Tagged Web 2.0

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Participatory Culture and Distributed Expertise: Breaking Down Pedagogical Norms or Regulating Neoliberal Subjectivities?

Kimberly Mair, University of Lethbridge


While participatory pedagogies and inverted classrooms contest the norms and forms authority that operate in the conventional classroom and attempt to respond creatively to the challenge that Web 2.0 presents to higher education, they may also reinforce the requisite affect and rhythms of production that are characteristic of flexible labor. Drawing upon observations from a course on digital culture delivered in an inverted and participatory classroom, this article discusses the effectiveness of experiential, decentered, and collaborative classroom environments for meeting the demands of early twenty-first century higher education but examines contradictions inherent to these critical pedagogies. This paper argues that the intensive labor and constant affect-based interactions that participatory pedagogies demand may inadvertently undermine their critical force by enacting forms of neoliberal governance. The discussion concludes with provisional thoughts about how to navigate these contradictions by building a critique of the pedagogy into the course structure.



Critical pedagogies that emphasize performative and participatory activity are effective in breaking down and contesting the norms and forms of authority operative in the conventional classroom that otherwise tend toward passive absorption and recall on demand. The move away from both older banking (Freire [1970] 1997, 61) and newer information exchange models in education is even more urgent when we take seriously that “knowledge and information in their exchangeable form are easily accessible on the internet and Wikipedia,” an observation that prompted Groot, Pape, and Vilvang (2015) to ask: “What, then, is the singular project of higher education that stands out from a mass of knowledge traders?” (1). For them, that project would entail the generation of “movements of thought,” in which “it is not a stable piece of information that moves from point A to point B” (1), but one that engages directly the problem of “how to make different modes of thought resonate, how to think with another thinking” (2).

In preparation for a third-year undergraduate course entitled Digital Culture and Society, I attempted to shape its curriculum into a metaphorical platform for experiential engagements that would disrupt conventional assumptions of the economy of knowledge in the classroom by positioning the students as collaborative knowledge producers who each bring plural knowledges into the space for reworking, rather than as receivers of ostensibly crystallized, knowledge. Since I gave the course a thematic focus on Participatory Culture in Web 2.0, I wanted its form to make operative the social processes of concern in the course, such as shifts in communicative practice and values, the withdrawal of the singular author or originator of knowledge claims, and so forth. Making such processes operative indeed made space for “movements of thought” (Groot, Pape, and Vilvang 2015, 1). I noted how easily the values of critical pedagogies, such as those central to the inversion of classrooms, synthesized with the unique concerns of the course topic of digital culture, as these are in many ways consistent with the emergent norms of Web 2.0 culture and its “central cultural logic” of sharing (Shifman 2014, 19). Yet, over the duration of the course, I became aware of inherent contradictions in the participatory and performative potential of inverted pedagogies.

Concerns have been raised about inverted models, particularly in the context of fiscal pressures on education that may emphasize technology as a solution to increased demands with fewer resources, while de-emphasizing the value of immediate engagement with instructors. As Harden (2015) has observed, however, the critical focus of inverted models does provide “means for educators to resist that outcome” (378). Perhaps this danger pivots on where the imperative to invert classrooms emerges, with the institution or with the educator, and whether it is administratively or conceptually driven. But, my immediate concerns depart from the possible administrative exploitation of what are meant to be critical learning models that, done well, are usually more, not less, labor intensive. That these learning models are more labor intensive, not only for faculty but for students as well, is my point of departure. With the learning strategies and forms that my course implemented, student labor was both extensive and sometimes invisible as work. I argue that, as much as these forms rework and disrupt conventional classroom practices, they may inadvertently contribute to the regulation of subjectivity in preparation for entrenching flexible labor arrangements. Following this, I will conclude with a brief preliminary reflection upon how I have attempted to activate this critique as part of the content in a subsequent offering of this course. Before developing my critique, I will situate my discussion in the course’s pedagogical underpinnings.

Participatory and Web 2.0 Cultures as Content and Pedagogy

The course’s thematic focus on Participatory Culture in Web 2.0 culture followed Henry Jenkins’ work in both of its streams: fandom studies and participatory classrooms. Henry Jenkins, Wyn Kelley, et al (2013) advocate the “participatory classroom,” which acknowledges the emergent shift from the expert paradigm of one-directional knowledge transfer to a collaborative model of knowledge production known as distributed expertise (188–189). Distributed expertise anticipates that each participant has knowledge and experiences to contribute. It favors course designs that enable and encourage the active mobilization of each participant’s expertise in both learning and teaching, although the latter often occurs through informal mentorship—a central value of some fandoms [1] and one that is consistent with the positive popular discourse of so-called Web 2.0 culture generally.

The respective characteristics of Web 2.0 culture and participatory culture overlap but are distinct (Hadas 2009, 1.2). Web 2.0 culture denotes the practices that emerge from the platform infrastructure of the Internet that provides sites to be filled with users’ content and generates sharing and interactivity that the read-only websites of Web 1.0 were not equipped to support. The ideological promise of Web 2.0 culture, however, recasts consumers as participants and creators and, therefore, it elides the distinction between producers and consumers (Hadas 2009; Jenkins [1992] 2013). More significantly, the discourses that surround Web 2.0 culture suggest a democratic communicative sphere by emphasizing its ostensible decentralization. Tim O’Reilly, who acknowledged the “interactivity, flexibility, and participation” (Coleman 2013, 207) of platform-based applications on the Internet by proposing the name Web 2.0, stresses its potential to foster “collective intelligence” (Hadas 2009). Web 2.0 also purportedly has the capacity to endow the speculative “noosphere” of the fused global mind (Manivannan 2012) with a “perfect memory” (Mayer-Schönberger quoted in Manivannan 2012). Tensions reside here due to the broad signifying force that the name Web 2.0 has taken on in a “constant conflation” of technologies and practices that “obscures the sociology and history of some digital projects” (Coleman 2013, 208). While the appeal to the supposed decentralization of Web 2.0 is often challenged (Mayorga 2014; Shifman 2014; Lanier 2011), Coleman asserts the distinction between “corporate-owned, proprietary platforms” and free software development or collective projects (208). So, while the promise and potential of so-called Web 2.0 cannot reside above critique, Coleman reminds us to give attention to which efforts and technologies we mean and how they operate “ethically, politically, and economically” (209) when we use this term.

