The National Endowment for the Humanities, a government program that supports research and education, has granted two Ithaca College professors $50,000 to continue a research project on wikis.
The project, called “Untangling the Web of Historical Thinking: What the Structures of Student-Produced Wikis Reveal,” was spearheaded by Ali Erkan, associate professor of computer science and environmental studies and sciences, and Michael Smith, associate professor of history.
A wiki is a word-processing program made up of pages of information pertaining to a main topic. The creator of a wiki can use links to connect all of the pages they’ve created in whatever order they choose.
While some teachers use wiki-building to promote group learning, the goal of the project led by Erkan and Smith is to understand how students make connections while studying history. By tracking the revisions in the structure of a student-produced wiki, the professors can see what students learned throughout the process.
Erkan said computer data analysis of the wikis will eventually help turn the abstract idea of a thought process into variables that can easily be studied.
“If I tell you I have a wiki with 10 pages and that each page is connected to exactly one other page, you can imagine these pages would be arranged like a necklace that’s been cut in a linear form,” he said. “But if I told you that I had 10 pages and each page was connected to every other page, then the wiki would look far more interconnected, far denser, and there are computer-based means to turn these structural characteristics into quantitative descriptors.”
With that data, professors can then ask students why they chose certain revisions at certain times throughout the process.
Smith has already conducted a pilot in his U.S. History Since 1865 course. Smith says the project has allowed him to see when key concepts click in a student’s mind.
“They think, ‘Oh yeah, I understand that,’” Smith said. “You can’t really understand the civil rights movement without understanding what happened during Jim Crow, without understanding what happened when the Reconstruction period came unraveled in the 1870s. And that in some ways that all leads back to the election of Barack Obama.’”
The money from the grant will go toward expanding the project to other disciplines. It will also go toward software that will further analyze the data and allow the professors to expand their scope.
Junior Ryan Cluett said being assigned a project like creating a wiki could enhance his learning.
“It is definitely something new and fresh, so I’d be more willing to give this one a go,” he said.
As of right now, the project deals with helping professors understand how students think. But Smith is interested in figuring out if the wikis are more effective teaching tools compared to other methods, he said.
“What we need to do a better job of is capturing the degree to which this specific tool led them there,” he said.