Interrupting Processes of Inquiry: Teaching and Learning with Social Media in Higher Education


digital literacy, teacher education, teaching and learning, social media, writing / instruction numérique, formation de pédagogique, enseignement et étude, médias sociaux, collaboration, écriture

How to Cite

Dobson, T., & Vratulis, V. (2009). Interrupting Processes of Inquiry: Teaching and Learning with Social Media in Higher Education. Digital Studies/le Champ Numérique, 1(2). DOI:


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It is not news that the integration of digital learning technologies in higher education presents a challenge, even in spite of significant investment into developing the necessary infrastructure to support such integration by post-secondary institutions around the world. In 1998 a study funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada involving a survey of faculty across disciplines at two major North American universities identified the following factors as most contributing to a reluctance to employ digital technologies in teaching: [1] lack of time to develop instruction with computers; [2] lack of computer resources to support instruction; [3] lack of student access to computers; [4] lack of financial support for the development of instructional uses of computers; and [5] a “failure of the institutional reward structure to recognize faculty for integrating computers in teaching and learning” (Jacobsen 6).

In the intervening decade since this study, some of these barriers have been partially resolved in regions such as Western Europe and North America ( Internet World Stats). Most notably, access to digital technologies for both faculty and students in such affluent areas of the world has increased. For example, a recent survey on the use of information technology by post-secondary students in the United States revealed that 98.4% of students surveyed owned some form of computer, and that 73.7% of these individuals owned laptops. This survey was based on a huge sample of over 27,800 students from 103 institutions (Salaway and Caruso 10, 65). Significantly, however, well over 70% of the laptop owners claimed they never, or rarely (once a month or less), brought their machines to class, citing reasons such as weight and the fact that laptops were not required in classes (Salaway and Caruso 65-66). The second reason listed here is important and telling; if Salaway and Caruso’s study is any indication, most students in North American post-secondary institutions own laptops and it would be reasonable for instructors to plan classroom activities with this in mind. Yet integration of digital technologies in university classroom teaching appears to remain limited. Salaway and Caruso’s findings suggest that digital technologies primarily play a pragmatic role in facilitating communication and access to materials rather than learning tasks such as mastery of particular concepts in the classroom setting. For instance, while more than 90% of surveyed students claimed to have used email to communicate with one or more of their instructors, fewer than 20% claimed to have used discipline-specific software, and even fewer claimed to have used social networking applications, graphics programs, or digital video editing software in the context of their formal learning (Salaway and Caruso 61). While it is clear that digital technologies have the potential to support and extend established methods of teaching and learning, it is troubling that inventive, discipline-specific applications of hardware and software — applications capable of promoting innovative thinking and learning as opposed to those dedicated to communication and course management — are not more commonly employed.

The apparent reticence of university-level educators to meaningfully integrate digital media into in-class instruction is a problem that could be examined from a number of disciplinary perspectives. In this paper, we wish to focus on teacher education programs where faculty reluctance to integrate digital learning technologies into teacher training programs presents implications for pedagogy that extend beyond the university. Teachers in primary and secondary classrooms acquire beliefs and practices that reflect the attitudes and actions of their university instructors in the university classroom. Grade-school students in turn carry the beliefs and practices modeled by their grade school instructors into post-secondary institutions. It is important, therefore, that researchers interested in harnessing the potential of digital media for teaching and learning identify and document best practices that are innovative, challenging, and highly complementary to disciplinary content.

In this article, we provide a brief review of literature that describes the current orientation of teacher education programs towards the integration of digital technologies into their course streams. The review indicates that university level instructors are beginning to change their stance on the role of digital media in the classroom. It further indicates that faculty face important challenges when instructing students with deeply ingrained practices relating to knowledge creation and dissemination. After the review, we describe a study in which pre-service teachers were challenged to abandon established attitudes and practices relating to writing, textuality, teaching, and learning. Their beliefs were put to the test via a project entailing collaborative writing in a wiki environment. This project resulted in what is described later as an “interrupted” model of learning. It is our belief that the implications of this project are not limited to the field of teacher education: We hope this study will serve as a useful reference point for digital humanists who wish to promote the incorporation of social software into university-level education.

1.0 Digital Technology Integration in Teacher Education

In teacher education programs across North America, there are two extant methods for promoting the integration of technology into the classroom: the first is via courses devoted to teaching specific topics and the second is via general education courses available to all students preparing to be teachers, regardless of their specialization. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches and an ideal scenario will likely involve a combination of both. On the one hand, while general courses can introduce teacher candidates to multiple computing applications, they are not always able to provide an understanding of how these applications can be integrated into subject-specific curricula. On the other hand, relying on subject-specific classes in order to promote integration of digital technologies in teaching and learning can often result in teacher candidates receiving inconsistent exposure to digital technologies.

Studies examining barriers to pedagogy with digital media in university education faculties reveal that education professors have attitudes that are not dissimilar to those of colleagues in other fields. A survey by Valerie Irvine on behalf of the Association of Canadian Deans of Education points to the following concerns as obstacles to integration: “lack of faculty interest, lack of infrastructure, lack of expertise, and lack of time [workload],” as well as “lack of room in programs for ICT [instructional communication technologies] courses or activities” (Irvine 16). In other studies, education faculty voiced additional concerns, including apprehension regarding the reliability of digital technologies (Butler and Sellbom 22ff). John Wedman and Laura Diggs reported unease on the “lack of appropriate training that focuses not merely on how to use the technology, but on how the technology might enhance learning in a particular subject area” (Wedman and Diggs 426; see also Otero 10).