The concept of participatory culture, however, speaks to long-time fandom practices, involving both affective and critical reading (Jenkins [1992] 2013, 277–278); the production of “borderlands” between texts and everyday life (3); cultural activism; aesthetic production that blurs the creator-consumer distinction; and the making of alternative communities (278–282). It long precedes the advent of digital platform infrastructures, but its characteristics overlap with the creative, non-hierarchical promise of the Web 2.0 culture of sharing. Jenkins and Kelley, et al (2013) outline the characteristics of a participatory culture as follows: “low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement”; mutual “support for creating and sharing”; “informal mentorship”; members’ belief that their contributions are significant; members’ feelings of social connection that extend to contributions made by members of the group (8).

In several respects, contemporary understandings and practices of participatory culture, now extending to more anonymous and ephemeral digital communities, rely upon the technological infrastructures of Web 2.0. Paul J. Booth’s (2012) study of video mash-ups forwards that today’s remix culture relies heavily on the use and re-working of different texts and genres to produce cultural “rupture” (5.4). In the context of the digital sphere and its reconfigurations of communication, participatory culture promises to re-work cultural logics and social arrangements, giving the impression of control to participants who make up networked communities. This control, however, is highly dependent upon the digital spaces in which activities occur. Financial and digital capitals, as well as membership in new social arrangements, are unevenly distributed (Mayorga 2014).

Having made this distinction between these overlapping concepts, I will elaborate how they inform and mirror my pedagogical assumptions in the design of this course. Like digital spaces and networks, classrooms are marked by uneven distributions of various capitals, and while a participatory course design does not level this terrain, it does make interventions into models of teaching that appeal to the image of a knowledge economy. As with Freire’s critical use of the word “banking” to describe one-directional teaching strategies, a course that is designed to participate in the knowledge economy assumes its material in terms of units possessed by teachers or books, consumed by students, and then exchanged for credit in examinations and assignments. A course that approximates a participatory culture emphasizes experiential learning by having students engage directly in the processes relevant to the course topic rather than primarily consume course materials that explain them. By focusing on processes, knowledge is then understood as ways of thinking and making rather than information or facts that are today readily available, and even debated, without classrooms of higher learning.

In this course, students’ experiences were supposed to be much like those in Web 2.0, as students ‘shared’ their ideas and took control of their activities through the collaborative production of their term projects. Groups were also to approximate participatory culture by fulfilling the characteristics outlined above. Although I assigned scholarly literatures, the experience of working in this way was intended to be a central ‘text’ of the course by which emergent social arrangements, communicative practices, and values in digital culture could be felt and negotiated rather than merely read about. Finally, this pedagogical approach assumes that learning is not an interior process but happens through active meetings among thinkers, objects, and environments. Having elaborated the critical pedagogical assumptions that draw from inverted models as well as from the scholarship on participatory classrooms and distributed expertise (Jenkins and Kelley et al., 2013) that guided the development of this course, I will provide some details about it before moving on to my critical observations about the contradictions presented with this approach in terms of its inadvertent complicity in preparing students for neoliberalism’s flexible labor arrangements.

The Participatory Course and Fan-Fic as Scholarly Activity

I responded to the official course title of Digital Culture and Society with a thematic of participatory culture, using scholarly readings to emphasize the following in the content: oscillations between materialization and dematerialization (Hayles 2012); new modes of communication; emergent norms and values; and new forms of subjectivity that are tension-ridden between, on the one hand, Barry Wellman’s concept of “networked individualism,” concerned with self-branding and production of social connectivity and communion, which is often used to describe contemporary social production (Shifman 2014, 30, 33–34), and, on the other hand, the economy of unreality that David Auerbach observes on 4chan message boards, which minimizes identity, trading subjects for knowledges and experiences (Manivannan 2012). In the course’s formal organization, I primarily used an inverted, or ‘flipped’, classroom model. I did minimal lecturing each week. Lectures focused on the most challenging aspects of theoretical matter in scholarly literature, and students were required to engage with learning materials and do preliminary work outside of class. Given its thematic, the course was participatory in its content and form. Mirroring the conceptual content of the course, students engaged directly in creative fan culture production in collaborative groups online outside of class time and face-to-face in the classroom over a period of three months.

Fandom production that values free space to create resonates with the ways in which communication ideally occurs in Web 2.0. The perceived gap between students’ routine communication practices and the scholarly conventions expected in the academy has perhaps never been greater. Instructors can build upon the ways that students communicate, and students can also be positioned to see how their communicative practices implicitly cross into scholarly conventions. I suggest that fandom practices, such as fan-fic, offer a productive meeting ground. Fandom strategies displace the authority of primary texts and offer creative license to students making their own texts using informal types of citation through intertextuality. More crucially, fandom strategies encourage active reading and re-writing practices that extend or question, fill in gaps, and posit cultural critiques of dominant narratives (Jenkins [1992] 2013). I used fan-fic prompts from the second class meeting on to unsettle classroom routines, initiate collaborative work, develop relationships, and explore assigned texts.[2]

The novel S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst (2013) provided a common point of departure for the collaborative projects. S is an example of an ergodic novel because it requires unusual and laborious reading practices. It was particularly relevant to the course because it demands reading practices that mimic and amplify the non-linear experience of reading online, while calling for supplemental searching that crosses into other media external to the book to meet its intertextual knowledge requirements. Yet S also exaggerates the sensorial experiences of reading a material, hardcover book. The book is heavy, difficult to handle, and its specifically placed interleaved objects will fall out if the reader is not careful with every movement. The pages are artificially aged and seem to have been treated with the subtle scent of old books. Its content is broadly concerned with communication technologies and reading as authorship.

The students’ ongoing task was to work intertextually between scholarly literature, the novel, and their experiences of participatory culture in various modes. Many of their assignments, including the central collaborative project, demanded that they relinquish attachments to individual ownership and authorship of their production. In a limited sense, their contributions were ideally anonymous, as on 4chan, but not quite, obviously. I gave no specifications about what the final products should be. In terms of content, they were simply instructed to respond to S., while drawing from the conceptual materials in weekly academic readings. Evaluation was process-based and focused on groups’ routine practice of the principles of a participatory culture, as observed on their discussion and planning blogs and in participatory group time, for which they had between fifty and one hundred minutes per week over the term.

