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Wikis clicking

Susan Kinzie The Washington Post

WASHINGTON – First the Internet turned colleges upside down, extending classrooms and changing the way people learned. Next came Napster and other file-sharing tools, then Web logs. Now blogs are morphing into the next big thing on campus: wikis.

The wiki, which got its name from the Hawaiian word for “quick,” is the scrappy little brother to the blog, an interactive Web page that can be changed by anyone who stumbles upon it. While blogs let people publish their thoughts online, wikis take things a step further, creating freewheeling, collaborative communities: Students can edit one another’s work, bounce ideas around or link to infinite other Web sites.

“Students keep pushing for more interactivity, often in ways I hadn’t thought of yet,” said Mark Phillipson, assistant professor of English at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.

Phillipson’s students can go to a wiki he designed and highlight a phrase in a poem such as John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale.” From “tender is the night,” for example, they could create links to their own essays, a scanned image of the ink-blotted original manuscript, artwork, something about the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel with that title – anything.

Sometimes wikis don’t click. But at their best, wikis are provocative, inspiring, funny and addictive. Some course sites read like journals, some like debates and some shimmy in and out of topics with music, photos and video pulling readers along. One of Phillipson’s students drew a picture of a poem; another made a movie. Wikis can encourage creativity, remove the limits on class time, give professors a better sense of student understanding and interest and keep students writing, thinking and questioning.

Early e-mail lists, newsgroups and chat rooms were ephemeral, like a passing conversation, said Steve Jones, a communication professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Now computers and networks are fast enough that many people can share text, videos, sound and art and work on them together, he said, building a body of knowledge over time. Wikis, including interactive encyclopedia Wikipedia, have been around for several years but they’re just on the cusp of becoming mainstream; as the technology improves, they’re popping up in a few classrooms and offices, and people are finding all sorts of uses for them.

It’s the plugged-in version of a long tradition in literature, said wiki user Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, an assistant professor of English at the University of Maryland. Hundreds of years ago people kept “commonplace books,” in which they would write down poems, passages from books and observations to share. Most people think of writing as solitary, he said – “the lonely poet taking long walks in the woods, but there’s another type of writing that’s social and reactive.”

In many cases, professors are scrambling to keep up with changes driven by students. Some graduate students create wikis for collaborative science research projects. At Johns Hopkins University, junior Asheesh Laroia talked with a teaching assistant about setting up a wiki for a section of a course on Baltimore. In the summer, Matt Bowen, a senior at Maryland, dreamed up a wiki to help struggling writers; now, he and others post drafts online, and his friends at other colleges can click onto his wiki and rewrite the stories, add a poem, or take a scene and spin it into something new entirely.

“Sometimes things improve,” Bowen said, “sometimes they get worse. Sometimes they just get funnier.”

Blogs already have seeped into everyday life on campus. At Johns Hopkins, two juniors just set up a service for students and faculty to start their own blogs. Georgetown University tinkered with software to make it easy for professors to create blogs. There are course blogs on religion, war, literature, even cattle, at Texas A&M University.

“It’s more power to the student,” said junior John Dorman, whose Georgetown government class blog bubbled with a debate over morality and politics recently, with students posting comments from 7:30 p.m. until nearly 7:30 the next morning.

As the technology goes mainstream, universities will have to think about libel and intellectual property issues, Kirschenbaum said.

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