Finley and Hartman (2004) provide a useful overview of the various obstacles to computer-supported education in which they categorize into the following subsets: the computing skills of students and teachers (323), the institutional culture of education faculties (325), and vision and pedagogy (321). The first two categories include concerns such as those addressed above. The final category, vision and pedagogy, refers to individual teaching styles and philosophies. Zisow, for example, suggests that a given university instructor’s adoption of computing applications is dependent on her or his individual teaching style (36). This finding is supported by Finley and Hartman (326). A number of their interviewees expressed the concern that teaching with digital technologies would hinder their ability to create the learning environments they preferred.

Aside from teaching style, Fuller argues that many instructors may “refuse to incorporate computer use into their practice because they feel threatened by the values it embodies” (512). Finley and Hartman (323) remark that statements such as the latter reflect the sentiments of key educational philosophers such as Neil Postman, who has denounced what he perceives as the uncritical adoption of technology, a scenario he describes as “information chaos” (Postman 60). In our estimation, educators must find a balance between an unthinking celebration of the potential of digital media and reflexive criticism. Ultimately, pedagogues at all levels of education and in all disciplines will need to take a critical stance in adopting digital media. Attention will need to be paid to the affordances presented by these media, and their capacity to modify and extend teaching and learning practices in productive and innovative ways.

2.0 Digital Textuality, Literary Education, and Teacher Training

The popular uptake of digital technologies for knowledge mobilization has invited a re-examination of the nature of textuality—that is, attributes of text, such as structure, rhetorical strategies, and modes of representation. Within literacy education research communities, some, such as Donald Leu, suggest that digital technologies for writing are precipitating a complete transformation in literacy practices. Others, such as Dobson and Willinsky, emphasize the continuities between pre-print, print and post-print practices, as well as the democratizing forces implicit in digital methods of knowledge transfer and knowledge production (286, 303). Ultimately, regardless of one’s perspective on the impact of digital textuality on literary practice, its emergence invites us to reconsider our assumptions about the pragmatics of reading and writing (Hayles 263).

For instance, early hypertext theorists such as George Landow observed that digital media would challenge the dominance of print publishers over the process of knowledge dissemination (Landow 293). The Internet undermined established methods for content distribution by enabling individuals with a basic knowledge of Internet protocols and publishing practices — such as hypertext markup language (HTML), file structuring, and file transfer protocols — to reach a wide audience on-line. This democratization of information exchange was enhanced with the development of user-friendly HTML authoring tools in the 1990s. The recent development of social networking applications, however, has taken the democratization of knowledge diffusion to the next level. Applications such as wikis and web logs have further reduced the skills needed by users to publish on the web, and the trend in web publishing is toward “mass amateurization” (Shirky 3; see also Coates 53-57).

One upshot of this trend is that knowledge production is becoming increasingly collaborative and conventional notions of authorship and intellectual property are being challenged. Wikipedia, for example, the open-content encyclopedia launched in 2001, is regularly listed on sites tracking Internet usage as one of the twenty most popular sites on the Internet. It is almost certainly the most popular reference site in English-speaking countries (Alexa, Hitwise). And yet, when Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales first made the site public, he was met with nothing short of derision from some quarters. How could a worthwhile and reliable information source be produced by vast numbers of non-experts working collaboratively on articles? Robert McHenry, former editor in chief of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, scoffed that the space, which he portrays as being filled with the equivalent of C-grade school papers, might be likened to a public restroom: “It may be obviously dirty, so that he knows to exercise great care, or it may seem fairly clean, so that he may be lulled into a false sense of security. What he certainly does not know is who has used the facilities before him” (McHenry 16).

In spite of continued criticism, Wikipedia has blossomed. It stands alongside the Oxford English Dictionary as an example of a collaborative, global knowledge project. Like the OED, Wikipedia is a resource generated by the input of non-specialists. Moreover, the issue of its unreliability in relation to more authoritative sources is open to question. In an oft-cited study published in Nature Magazine, Giles located fifty pairs of articles in Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica, each pair addressing the same subject, and sent these to subject-area experts. In total, “eight serious errors, such as misinterpretations of important concepts, were detected in the pairs of articles reviewed, four from each encyclopaedia” (Giles 901). Giles further notes that reviewers also found “many factual errors, omissions or misleading statements” in both encyclopedias: “162 and 123 in Wikipedia and Britannica, respectively” (Giles 901). The finding that neither encyclopedia is infallible sheds a different light upon the bathroom analogy of Robert McHenry, who implies that Britannica is a “clean facility.” If anything, the debate regarding Wikipedia’s trustworthiness has served to remind researchers in all disciplines of one of the central tenets of good scholarship: that knowledge sources, and the production practices underlying knowledge sources, must be appraised with a critical eye, regardless of their medium of transmission.