In addition to the attempt to subvert conventional authority emanating from the instructor and from assigned texts by animating participation in active knowledge production and contestation, the submitted assignments were creative, and relied upon popular cultural texts as well as on experiences. One aspect of Henry Giroux’s notion of border pedagogy as a “counter-text” (1991, 52) to traditional forms of pedagogical authority involves the treatment of official texts and popular cultural texts—not as the conduits for knowledge transmission, but as objects of study in themselves. Border pedagogy also enables students to “create their own texts” (54) under “conditions that allow students to write, speak, and listen in a language in which meaning becomes multi-accentual, dispersed, and resists permanent closure” (52).

The participatory modes operating within and outside of the classroom produced a high-level of solidarity among the students, and fostered intense friendships among many of them. Of the six groups, social connectivity was indeed achieved in all but one group that organized their activity with a means-ends logic. Having individual work from the students in the course from which to draw comparisons, the scholarly and creative quality of the works produced were, in most cases, higher than what would have been produced by individuals, as they were marked with the different strengths and interests of each group’s various members, which had dialogical mobility within the strongest groups over the duration of the term.

Despite the successes of the course, it became evident to me that the participatory modes of learning embedded into the course design presented inherent contradictions. While the pedagogical practices associated with distributed expertise and participatory collaboration break down the norms and forms of authority operative in the conventional classroom, they also appear to contribute to the regulation of subjectivity in preparation for immaterial and flexible labor arrangements. I observed that these strategies encourage practices that are consistent with the policy and human resource buzzwords of “creativity,” “participation,” and “community” that art historian Claire Bishop notes have been borrowed from 1960s discourses and deployed in service of self-sufficiency in the so-called “new economy” (2012, 14).

Do Participatory Classrooms Produce Post-Fordist Laborers?

Alexander R. Galloway has argued that, in post-Fordist arrangements, we can no longer distinguish between leisure and labor activities. Drawing upon Galloway’s observation, as well as Tim O’Reilly’s uncritical concept of “algorithmic regulation,” which denotes a process by which algorithmic adjustments respond to immediate data that evaluate whether algorithmic outcomes are aligned with preferred ones, Steve Holmes (2014) addressed the practice of bitcoin mining as a “hybrid game-like” environment that directly “participate[s] in structures of knowledge/power” that appropriate not only game play, but also browsing activities, social media posting, blogging, and so many of the routine activities that many of us do in daily life. He shows how these leisure activities are submitted to the surveillance of algorithms and become acts of immaterial labor that convert “play into [someone else’s] profit”. Holmes’s aim is to extend critiques that focus on game play that simulates other environments to show that “global communications networks have converted all of space and time to gamespace” and produce a sort of “algorithmic subjectivity” that responds to neoliberal demands both economically and at the level of conscious desires. It is a surveilled and regulated subjectivity, but it gives the appearance of individual agency. While we learn from Holmes that the mining of crypto-currencies brings into sharper focus the relationship between leisure and labor—a relationship which is more subtle in the context of browsing on Google Books, being engaged in what Mayorga (2014) describes as the “playful labor of participation in Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media platforms,” or even in gaming where informal markets flourish—this presents an intractable contradiction to the subversive potentials of new modes of communication in digital space, as well as to the emergent values that are associated with these modes.

These participatory and inverted pedagogical tactics also creatively blur the lines between leisure and labor for students. While this animates the class and the course material, it also normalizes patterns of self-exploitive labor (Bishop 2012, 236) for the precariat of the new economy. Related to this, the participatory principles of social connectivity and mutual valuing of contributions make affect, an integral aspect of what mobilizes the emergent flexible immaterial laborer, central to the student experience. When the collaborative groups achieved strong social connectivity, something that could only be accomplished through sustained attention to the building of relationships, their work sometimes appeared less like work and perhaps felt like mere play or social activity. Sometimes, their work took the form of care and mutual support, as a couple of students encountered personal life challenges and sorrows over the course of the term, which seemed to become part of the groups’ interactions. Given that the participatory form of the work was so relationship-based, personal grief could not be tidily externalized, as it is in most conventional classrooms. At the same time, the digitized, inverted learning arrangement that supported these participatory collaborative projects could, in fragmentary and undifferentiated time-space, intrude upon the most precious aspects of whatever could be said to be left of personal time or existence in always unanticipated moments. As Italian Autonomist scholars have been warning, work time in post-Fordist arrangements is increasingly separated from the physical laborer: “When we move into the sphere of info-labor, Capital no longer recruits people, it buys packets of time, separated from their interchangeable and contingent bearers. De-personalized time is now the real agent of the process of valorization, and de-personalized time has no rights” (Berardi 2009, 192). But, while time is separated from the physical laborer, work is not. The present structure of labor, Marazzi (2008) observes, is one that aims “to fuse work and worker, to put to work the entire lives of workers,” including or especially their “emotions, feelings, their after-work lives” (50), under the relentless demand for the worker “to respond to unforeseen and unforeseeable situations, emergent situations, those situations which make any sort of planning impracticable, assigning a central role to occasionality” (51).

I saw students attempting to respond to the paradox presented by the simultaneous separation of time and fusing of work. It was common for students to log on to group blogs well into the night to produce complex contributions and detailed, personalized, and affirmative responses to other contributions that had accumulated over the day. This was, after all, what I had hoped for, but I did not anticipate the ways and extent to which it would draw students into the temporal rhythms and the hijacking of care that is characteristic of the new shape of labor. Alternative pedagogical models are indeed grounded in critical perspectives, but the practical effects of their forms may support kinds of learning and practice contrary to the critical spirit of such models.

Bishop (2012) observes similar political ambiguities in the rise of post-studio participatory art since the 1990s. Some of the observations that Bishop makes about participatory art resonate with the kinds of pedagogy I am describing. She notes that both contemporary participatory artistic and curatorial production re-work conventional ways in which artistic production and consumption have been conceived; involve “post-objects,” which are situational, process-based, and conceptual; and disrupt the positions of artist and spectator to make all positions into those of participation (2).

