How Wikis Can Help

Dana J. Wilber discusses digital natives, or Millennials (those born after 1982), in her book iWrite: Using Blogs, Wikis, and Digital Stories in the English Classroom. She points out that students often struggle with discernment and evaluation. On any typical, multi-tasking evening of homework, a Millennial student may be texting, researching, writing on MySpace or Facebook, listening to music, and writing a paper. They flit from one means of communication to the next (but it’s always constant) and don’t discern the public or private nature of their communications. “The boundaries between public and private begin to blur and our students struggle to understand the repercussions,” says Wilber (x, 8-9). Students know how to use technology but may not ever think about the broader audience who may misinterpret their communication. Furthermore, Wilber argues, because of the hyper-connectivity of the entire globe, the methods available for “creating or receiving a message” change so fast our students can hardly keep up, let alone “discern between media” (xi). Students need to be able to look at each communication through a rhetorical lens and choose the medium most appropriate for their purpose and audience.

Since digital natives entered the workforce about 5 years ago, it has become apparent that these challenges pursue them beyond high school and college. Lee Rainie in “Digital Natives Invade the Workplace” explains the challenges and opportunities created by a generational difference. One of the realities employers must face is that “[Digital natives] are technologically literate, but that does not necessarily make them media literate” (3). Rainie further explains that digital natives often hold the view that the internet is a “vast encyclopedia.” After all, they have grown up using solely the internet to complete school projects, etc. This view sometimes translates into trouble at work. Young employees have caused problems for administrators like Sandra Gisin of Swiss Re and Clare Hart of the Dow Jones news organizations. Bad experiences have led both firms to implement training programs aimed at evaluating and verifying web sources—all because of “credulous younger workers accepting information from the top link on a Google search result” (Rainie 3).

In essence, it appears that while digital natives can intuitively adapt and use new technologies, they lack the critical thinking skills necessary to successfully navigate all areas of digital technology.  This is where teachers come in, and this is where certain writing assignments can go far in introducing these critical skills to students who have the confidence and comfort level of a “native.” One writing assignment in particular, wiki writing, I believe has the potential for addressing the concerns mentioned above. Wiki writing answers the New London Group’s call for teaching multiliteracies and promoting the workplace attributes of collaboration and flexibility. It also addresses Wilber’s concerns for discernment and evaluation.

In my research project, I’ve been examining more closely the ways wiki writing can fulfill the outcomes mentioned above. Specifically, I’m considering assigning my 12th-grade English class the task of writing a Wikipedia article for our school. I think it holds some rich opportunities for collaboration and for understanding their favorite source (sigh), Wikipedia. I expect that after contributing to the most well-known wiki in the world, they may gain better insight into the authority issues and changeability issues of Wikipedia.

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