Education researchers have known for a long time that many students find it difficult to master the concept of critical thinking and to accept the need to incorporate the discipline into their practice. By extension, those students may find it difficult to take a critical stance toward established attitudes and practices relating to knowledge production and dissemination. Accordingly, the introduction of unconventional print and digital methods of knowledge dissemination is proving to be an important challenge for educators. Research has demonstrated, for instance, that many students exhibit conventional attitudes regarding textuality. In a study of Canadian teacher candidates working with children’s picture books, for example, Asselin, Filipenko, and Anderson demonstrated that the student teachers with whom they worked have conservative preferences regarding text conventions. The researchers found that the candidates eschewed print literature with unconventional features such as meta-narrative intertext and paratext. It seemed likely that their attitudes in this regard would hinder their willingness to introduce new, non-conventional literary practices into the classroom. Further, Dobson notes that current methods for teaching reading often privilege conventional notions of narrative. If students are not presented with alternate models of literary expression early in their formal education, the assumptions and expectations they acquire may hinder their ability later to engage with unconventional forms, print or digital (For the Love 59-60). Similarly, established taxonomies of authorship and intellectual authority, which situate the initiative for knowledge creation as well as knowledge ownership in individuals and institutions, stand in opposition to emerging forms of knowledge generated by collectives — folksonomies of knowing — emerging online (Lankshear and Knobel 19ff). There is a pressing need to research and test new methods for introducing students at all levels of education to innovative print and digital writing spaces, as well as new methods of knowledge mobilization. Implementing such methods in teacher education programs in particular will enable the next generation of teachers to introduce such literary practices to their students.

3.0 A Study with Pre-service Elementary Teachers

In order to contribute to the project proposed above, we present here the findings of a case study undertaken in the context of an elementary teacher education program. We invited teacher candidates to participate in an exercise entailing the use of a wiki writing environment in order to generate a collaborative response to a set of standards of professional conduct for educators. We feel this project provides a valuable example of how digital media can be incorporated into teacher education programs in order to encourage instructors and teacher candidates to interrogate their assumptions about knowledge production, representation, and dissemination in view of new methods of knowledge mobilization.

This study was conducted from September 2006 to August 2007 in the context of a twelve month post-baccalaureate teacher education program in British Columbia, Canada. Approximately eight hundred teacher education students enroll annually, and approximately half of these individuals prepare to teach at the elementary school level. The elementary teacher education program runs according to a cohort model, whereby clusters of up to thirty-six teacher candidates take the majority of their coursework together and then are placed in schools for the teaching practicum. Each cohort has a particular educational focus such as problem-based learning, diversity, and environmental stewardship. Students indicate their preference of cohort on application to the program.

The cohort selected for this study focused on the notion of “community inquiry.” At the time of the study the cohort was committed to a collaborative curriculum planning process involving all members of the learning community, including thirty-five teacher candidates, several university-based instructors and consultants, and affiliated individuals in schools. Instructors and two student representatives met weekly throughout the year to draw connections across coursework, discuss and resolve issues, and plan for future sessions. Student representatives attending these meetings rotated periodically in order to ensure a variety of student voices were heard at instructor meetings. A three-day planning retreat attended by all instructors and affiliates took place prior to the commencement of the academic year.

4.0 Provincial Context: Attainment of Professional Standards

The larger context in which this research takes place has direct bearing on the nature of this study. The British Columbia College of Teachers (BCCT) is the professional body for the majority of school educators in British Columbia. In 2004 an amendment to the B.C. Teaching Profession Act, Bill 55, passed through provincial parliament. This legislation mandated that the BCCT “set standards for the profession” (BCCT, Standards 3). The College thus commenced a four-year iterative process of writing and consultation around the development of these standards. They stipulated that all B.C. teacher candidates must demonstrate their attainment of these standards and required B.C. universities to archive portfolios of student work for a minimum of five years in order to enable the BCCT to “audit relevant material relating to individual candidates to determine the validity of the judgments made by the institution’s faculty” (BCCT, Annual 25). Participants in this study worked with the second edition of the BCCT Standards, hereafter referred to as “the Standards.”

During the time of the study, B.C. universities were piloting ways of archiving student data sufficient for audit purposes. The challenge in terms of data storage was not insignificant because numerous representative samples of student work in the form of assignments from coursework were to be included in each of eight hundred student files, and these files were then to be archived for a minimum of five years following graduation. Digital methods of data storage proved to be the only viable solution and therefore an e-portfolio system was widely adopted. Members of the study cohort, however, viewed the implementation of standards and the notion of “auditing” problematic, and therefore wished to pilot an alternate method. They were concerned, for example, about the potential for infringement on individual teacher rights implicit in the system, and by the inevitable way in which standardization limits innovation, attendance to matters of diversity, and so on.[2] At the program planning retreat in 2006, the first author therefore proposed having the students document their attainment of the Standards by collaboratively producing a web of documents in a wiki environment with a view to downplaying the importance of individual authorship and promoting the notion of community knowledge creation. Such a model would allow for the examination of the processes involved in collaborative authorship employing social media. In addition, a truly collaborative model, whereby authorship rested with the group rather than with individuals, seemed one way of protecting student rights by avoiding the creation of individual portfolios of student work that might then be audited by the professional body.