Participatory and creative pedagogies can make similar interventions into knowledge formations. First, participatory classrooms overturn the expert model of knowledge production that assumes only an elite few possess knowledge to be imparted to others (Jenkins and Kelley, et al 2013). Second, these pedagogies involve process-based collaborations that are assumed to translate into flexible skills and knowledges that extend beyond the classroom context, rather than conventional pedagogies that focus on completed assignment-objects. Third, in some ways, they flatten and disrupt the positions of instructor and students and make them all participants (with the significant exceptions of course design and evaluation).

On the surface, these interventions into the dynamics of one-directional models seem positive, but Bishop argues that artistic practices are increasingly blurring with those of formal social institutions under the demands of the current neoliberal political context of fiscal austerity, privatization, and individualism. She considers how public arts funding criteria, coupled with the receding of social institutions, has meant that art is increasingly evaluated and publicly supported in terms of its achievement of a desired “social task” previously pursued by social services agencies, education departments, and so forth, rather than by its achievement of formal aesthetic properties. One of her concerns about the assumption that artistic production ought to fulfill social tasks is that it relies upon “‘post-political’ consensus” (277) to legitimate art. Bishop remarks that:

this is a story that runs in parallel with the rocky fate of democracy itself, a term to which participation has always been wedded: from a demand for acknowledgement, to representation, to the consensual consumption of one’s own image – be this a work of art, Facebook, Flickr, or reality TV. (277)

Similarly, participatory pedagogies and their collaborative assignments may rely upon a student-driven consensus that hastily resolves contradictions (Marlow 2012), erases dissent, and produces difficult contributions as refuse rather than as potential generations of “movements of thought” that provoke us “to think with another thinking” (Groot, Pape, and Vilvang 2015, 1-2).

Activating Critique within the Course Structure

Having acknowledged the unwitting complicity of this course design with the regulation of “good” neoliberal subjects, the outstanding task is to discover how to turn that complicity into an object of critical interrogation, without losing the animating potentials of alternative learning practices. This is one of the ubiquitous tensions that university workplaces present to instructors: how to assert a boundary between work and life while still activating your care in your work. For instructors, one way of activating care (but not necessarily boundaries) is to experiment with learning models, but when that experimentation seems to support the most exploitative aspects of contemporary work conditions in the structure of student learning, this calls for further intervention. A possible route for navigating this contradiction would be to retain the form of the course but to activate the critique within its content—it is after all inherent to the topic of digital culture—to prompt engagement with the ways in which the course has enacted forms of neoliberal governance and normalizes flexible rhythms of labor.

In a more recent iteration of this course, I incorporated this critique by assigning texts that underline the connections between digital leisure and flexible labor to show how activities in the course participated in the simulation of neoliberalism that Holmes discusses. For instance, since collaborative groups communicated outside of class time using a free blog platform that featured advertising space, which would be populated if their sites attracted enough visitors, they were prompted to consider how their posts to each other could make profit for other organizations. Further, not only did groups use texting and social media to keep in touch between meetings, several incorporated Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram into their final projects. All of these forms of communication, whether used instrumentally or aesthetically, provided opportunities to examine the production of value and leisure-labor blur, as well as the de-differentiation of labor and subjectivity in new flexible forms of production.

Relative to the students in the first version of the course, for whom I initiated the critique only in the closing reflections at the end of the term, students in the second version, for whom this critique was part of their curriculum, seemed unmoved by it. The first class was reflective about the critique; the second class seemed to ask: So what? Many of the latter stressed the convenience of working in groups using plural digital platforms, even when their communications and work unpredictably crossed well into the evenings and weekends. It is unclear what contributed to the difference in the responses, other than that, in general, the first class was more diversely digitally immersed and thus more attuned and invested in the implications than the second one. While student life is generally marked by fragmented time, the force of the critique relies upon students to imagine their indefinite futures structured by this de-differentiation between labor and affective subjectivity. Yet, this de-differentiation may be pervasive enough that it now appears neutral. If so, this neoliberal commonsense poses a unique challenge to animating this critique.

If flexible forms of teaching and learning respond to the demands of early twenty-first-century education by engaging emergent modes of communication and production, they also enact the “friendly” relations of power of those modes, which are affect-based and threaten to exploit students’ social bonds or to coerce students into performing bonds that they may not feel. Perhaps this critique of the pedagogy could be forceful if it were initially displaced from the students’ immediate experiences by putting the fictional novel and fan-fic writing exercises to use. Since the critique is also relevant to the protagonists in the novel S, it could be explored creatively through collective writing exercises that respond to key moments in the narrative. In a follow-up reflective exercise, students could be prompted to examine the similar structure of their own activities in the course. While it may seem counter-intuitive to build in a critique of pedagogy as it is delivered, it offers a rare experiential opportunity to examine contemporary neoliberal conditions that seem natural and convenient.


This work would not exist without the highly engaged students of the Digital Culture course. I wish to thank the University of Lethbridge Teaching Centre, especially Victoria Holec and Bernie Wirzba of the Learning Environment Evaluation Project. Finally, I am grateful to the editors and reviewers for constructive suggestions and feedback.


Abrams, J. J. and Doug Dorst. 2013. S. New York: Mulholland Books.

Berardi, Franco “Bifo.” 2009. The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy. Translated by Francesca and Giuseppina Mecchia. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).

Bishop, Claire. 2012. Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. London and New York: Verso.

Booth, Paul J. 2012. “Mash-up as temporal amalgam: Time, Taste, and Textuality.” In “Fan/Remix Video,” edited by Francesca Coppa and Julie Levin Russo, special issue, Transformative Works and Culture 9. http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/297/285

Coleman, E. Gabriella. 2013. Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Freire, Paulo. (1970) 1997. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Revised 20th-Anniversary Edition. New York: Continuum.

Giroux, Henry A. 1991. “Border Pedagogy and the Politics of Postmodernism.” Social Text 28: 51-67. http://www.jstor.org/stable/466376

Groot, Jorrit, Toni Pape and Chrys Vilvang. 2015. “Diagramming Double Vision.” Inflexions 8. Citations refer to pdf version. http://www.inflexions.org/radicalpedagogy/main.html#GrootPapeVilvang

Hadas, Leora. 2009. “The Web planet: How the changing Internet divided Doctor Who fan fiction writers.” Transformative Works and Culture 3. http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/129/101

Harden, Joel D. 2015. “Learning without Sages?: Reflections on ‘Flipping’ the University Classroom.” In Neoliberalism and the Degradation of Education, edited by Carlo Fannelli and Bryan Evans, special issue, Alternate Routes: A journal of critical social research 26: 376-389. http://www.alternateroutes.ca/index.php/ar/article/viewFile/22327/18119

Hayles, N. Katherine. 2012. How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Holmes, Steve. 2014. “Rhetorical Allegorithms in Bitcoin.” Enculturation: a journal of rhetoric, writing, and culture 18. http://www.enculturation.net/rhetoricalallegorithms

Jenkins, Henry. (1992) 2013. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. Updated Twentieth Anniversary Edition. New York and London: Routledge.

