit of their research as a paper, a poster, a powerpoint presentation… to be seen only by me, and perhaps some classmates – I asked them to edit a page in Wikipedia.
There are a few reasons why I chose to use Wikipedia, rather than (for example) creating our own class wiki for the purpose. The most important of these is that because Wikipedia already exists and is read by thousands of people, my students contributions would be noticed, not just by educators or fellow students, but by people with a specific interest in the subject they were writing about.
The experience has been interesting. Students were immediately and visibly excited when I told them about the task. This excitement has continued with some of my colleagues finding out about the project because students have been talking about it (One teacher heard about it from an excited student he met on a train ride from melbourne during the holidays). Now, If students are discussing “homework” as cool, during the holidays… that indicates that it is engaging.
What really makes this project exciting to students is that it is “real”. That’s what the students are saying. It’s cool because it’s real. As one student wrote in her correspondence to the person who ‘edited’ her work: “.. were all excited to be a part of a bigger discussion…”.
As students have edited their wikipedia pages, it started getting really interesting. Some of them were finding that their work was quickly deleted (in one case it took less than 3 minutes), and in investigating the history, they were being deleted for a variety of reasons… mostly which were explained by the person who deleted it. Sometimes this was because they had stated a fact but not substantiated it by citing a reliable reference. Sometimes it was due to spelling errors, or a writing style that was not “encyclopedic” in tone. All good learning experiences – raising the bar for my students in terms of scholarship.
You might think that having your work deleted would be deflating. Initially, perhaps it was for some. But what I then saw was my students having another go… adding the missing citations, fixing spelling or formatting – trying to make it perfect before submitting it once more. At the very least, students on reflection were saying “at least my work wasn’t ignored”. When students produce work we have always tried to publish their work in some way. But really, honestly, most of the time their work IS ignored by all except their teacher, classmates and family. But my students were excited that the research they were doing, and the report they were making was not being ignored.
In one case a student’s work was deleted, but no reason was given. Using the “talk” feature, the student was able to ask the “person” (presumably a marine biologist) why his work was deleted. The response… the reader thought that the formatting and some expression was clumsy. So he had taken it down and then a short while later put it back up again, edited and reformatted. In any case, my student had been involved in a genuine exchange.