5.0 Participants and Procedure

Participants were the thirty-five teacher candidates, two instructors who taught the course in which the Standards project was situated, and two DLT facilitators. At the beginning of the year, the teacher candidates completed a survey about their comfort level and experience with various digital learning technologies. The survey revealed that the students had basic competency with computers and were familiar with applications such as electronic mail, word processors, and web browsers. Of the students and instructors, only one individual claimed to have used a wiki prior to undertaking this project.

The BCCT Standards were introduced early in the academic year in the context of a yearlong course focused on principles of teaching, and the process of responding to them in the wiki unraveled over several months. At the end of November, instructors introduced the wiki project (see Appendix A for the assignment). Throughout the next two weeks, groups of four to five individuals were assigned to study one or two standards each, demonstrate their understanding of those standards in writing, and write up cases contextualizing them in classroom practice. Students received initial oral feedback from their peers and instructors before the December term break; in early January they then switched standards among groups and began editing and extending each other’s writings. Eventually, they were required to link their writings to artifacts from their coursework illustrating their attainment of those standards with which they were working.[3] All writing was posted in the wiki; the artifacts, or in some cases digital images of the artifacts, were uploaded and linked from the wiki. Group and independent work on this project continued throughout the remainder of the year, even when students were placed off campus in schools to garner classroom teaching experience.

All wiki sessions were observed and events were documented in a research journal. Notes were also made during debriefing meetings held with the instructors once a week during the project. Interviews with student and instructor participants were conducted individually or in small groups at the end of the program. We should note that there was some attrition of the participant pool over the course of the year: of the thirty-five teacher candidates, three elected to postpone their studies after the first seven months of coursework and one withdrew in month six. Although these participants did not take part in exit interviews, they were present for the wiki sessions prior to the three-month practicum. The interviews were recorded and transcribed. The wiki and student artifacts also comprised a data source. For the purpose of this paper, we will focus primarily on data gleaned in the context of the semi-structured interviews conducted at the end of the study. Trends and significant features of experience discussed in the subsequent sections were identified through a process of close reading and keyword searches of interview transcripts.

6.0 Interrupting Models of Inquiry: Teaching with technology

The narrative of the response to the wiki project exists on two distinct but interrelated levels. It does not merely encompass the students’ uptake of the project — their grapplings with technology, their debates over semantics, their negotiations of authorship, and so on; the responses of the candidates also encompass the learning journey of their instructors, who were skeptical at the outset, both in relation to the notion of professional “standards” and in relation to the notion of employing digital technologies in their teaching.

As intimated earlier, the study cohort had special dispensation from the Faculty of Education to pilot ways of exploring the Standards, a scenario that instructors felt gave them license to innovate and to propose alternates to the dominant model of individual student e-portfolios. One instructor, whom we will call Ruth,[4] remarked that she consequently felt she had “institutional permission to go against the grain,” and that the project constituted a primary example of where she and her co-instructor “engaged in inquiry with our students” according to an “interrupted model” (Ruth). An interrupted model of inquiry here implies an iterative process of learning whereby students are encouraged to interrogate their understandings of commonly held beliefs and their subject position as learners on an ongoing basis. That said, it remained important to both instructors that participating in the pilot project would not be construed as “buying in” to the notion of professional standards. In fact, Ruth stated that instructors refused to use the term “pilot” because “piloting” constituted a form of complicity with the process, explaining, “we would engage with the Standards but we wouldn’t pilot the Standards” (Ruth). Of particular import in this respect was that the cohort would have the final say in regards to how their understandings would be represented for consideration by the BCCT. Thus, on one level the project came to be about “giving power to the practical and personal judgments of teacher candidates” (Ruth).

7.0 Student Response to the Wiki

When the wiki was first introduced, teacher candidates took it up with enthusiasm, learning, within an hour, how to edit pages, create new pages, add links, cause an online image to display within the wiki, and so on. They then engaged with a series of pages designed to enable them to practice their skills, laughing at the ease at the fact that these resources could be modified. Those individuals who mastered the wiki quickly began teaching their peers, and soon some groups were taking the whole process well beyond what had been planned for the two-hour session, thereby demonstrating the sophistication and flexibility of their skills with digital learning technologies. One group, for example, took photos of themselves employing Apple’s Photo Booth, distorted these, uploaded the resulting images to Flickr, and then pasted the URLs of the images in the page they were editing so the photos would display with commentary within the wiki.

Toward the end of this introductory session, the series of wiki pages intended to facilitate the Standards project were introduced. The simple hierarchical network consisted of a main page containing links to pages for each standard and a subordinate series of links from the individual standards to “case” and “artifact” pages. Students pasted prepared texts into the relevant wiki pages and began negotiating the content in groups of four to five. Their focus tended toward formatting the text on this first occasion; in subsequent meetings they began to modify and extend the intellectual content, in the process of extensively editing each other’s writings.

Although the students appeared to enjoy their initial explorations in the wiki, concerns linked to an inability to conceptualize the academic product arose as soon as the formal project was introduced. The questions were those any instructor might anticipate and related to issues such as word length, formality of writing, formatting, and so on. The instructors attempted to defer these pragmatic questions — in part because they hoped for an organic process, and in part because they were not certain themselves as to how the project would unfold. Furthermore, the instructors were conflicted in terms of how they envisioned the process: Ruth privileged what she termed “disruptive inquiry” and Sonia privileged clarity of instructional design.