Jenkins, Henry and Wyn Kelley, eds. 2013. Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby-Dick in the English Classroom. Edited with Katie Clinton, Jenna McWilliams, Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, and Erin Reilly. New York and London: Teachers College Press; Berkeley, CA: National Writing Project.

Lanier, Jaron. 2011. You are not a gadget: A Manifesto. New York: Vintage Books.

Manivannan, Vyshali. 2012. “Attaining the Ninth Square: Cybertextuality, Gamification, and Institutional Memory on 4chan.” Enculturation: A journal of rhetoric, writing, and culture 14. http://www.enculturation.net/attaining-the-ninth-square

Marazzi, Christian. 2008. Capital and Language: From the New Economy to the War Economy. Translated by Gregory Conti. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).

Marlow, Jennifer. 2012. “Wiki Wars: Conversation, Negotiation, and Collaboration in Online Spaces.” Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy 2. https://jitp.commons.gc.cuny.edu/wiki-wars-conversation-negotiation-and-collaboration-in-online-spaces

Mayorga, Edwin. 2014. “Toward Digital, Critical, Participatory Action Research: Lessons from the #BarrioEdProj.” Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy 5. http://www.jitp.commons.gc.cuny.edu/toward-digital-critical-participatory-action-research/

Shifman, Limor. 2014. Memes in Digital Culture. Cambridge and London: The MIT Press.


[1] Hadas has challenged the simple conflation of participatory culture and fandom by acknowledging multiple logics in fandoms. Notably, Hadas has observed a discourse of “organized-community” that appeals to “the rhetoric of private enterprise and stresses the importance of norms and standards” that stands in contrast to a discourse of “free-space” that calls for constructive and supportive contexts for production and mentorship (1.2).

[2] The second offering of this course included exploration of the similarities and differences between these strategies and academic conventions.

About the Author

Kimberly Mair is Associate Professor of Sociology and a Teaching Fellow (2016-17) at the University of Lethbridge, Canada. Her research is concerned with the aesthetics of communication and social theory. Her book Guerrilla Aesthetics: Art, Memory, and the West German Urban Guerrilla was recently published by McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Can You Digg It?: Using Web Applications in Teaching the Research Process

Rochelle (Shelley) Rodrigo, Old Dominion University


Instructors teaching research methods, especially undergraduate writing courses that focus on researched arguments, should use various web-based interactive applications, usually referred to as Web 2.0 technologies, throughout the research process. Using these technologies helps students learn various 21st Century technology and media literacies as well as promote diverse student learning methods and active learning pedagogies. The article provides examples of different type of web-based applications that might be used throughout the research process and then ends with a discussion of logistical concerns like student access and privacy rights.



Admit it, when you first search for something you use Google or check Wikipedia:

  • Of course!
  • What? Are you crazy! I can’t trust those sites.
  • I shout out to Facebook or Twitter.
  • Plead the fifth.

I don’t ask this question of my students; instead, I ask this question of my colleagues when I do workshops about teaching with technology (especially when teaching big end-of-semester term or research papers). Can you guess the results? If we admit that we are just as “guilty” of using Google or referring to Wikipedia and other online “friends” when seeking out information, isn’t it time we accept these as legitimate steps for research in the 21st century. Therefore, if going to the web is the one of the first steps for research, we should “digg” using various web applications when teaching research skills.

Digg is the catchy title for thinking about using web applications in research. On the one hand, I believe instructors do not use social bookmarking tools, like Digg, nearly enough while teaching basic research skills, especially in First Year Composition courses. However, I do not use Digg, nor ask my students to use Digg, because it has been repeatedly critiqued for the gender, age, and socioeconomic bias of the users who curate the materials (Lo 2006; Solis 2009; Weinberg 2006). Digg’s biased user population is representative of the promise and peril of the internet in general. If anyone can post on Digg, and I choose to use such a web application in my research, how does the bias of the application impact my research process and product. However, is that not the case with almost any research process and product we suggest for our students? In short, part of what we are teaching our students about research is to just be plain critical, of everything, including the tools we use (Selfe 1999).

Critical engagement with the technologies they use is a powerful motivator for having students work with various web applications. Learning how to use different technologies, learn new technologies and critically engage with technologies prepares students for staying successfully employed in the 21st century. The majority of lists citing the key skills needed to succeed in the 21st century include “information literacy” as well as “consume and compose multimedia.”(AT&T 2010; CWPA 2008; Partnership for 21st Century Skills n.d; NCTE 2008; Kamenetz 2010).

Lankshear and Knobel (2007) claim that:

The more a literacy practice that is mediated by digital encoding privileges participation over publishing, distributed expertise over centralized expertise, collective intelligence over individual possessive intelligence, collaboration over individuated authorship, dispersion over scarcity, sharing over ownership, experimentation over ‘normalization’, innovation and evolution over stability and fixity, creative innovative rule breaking over generic purity and policing, relationship over information broadcast, do-it-yourself creative production over professional service delivery, and so on, the more sense we think it makes to regard it as a new literacy. (228)

If the Web 2.0 world is promoting these types of changes, researching in the Web 2.0 world might need to be considered a new literacy.

This article argues that instructors teaching research methods, especially undergraduate writing courses that focus on researched arguments, should use various web-based interactive applications. The article discusses how these applications, usually referred to as Web 2.0 technologies, are a way to meet 21st Century Literacies learning objectives as well as diversify student learning methods and facilitate active learning pedagogies. The article then provides examples of different types of web-based applications that might be used throughout the research process, and ends with a discussion of logistical concerns like student access and privacy rights.

Why Digg It?

Once you get out into the real world you won’t have your textbooks with you, so having experience using IT as a learning tool helps prepare people for life after textbooks.
–An undergraduate student, 2010 ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology (Smith and Caruso 2010, 27)

The obvious first reason for teaching students to use web applications in research is “if you can’t beat them, join them.” I know students are going to use Google; therefore, I embrace that default and enjoy introducing them to specialized Google search engines like Google Scholar (Google’s search engine that focuses on returning results from scholarly books and journals), Google Books (Google’s search engine that returns results from Google’s book scanning project), and Google News (Google’s search engine that returns results from news outlets as far back as the 19th century). I enjoy their “shock” in learning about these specialized search engines.

Since 2004, college students responding to the annual ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology have rated themselves highly for the ability to “use the Internet effectively and efficiently search for information” (Smith and Caruso 2010, 66). Specifically in 2010, 80.7% gave themselves “high marks (expert or very skilled)” and over 56% gave themselves high marks for “evaluating reliability and credibility” (69). However, if students are as information literate as they think, then why does it feel like there is a “crisis” of 21st Century Literacies? Although it feels like the “crisis” of 21st Century Literacies is restricted to the 21st century, the heart of this crisis is wrapped up in various techno-literacies and the various media or techno-literacy crises have been rampant for over 40 years. Since the National Council of Teacher’s of English (NCTE) published the “Resolution on Media Literacy” in 1970, it has followed up with a variety of other related lists and position statements about techno-, media, and 21st century literacies.

Many other educational organizations produce lists and policy statements that include things like:

  • using technology to gather, analyze, and synthesize information (ASCD 2008; Association of Colleges and Research Libraries 2000; Council of Writing Program Administrators [CWPA] 2008; National Council of Teachers of English [NCTE] 2008; & Partnership for 21st Century Skills n.d.) as well as
  • describe, explain, and persuade with technology (Conference on College Composition and Communication 2004; CWPA 2008; Intel n.d.; NCTE 2005; NCTE 2008; & Partnership for 21st Century Skills n.d.).

Forbes’s top 10 list of “skills that will get you hired in 2013” listed “computers and electronics” as number five; the top two skills listed were “critical thinking” and “complex problem solving” (Casserly 2012)—both required of major research and writing projects. Teaching research processes through and with web 2.0 technologies combines these skills. In a study of basic writing students, Vance (2012) found that although students do want the interactivity that comes with Web 2.0 technologies, they also want more stable, instructor vetted and delivered content as well. This desire hints at the fact students do want and need help identifying and using digital information. Instructors are being hailed by both (the overestimation of) their students as well as (the underestimation of) their colleagues to help students become better technologically-mediated researchers and communicators.

Getting students to understand that there is more to Googling than just Google not only helps develop more critical digital research skills, it builds upon what they already know and do. Most individuals do some form of research every day, and more often than not, Google does get the job done. Starting with what the students already do works not only because we are going with the flow; actually, it is because it is going with their flow. Brain research demonstrates that students learn best when what they learn is connected to something they already know or do (Leamnson 1999; Zull 2002). The process of teaching research skills needs to be built upon students’ existing processes. Instead of trying to completely rewire students–as science instructors often attempt to do when they continually repeat that seasons are based on the position of the earth’s axis and not its proximity to the sun–help them adapt and expand their already hardwired “Google it” response. A number of scholars have published that various Web 2.0 applications support research-related activities like reading (Won Park 2013) and finding and evaluating information (Magnuson 2013), and are compatible with learning pedagogies such as constructivism (Paily 2013), connectivism (Del Moral, Cernea, and Villalusttre 2013), and problem-based learning (Tambouris et al. 2012).

Increasingly, both scholarly as well as more plebian research resources are only available in digital formats, usually accessible through the web. Students not only need to learn how to (systematically) search for these resources, they need to learn to critically consume different types of resources, some with no written words. Once students find and read these resources, they also need help collecting, archiving, and analyzing them as well. Finally, with the variety of available digital publication media, students can contribute back by producing multimedia projects as they report out on their research process and product.

What are You Digging With?

Scholarship in composition and literacy studies has demonstrated as a field composition studies supports using web-based interactive communication applications, many referred to as Web 2.0 technologies, in the teaching and learning of writing. Strickland (2009) claims “writers should be able to use all available technology to help them discover what and how to say what needs to be written” (p. 12). Many of these web-based applications either “count” as the multimodal compositions that scholars like Takayoshi and Selfe (2007) as well as organizations like NCTE (2005) and CCCC (2004) promote or help produce those same multimedia texts. Even English education programs, like the one discussed in Doering, Beach and O’Brien (2007) promote teaching future English teachers about using different web-based applications. Most of the time, however, these discussions about using various web-based technologies are focused on the product of a student’s major research project. Many of these technologies can also support the writing process as well as the research process. The mistake that many instructors make in thinking about incorporating multimedia and web applications in the research process is only focusing on the products of research—the primary, secondary, or tertiary resources incorporated into research or the “report” out of the research. Successful 21st century researchers need to think about using various web applications and embracing multimedia throughout the entire research process:

  • Identifying a Topic
  • Finding & Collecting Resources
  • Critically Reading & Evaluating Resources
  • Synthesizing Ideas & Resources
  • Drafting & (Peer) Reviewing
  • Presenting Final Results

For example, instructors may only think that YouTube (a video repository where individuals can make accounts and upload videos to share) is only good for finding questionable resources and presenting final projects in video form. However watching videos on YouTube, Vimeo, or TED might help students struggling to find a topic that interests them or see how people are currently talking about a specific topic. It is definitely time to rethink “YouTube is a bad resource” just because anyone can post a video; will anyone question the scholarly veracity of one of Michael Wesch’s digital anthropology videos? YouTube can also help solve common formatting problems as well. Instead of using time in class showing students how to do headers and hanging indents in their final research papers; assign as homework a YouTube video demonstrating how to do the formatting functions in different version of MS Word or OpenOffice.

Ultimately the goal for this article is to outline examples of what types of web applications might be incorporated at various points within a traditional (primarily secondary) research process. First, getting students to produce and share texts through the research process helps them keep connected with an audience. Second, producing digitized final projects that are published to the web, especially multimedia projects, makes students’ work refrigerator door worthy; you know, like the finger paintings we brought home from preschool. And Facebook is the new refrigerator door, instantly giving students a real audience with real feedback that they care about.