This proved to be a useful tension. The instructors came to recognize that what they characterized as “organized chaos” was essential for the success of this project. As Ruth remarked, “I focus more of my energies on disturbing or interrupting their conceptions, but Sonia, thankfully, vests interest in organizing . . . That was fantastic. I guess I am saying that you need both: that is what works” (Ruth). This understanding of the activity as being remarkable and productive because it was situated between order and chaos calls to mind the work of complexity theorists such as Christopher Langton. In studying principles of behavior governing “cellular automata” – mathematical models for complex natural systems – Langton described a particular pattern of behavior he refers to as “the edge of chaos” (36). This pattern of behavior occurs in the context of “a phase transition between highly ordered and highly disordered dynamics, analogous to the phase transition between the solid and fluid states of matter” (13). [5] If a system is governed by too much constraint, it goes into stasis; if it enjoys too much freedom, it goes into flux. The moment of tension between order and chaos, according to Langton, occurs when the most interesting and complex activity takes place. It is the moment when the system becomes steady enough to produce structures that remain stable for a time and flexible enough to disassociate its configuration and self-organize into a new structure when required. If this study is any indication, we might usefully employ this analogy of positioning learners at the “edge of chaos” in thinking about designing activities intended to promote innovative, critical explorations of any content.[6] Ultimately, the anarchistic nature of the wiki writing space, combined with the balance between coherence and randomness in instructional design, became productive in this instance, encouraging students to greater complexity in their thinking.

This is not to say that the process was without its troubles. One difficulty stemmed from the division of labour agreed upon by the researchers and the participants at the outset, whereby the researchers facilitated the use of the technology and the instructors dealt with academic content. By not demonstrating understanding of how to use the wiki themselves, the instructors inadvertently eroded the confidence of some students. For instance, Cathy remarked:

Once I really got to use it, I just thought, oh my god! That’s it? But when you are working with two amazing instructors . . . for a year and they still are really intimidated by it—well, you start to think it has got to be complicated. But really it wasn’t in the end. Wish I had figured that out earlier (Cathy).

Beyond unsettling some students in this manner, the division of labour resulted in the drawing of a conceptual boundary between technology and teaching. The intellectual effort of engaging the standards was, in some respect, divorced from the means of representing that intellectual effort—at least at the level of instructional design. This reality curtailed to some degree opportunities for investigating with students the paralleling of epistemological and professional rupture – that is, the way that the means of expression might influence the substance of expression (the McLuhan thesis), and how the means of expression might itself interrupt the imposition of the Standards by diffusing authorship.

As well, at times, teacher candidates expressed frustration that their instructors did not simply dictate a process of engagement with the wiki. As one student observed, “sometimes, you know, we just want someone to tell us what to do. It’s just so much easier that way” (Roger). And yet, even these students came to realize that an open instructional design, whereby decisions are arrived at through community consultation, has merits. For example, Roger eventually noted, “when we were going through it we really wanted someone to give us clear instructions about exactly what to include and stuff, but then it would’ve become busy work. Now I get it” (Roger). Cathy concurred:

I really wanted someone to tell me, you know, “respond in one paragraph, watch your grammar, post a photo.” That was frustrating. But after practicum I think we all kind of realized that was the point—at least I do. Now I get it. We were supposed to make the connections on our own. That is tough when you are used to teachers telling you exactly how many hoops to jump through. We are so used to communicating to our teachers through grades. Take away the grades and ask us to do something that actually takes thinking—well, some of us fumble at first—or, in the case of the wiki, all the way through (Cathy).

Ultimately, 90% of the students stated that they valued the process and that it encouraged them to think more critically about the Standards through “hard” but fruitful inquiry.

8.0 Negotiating Authorship and Intellectual Property

The wiki exercise has been established as one in which students were required to write collaboratively. Notably, truly collaborative writing is rare in formal education; when group projects are assigned, the work tends to be accomplished through a process of cooperation rather than collaboration: that is, members work individually on segments and these are ultimately tacked together to create the whole. The distinction between the two processes is outlined by Roschelle and Teasley who state that “cooperative work is accomplished by the division of labour among participants” (70), while collaboration entails the “mutual engagement of participants in a coordinated effort to solve the problem together” (70). It is possible to get caught up in the semantics of this distinction. We do not wish to suggest the two approaches are mutually exclusive: obviously they may overlap and morph — cooperation may include some collaborative moments and vice versa. Indeed, integration was the case here: the Standards were divided among different groups, yet responses were also written collaboratively in those groups; in addition, what one group had written was then laid open for revision and extension by another group. The important point was that every step of the way students were expected to negotiate the content, to the point where authorship and intellectual property came into question, and this was one of the most interesting and challenging aspects of the process.

For example, students commenced the project by putting the names of all group members on responses to individual standards, but when they were then required to exchange standards and edit and extend the work of other groups, the appropriateness of this scenario came into question. Roger noted that it “felt really hard to take someone else’s words and change [them].” He referred to a moment when his group had to negotiate an awkward situation entailing disagreement over content:

It was also really hard because their names were still on it, you know. So what we actually decided to do in our group is to go over and talk to them about the meaning of some of the things they had written because we were not even sure of what they meant. So then, after talking to them, we changed around what they had written. We just didn’t really agree with their interpretation—for one section, at least (Roger).

In spite of their attempt at diplomacy, however, relations with the other group deteriorated. Roger’s sense that the situation was resolved was disrupted later in the day when he overheard a comment “about someone in our group trying to just delete what the other group had done. It turned into this whole thing—then made us worry a little about editing work” (Roger).

Such conflicts eventually led to an intense class discussion respecting whether the students should remove their names altogether from the wiki, and even from personal artifacts linked from the wiki. For Ruth, this was a crucial, transformative moment, for it revealed that the writing process facilitated by the wiki could indeed encourage students to interrogate their assumptions about knowledge creation and diffusion:

What was really exciting for me was when they said “let’s take off the names.” Their thinking was interrupted at that point. It raised intellectual property and issues of the public and private. That was very exciting. That day showed evidence of why the wiki was working. That was them using knowledge in a way that was unexpected (Ruth).

As Sonia observed, however, there was never really agreement on this matter, a fact that was confirmed by student comments in interviews. Some appreciated the decision to remove names, arguing that “one person’s thoughts should not stand out” (Cathy), or that “it made it more of a community endeavour” and “less intimidating” (Amanda). Others felt it was requisite to the collaborative process to be able to ask peers about edits being made. Along these lines, one student recalled her frustration when her use of the word “culture” was questioned in an editing session. She later removed her contribution altogether: “How can they edit my cultural autobiography when it is my, well, own cultural autobiography” (Amanda)? Still others resisted the notion of community ownership on the grounds that it infringed on individual intellectual property rights. Observed Tania,

If I worked tons on something I was reluctant to share it. I really thought a lot about if I could benefit from it being my own stuff later. I referred to it in the rationale but I didn’t just post the artifact. I think that is why some students took out some of their more personal work. I know that my stuff that I wanted to keep with my name didn’t go in there (Tania).

It is important to note here that Tania’s concern around intellectual property stems from the posting of the artifact, not the collaborative writing of the response to the Standards in the wiki. As she observes, “in terms of responses, that can be on behalf of a group . . . The reason I think artifacts should be cited is because it is an individual person’s work that is being used to support a point.” The debate highlights how the collaborative mode of inquiry that the students engaged in differs from traditional models of knowledge exchange associated with higher learning. Wikis, and similar social media spaces, take advantage of the computer’s network capability to bring people together in a community of inquiry, generating a social, rather than individual, model of learning or scholarship.

Of course, as digital humanists point out, this is not a new model: it is one that was displaced by the formalized diffusion of academic writing, which saw its genesis in seventeenth-century Europe along with the rise of copyright law in the wake of a method of knowledge mobilization (print). Siemens notes that before our current methods of inquiry and knowledge diffusion were shaped, knowledge exchange was facilitated in large part by dialogue and the circulation of private manuscripts and correspondence. The emphasis was on “ensuring that valuable ideas circulated and became part of growing, documented[...] bodies of knowledge” (Siemens 3), not on garnering recognition or compensation for those ideas. In other words, value was a function of diffusion not reification.

9.0 Negotiating Community Texts: From Product to Process

The students struggled to reconcile these different models of valuing their work, some ultimately raising concerns about accountability. As Marcy remarked, “I mean, I know it is a community, but then, community allows you to slack” (Marcy). Sonia, one of the instructors,, expressed a similar concern:

The discussion with the names—that was interesting. But then I wonder about some of the students. I know there were students who just wanted to get out of doing the work. . . . I just thought it would be great if there were a way to really know who posted what (Sonia).

Ruth disagreed. In her view it was unnecessary to manage teacher candidates’ responses on the wiki because the intent of the project was to create a public community response. Documenting authorship would undermine this goal.

Ultimately, the project required that students and instructors continually find ways to reconcile their philosophies of teaching and learning and their perspectives on intellectual property, accountability, and textuality. It was clear, moreover, that all of these negotiations were overlapping. For example, concerns about accountability raised the question of whether templates should be provided to guide student responses, including direction respecting rhetorical convention, length of response, and formatting. Sonia remarked:

I thought it would be a better idea to have some sort of template, a format that students would follow . . . If there is no consistency in how their ideas are presented, how is anyone going to be able to make sense of the text? (Sonia).

Sonia’s concern here stems from a profound respect for audience — a desire to clarify the content of the document for readers by standardizing style and format. Many teacher candidates were similarly motivated. Thinking about the final product, they spent a great deal of time trying to combine the multiple voices of their group or formatting for consistency across pages. But this created tension for other students, who conceptualized the wiki as a space for community inquiry and felt the chief merit of the writing space was that it shifted the focus from product to process. Cathy stated that:

The first time we spent most of our time worrying about editing and aesthetics—formatting and stuff. That can get irritating. I didn’t want to spend time after class deciding if we should use bold or italics. That wasn’t really the point, I think. But some group members really focused on that. The second time it was more about building on each other’s ideas. That was great. I learned more that time than if I had just worked on my own (Cathy).