Applications to Help Identify a Topic

Getting students started on a research project is always more difficult than expected. At the beginning of a research project students generally need to identify a topic that is engaging to them as well as narrow it down to something unique. In both cases, students need help thinking differently about their interests. As Brooke (2009) suggests, researchers should understand search results as “departure points, that bring potentially distant topics and ideas in proximity both with each other and the user” (83). Sometimes it just helps to provide them with a variety of alternative search engines (anything besides the general Google search engine) and media repositories (image, audio, video, and text) to help identify what interests them. Many students do not pay attention to the variety of ways they may filter search results in the left hand menu of a Google search results page nor know that Google has specialized search engines like Scholar, Books, and News. Although the web is full of personal rants and raves, those non-scholarly resources, like personal blogs and wikis (including Wikipedia), can be extremely useful in helping students further narrow a topic to something manageable and with a unique angle as well as analyze what they already know or believe about the topic. Using search engines that present the search results visually (for example: Cluuz, Hashtagify, Search-Cube, or TouchGraph) can also help with narrowing a topic as well as preparing a list of future search terms (figure 1).


Figure 1: Results from a Cluuz search; multiple visual cluster maps presented on the right side of the page.

In short, the varied web resources provide students the opportunities to both explore as well as narrow their research topics. Introducing students to advanced search pages or results filters will not only help them identity interesting, focused research topics, it will help them find relevant secondary resources as well.

Applications to Help Find & Collect Resources

Teaching students to find resources is generally easier than helping students collect the resources they find. Based on my experience, robust citation management applications like Zotero, Mendeley, or EndNote have a steep learning curve for users to understand both the citation management as well as note taking functionalities. The time to learn the various aspects of the applications usually requires more time than available in freshman and sophomore level classes with major research projects. Instead of using these more complex applications, students can use social bookmarking sites, like Delicious and Diigo (usually easier to learn than full resource collecting programs), to keep track of their resources. Social bookmarking sites collect users saved webpage URLs. Except, instead of being restricted to one computer, like when saved using My Favorites in the Internet Explorer browser, social bookmarking sites save the list of links to a server the user can access from any computer connected to the web. Most social bookmarking sites also allow the user to associate notes with each bookmarked webpage.

Even if students are collecting books they found at the library or journal articles they found in a library database (resources that are not normally associated with a webpage), they can bookmark WorldCat’s or the library’s webpage representing the book (figure 2) and link to the permalink, or deeplink, into a library database resource. Johnson (2009) explicitly argues that using different Web 2.0 technologies, like blogs and social bookmarking, allow students to more readily collect both their secondary as well as primary resources. The amount of detail included with the bookmarked resource is only limited to the assignment requirements given to a student. An instructor can ask a student to include information like a bibliographic citation, summary, and source evaluation in the “notes” area of the social bookmark for each resource (figure 2).


Figure 2: An example of a robust annotated bibliography entry in the social bookmarking application Diigo.

Since they are social, social bookmarking sites are by default public and make it easy for students to share resources with one another, or their instructors. Social bookmarking sites will also help students find more resources. They can find individuals who have bookmarked the same resources and identify other resources. Students can also identify how individuals tagged resources with identifying keywords, like indexing, and use those tags as alternative key words in more searches in databases and other locations. As web-based applications, social bookmarking sites also address some access issues; students who do not have regular access to the same computer can still store all of their collected resources in one online repository that they can get to from any computer with an Internet connection.

Applications to Help Critically Read & Evaluate Resources

More sophisticated social bookmarking tools like Diigo also allow students to read and annotate web resources (applications like A.nnotate and Internote also allow web page annotations). Diigo allows users to highlight and leave post-it styles notes on most webpages (figure 3).

Rodrigo3Figure 3: Example of Diigo highlight and “post-it” note style annotation tools.

Having the ability to take notes does not inherently prompt students to be critical readers, instead a functionality that enables commenting might prompt students to ask what type of questions and comments should the annotated on their resources. English faculty, or librarians, can provide students with a list of resource evaluation questions that students might then answer by highlighting and taking notes on the page. Since Diigo is a web application, students can share their annotated resource with other students or the instructor.

Applications to Help Synthesize Ideas & Resources

Once students’ notes are digital, it is easy for them to slide them around, looking for connections to help synthesize ideas and resources. Again, these web applications do not inherently make students engage their resource materials in more sophisticated ways; instead, these resources provide students with the opportunity to engage with and connect their resources differently. Writing instructors have asked students to make mind or cluster maps of their research topic, resources, and ideas for decades; however, having students make these in a web application allows for more detailed information associated with each node. Many of the digital mind map applications (like Mindomo and Popplet) allow users to include text, images, videos, even attachments to each individual node of information. Many mind map applications also allow users to collaborate, sometime even synchronously, within the same document. A team of students working on a research project could collaboratively construct a mind map with the different resources each individual located. Timeline and geographical mapping applications, web applications that allow users to map information as a point in time or geo-spatially, also allow students to interact with their resources and data in different ways (figure 4).


Figure 4: Example of a timeline showing various organizational statements about 21st Century Literacies.

Having students play with their resources and data forces them to spend time with their resources and data. Ultimately, it is that time with the data that helps students the most in synthesizing information in a meaningful way.

Applications to Help Draft & (Peer) Review

Students should be drafting and getting feedback along the entire research process. One of the standard functions of various Web 2.0 applications, also regularly referred to as read/write web, is some form of interaction between the many kinds of readers and writers (Dilager 2010). Even as early in the process as identifying and narrowing a topic, students should be able to share their narrowed topic or research question and possibly make a research plan. In either case, students will want feedback about their work. Microblogs, like Twitter and the Facebook Status Update, give students the opportunity to gather quick feedback on material as small as a research question or thesis statement.

There are a variety of read/write web applications students might use to report out and invite feedback of all amounts during their research projects. Blogs, wikis, and document sharing applications like Google Drive would allow students to document large portions of their research process and product. These popular applications are also probably the best known and most written about web applications to support the teaching of writing, especially as a way to expand audience feedback and participation with a given project (Alexander 2008; Johnson 2009; Nakamura 2011). Blogs, wikis and document sharing are usually structured to facilitate some form of a social network that invites “replies” to any posted work. Some advanced feedback applications allow readers to respond to specific sections of a draft. For example, the CommentPress Core plugin for a WordPress blog allows readers to comment on individual paragraphs as well as an entire posting. Similarly, VoiceThread allows viewers to comment on individual presentation slides as well as draw on an individual slide to reference a specific area of a visual.