Judy also noted the merit of the collaborative writing process for facilitating learning:

I took a class last year in philosophy and had to write a paper—wrote 3,000 words and still can hardly remember the topic. Existentialism, I think. Or something. I spent so long worrying about how to write the essay that I didn’t learn much . . . With the wiki, it just seems like a conversation . . . where you can trace back some of your ideas. I thought about the topic way more with the wiki because there was always someone writing down our conversations (Judy).

The value of wikis as writing spaces that privilege process over product is documented in an earlier study completed by Teresa Dobson, the first author of this paper, and focused on how teacher candidates used a wiki for collaborative creative writing. Participants in that case resisted reading online networked narratives with multiple threads, fragmentation, repetition, and so on; when the same participants later wrote their own narratives in a wiki environment, however, they were wholly engaged and argued convincingly for the merits of using unconventional rhetorical strategies they had eschewed as readers. As Dobson notes, “while the readers were often focused on product (finding all the nodes or achieving unity or closure), the writers were focused on process and were consequently not as troubled by fragmentation” (In Medias Res 271).

A similar scenario appeared to be at play in the present study: the exercise forced students and instructors to negotiate the grey area between process and product and this, to use the simple descriptor employed by many participants, was hard. Pairing two of Judy’s comments reveals the tension:

[1] At least with the wiki it was about the process—you know what I mean? It was all about working together and trying to figure out how to say what we mean better . . . It modeled collaboration, which I really liked. (Judy)
[2] But then—you were there, right—when the class had that huge conversation about if we should care about grammar and everything looking the same? I just felt, you know, what we wrote had to make sense and be OK for a teacher to write (Judy).

The last statement of Judy’s is intriguing. She reveals her understanding that there is a particular sort of text that a teacher should write, and we can glean from her musings that a teacher’s text should be organized, well written, and make sense — in short, it should be a “clean facility” that will stand up to inspection by authorities. And this is where the limitation of McHenry’s text-as-toilet metaphor cited earlier in this paper becomes evident: what is the merit of a “clean facility” if it is never visited?

It is by no means our intent to suggest that formal writing is not important or that it has no place in education; rather, we aim here to point to what is possible when concerns about the formal product of writing are set aside in learning settings involving writing. Engaging texts — and learning from them — can be a messy process. In this project, the text itself, likewise, was a public and messy place: it was not finite; it was not discrete; it was not linear; and it was not homogenous. Rather, it was open, connected, layered, and varied. This project bore the traces, both on the student pages themselves and the supplementary “history pages” that document the editorial history of a wiki, of inquiry as a difficult and negotiated yet meaningful and worthwhile process. These traces were perhaps not immediately obvious to those outside the community. As Sonia observed, the product of the inquiry seemed in some respects an inadequate representation of the complexity of the inquiry:

I guess part of me was delighted and surprised that the College of Teachers thought it was great work. But for me I didn’t feel a sense of personal satisfaction with it because I don’t know if the final product really represented all of that struggle and work students put into it. That we put into it, even. I mean, when students were debating about what edits to include, how to include them, all of that discussion, debate—I don’t know if that is really represented in the final product . . . I was thrilled to hear that [students] were so engaged after class—that they were struggling in a way we hadn’t really anticipated but that is great for their learning. That was really great to hear. But then, I wonder if Teacher Education Office knows that (Sonia).

Sonia’s musings here remind us of a fundamental dilemma of formal education and also point to a profound limitation of the professional body’s attempt to control the quality of teacher education by storing student work for audit, out of context and potentially at a much later date: that is, can the products of inquiry ever adequately represent the complexity of inquiry? Certainly this paper, taken as an example, delineates only a fraction of the thinking that went into its preparation. And it is clear that Ruth and Sonia, after grappling with the theory and praxis of teaching for months with their students, are in a much better position to assess those individuals’ readiness and suitability for teaching than anyone who might thereafter attempt to “audit” archived student work “to determine the validity of the judgments made by the institution’s faculty” (BCCT, Annual 25).

One merit of wikis and other forms of social media for education, then, is that they work to move learners beyond a focus on product in part by facilitating collaborative endeavour and in part by offering some means of tracing or documenting process, such as history or discussion pages where collaborating authors of articles may propose, justify or negotiate changes, offer critiques, ask questions about sources, and so on. Indeed, to return to Wikipedia, about a quarter of the site content consists of such meta-pages (Schiff 41), and it is often more interesting to read these records of process than it is the “product” (even acknowledging that the “product” remains perpetually under revision).


We commenced by remarking upon the importance of identifying and documenting ways of integrating digital technologies in higher education that are innovative, challenging, and highly complementary to disciplinary content — noting that this task involves, as well, understanding the concerns of faculty and encouraging their investment by providing appropriate support and making clear the connections between intellectual content and educational media. We have also noted that challenges in higher education include fostering critical awareness and broadening understandings of textuality and intellectual property in view of new methods of knowledge mobilization. Considering the above, we have offered an example of a project situated in a teacher education program designed, inter alia, to focus on these challenging issues. This is by no means an easy recipe for a romp with digital technologies in the classroom; on the contrary, participants in this study wrestled with the process every step of the way. Nevertheless, the effort proved worthwhile on a number of levels and provided insight with respect to the following: the uncertainty faced by instructors as they make shifts in teaching practice and the need to appreciate, validate, and find a way of assuaging these concerns; the importance of avoiding the establishment of conceptual and pragmatic boundaries between teaching and technology at the level of instructional design; the importance, especially in the context of organic writing spaces such as the wiki, of finding the balance between coherence and randomness that will allow for flexible response (cf. Davis and Sumara 148-149); the value of networked, social writing spaces for encouraging a shift in understanding regarding notions of textuality and intellectual property, which brings learners together in a community of inquiry and encourages individuals to negotiate understanding; the importance in formal education of shifting emphasis between product and process. As leaders in the integration of digital media in higher education, digital humanists may benefit from an awareness of such issues and challenges. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this project serves as an important reminder of the sometimes-paradoxical nature of rich learning experiences that interrupt or disrupt convention, thereby enabling new forms of understanding. Such learning is invariably difficult and yet worthwhile. In this last regard, there seems to be no better way to end than with the reflection of one of the participants:

Judy: It was a process we had to endure to really get it.
Interviewer: Endure?
Judy: Yeah—it’s like being scared of rock climbing or exercise. You do nothing but complain before you start. You don’t really think it is going to get you anywhere. But then you will probably do it again as soon as you have the chance.

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Appendix A

The following is the assignment teacher candidates who participated in this study were given at the outset of the project. The instructors identified in this paper as “Ruth” and “Sonia” are the authors of this assignment.

Critical Response (December 4-8, 2006; January 29-February 2, 2007)

This assignment affords you an opportunity to address TWO standards of teaching laid out in the [BCCT Standards] document:

  • An interpretation of the standard in question: What is the meaning of the standard? What seems to be important here? (Consider the wording carefully. Consider your view, the Faculty of Education’s view as in the Attainment of Standards Report, and the view of the British Columbia College of Teachers.)
  • A critical interpretation of the standard: What assumptions about teaching and learning are implicit/explicit in the standard? What seems most important here? What alternative perspectives (autobiographical, historical, philosophical, sociological) might you bring to bear on the standard? How might you complicate the standard further?
  • A Scenario/Case/Vignette that exemplifies your understanding of the tensions or difficulties or dilemmas that may surround the standard in practice. How might the standard be played out in a particular classroom or school setting? How might you respond in terms of judgment and action in this particular case, keeping the standard in mind? What do you value/desire? How will you practice? To what end?
  • An artifact from coursework that demonstrates your efforts to understand and appreciate what might be at stake in the standard in all its complexity.

This assignment includes both a written and oral presentation component.


[1] The authors wish to thank John Bonnett and Kirsten Uszkalo for their thoughtful feedback and suggestions on drafts of this article and to acknowledge funding of this project from both the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the University of British Columbia. We also wish to thank our participants, whose insights have greatly informed our understandings of the affordances of social media in higher education.

[2] A discussion of the implications of the move in the Province of British Columbia toward articulating standards of professional conduct for teachers is beyond the scope of this paper. Suffice it to say that this is a matter of grave concern for faculty in Education, some of whom have characterized the profession as being “under siege” (Tierney 1). In setting the context for this study, it is important to note that there was widespread resistance among faculty to the imposition of standards by the professional body, particularly with respect to the notion that samples of student work should be kept on file so the BCCT might “audit” faculty judgments about student readiness to teach or suitability for the teaching profession. A primary concern at the time of this study was that some standards –particularly those having to do with morality and lifestyle – were value-laden and culturally specific, and might lead to infringement on teacher rights. Additionally, a significant number of students in British Columbia's. education programs do not intend to teach in B.C. schools. Following graduation, many former students teach or undertake aid work in distant locations such as Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. The notion that the standards of the BCCT should be imposed on all teacher candidates in B.C. universities regardless of their career plans is therefore problematic. These issues are explored further elsewhere (Phelan, Erickson, Farr Darling, Collins, and Kind 81ff; Young, Hall, Clarke 227ff).

[3] Artifacts were assignments from coursework, generally completed by students individually, and demonstrated attainment of a standard through coursework. For example, an interdisciplinary unit plan might serve as evidence of understanding with regard to practical application of the following standard: “Professional educators have a broad knowledge base as well as an in-depth understanding about the subject areas they teach” (BCCT, Standards 10).

[4] All participants have been assigned pseudonyms.

[5] According to Wolfram, “cellular automata are mathematical models for complex natural systems containing large numbers of simple components with local interactions. They consist of a lattice of sites, each with a finite set of possible values” (1). Wolfram categorized the behavior of such automata into four classes, which Taylor summarizes thus: “(1) rigid structures that do not change; (2) oscillating patterns that change periodically; (3) chaotic activity that exhibits no stability; and (4) patterns that are neither too structured nor too disordered, which emerge, develop, divide, and recombine in endlessly complex ways” (Taylor 146).

[6] In Complexity and Education: Inquiries into Learning, Teaching, and Research, Davis and Sumara make a similar point in discussing social systems. They observe that “the structures that define complex social systems . . . maintain a delicate balance between sufficient coherence to orient agents’ actions and sufficient randomness to allow for flexible and varied response. Such situations are matters of neither “everyone does the same thing,” nor “everyone does their own thing,” but of “everyone participates in a joint project” (148-149).



Teresa Dobson (University of British Columbia)
Vetta Vratulis (Universityof Victoria)





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