Not just text based web applications facilitate replies to content; even the more visual Web 2.0 applications where students might post parts of their research usually include spaces for readers to make comments. Most image and video repositories usually have reply features. Even if students are publishing their work in progress or request for feedback in different locations, using microblogs can help them to send out requests for feedback with links to where ever the material is residing. In short, there is no technological reason not to request and receive feedback throughout the entire research process.

Applications to Help Present Final Results

Many of the applications mentioned above might also be used as final presentation formats or media. Document sharing would allow for easy publishing of traditional paper style presentations. And if students were blogging their entire research process, they can post their final presentation as the last post (however, the first visible to visitors) on their research blogs. Students might use alternative visual presentations applications like Prezi to distinguish themselves from the masses that use PowerPoint. However, there are a many Web 2.0 applications not discussed in this article that would allow students to get really creative with their final product. With all the freely available web 2.0 applications mentioned in this article or listed at websites like Go2Web20 and Discovery’s Web 2.0 Tools, students could produce a variety of media including audio or video files, timelines or maps, digital collages or mind maps.

Asking students to produce their final presentations in these alternative formats does not necessarily relieve them of the rhetorical responsibilities of a composition class (Takayoshi and Selfe 2007). Asking students to write cover memo identifying their purpose, audience, and other rhetorical factors as well as discussing how their project meets those rhetorical factors reengages students with their rhetorical responsibilities.

How to Digg It?

Beyond thinking about how to use the technologies, many instructors have two major concerns about incorporating any technology into their assignments: access and support. Although these are both legitimate concerns, the digital divide is alive and well in the second decade of the 21st century (Jansen 2010), the need to creatively overcome these concerns meets the objective of making our students more technologically savvy. In other words, most individuals face some form of technological access and support issue on any digital project. Putting students into groups for assignments, even if they are just support and peer review groups for research projects, resolves a lot of access and support issues. Constructing student groups as collaborative learning communities empowers them to share knowledge and resources, including “access” to specific types of needed hardware and software and the skills to use it. Having students understand that finding and learning how to use a specific technological application is both another example of research as well as a skill they will need to continue to hone with how fast both hardware and software updates and evolves. If a given Web 2.0 application’s help page is not helpful, and the group can’t figure it out how to use the program, YouTube is always a good place to look for help with any “how-to” question. And if there is still no answer on YouTube, maybe it is time for instructors to make a few “how-to” videos and post them up to YouTube.

Another concern that faculty, administrators, and scholars have about using web applications in classes is privacy, especially in relation to legal issues like the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, FERPA (Diaz 2010; Ellison and Wu 2008; Rodriguez 2011). Although many of the web applications I discuss above have privacy options, more conservative interpretations of FERPA argue that students rights are not protected since the school does not have an officially signed legal contract with the application provider. There is no one easy solution to the FERPA issue; however, honesty is the best policy. I have discussed using these types of applications with the legal personnel associated with my institution. With their help, I’ve added a section to my syllabus about using web applications (Appendix). In short, this section notifies students of their legal rights to privacy and legal responsibilities like copyright infringement; it also provides them an alternative option that is not posted to the Internet. Of course, the alternative option is the traditional research process and paper; however, to date, I have never had a student take the alternative option. I have had an increasing number, still a very small number, choose to password protect their work; however, no one has refused to use the web application.

Long-term access and archiving are final concerns with using web applications for academic assignments. It is true that individuals or companies maintaining different web applications go out of business and can no longer support the website. For example, I once had a student construct a beautifully researched and documented timeline and then the company supporting the timeline application stop supporting the service. Similarly, I’ve had classes of students develop mind maps in mindmeister for free before mindmeister canceled their free accounts; those mind maps are now inaccessible (unless the student pays for them). Again, instead of using this as an excuse, it can be a “learning moment” to have discussions with students about archiving their work in an alternative format. At minimum, it is relatively easy to either take static or dynamic screen captures to save images or video of student work. Consider having students use free screen capture software, like Jing or Screencast-O-matic, to report out and reflect upon their work as a part of their assignment. The could make a five minute video, or two, that introduces the project, discusses their rhetorical choices, and reflects upon the process of constructing the text. This reflective screen capture video assignment does double-duty in archiving their work in an alternative format.

Interestingly enough, many educational institutions or educational technology companies have tried to address issue like FERPA and archiving by developing their own versions of Web 2.0 applications, like Purdue University’s relatively successful Hotseat and Blackboard’s incorporation of blogs, wikis, and social media like interfaces into their learning management system software. However, I agree with Jenkins (2008) and Dilager (2010) that replicating services is generally not a good idea. Most homegrown technologies never work as well as the “original” and other institutional issues about continued command, control, and support emerge. Instead, Dilager argues for a “critical engagement with Web 2.0” (24), implying that both faculty and students should consider the original purpose and authors/companies producing the Web 2.0 applications they are using. For example, Facebook is a service for profile application (the service is free because the application mines profile information and sells it to other companies). Faculty should understand Facebook’s commercial element before requiring students to use the application. This type of critical engagement brings us full circle to the issue of user/curator bias in Digg, just as with evaluating research resources, faculty and students should evaluate the technologies they choose to use.

Although there are a variety of reasons that might make it difficult to incorporate different interactive web-based, Web 2.0, applications into undergraduate research courses, the benefit of having more engaged students as well as more critical and complex researched projects is worth the work. Providing students with a scaffolded project that asks them to engage with these different technologies helps prepare them for the variety of research processes they will undertake in their future academic, professional, and civic lives.


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Del Moral, M. Esther, Ana Cernea, and Lourdes Villalustre. 2013. “Connectivist Learning Objects and Learning Styles.” Interdisciplinary Journal of E-Learning and Learning Objects 9: 105–124. http://www.ijello.org/Volume9/IJELLOv9p105-124Moral0830.pdf.

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Johnson, Mary J. 2009. “Primary Sources and Web 2.0: Unlikely Match or Made for Each Other?” Library Media Connection, 27(4): 28-30. OCLC 425516321.

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Appendix: Sample Syllabus Language

This is the syllabus language I have negotiated with the lawyers at my former institution. To be legally “binding,” I have to obtain some form of “signed” response.

We will be using a web-based timeline application (TimeGlider) for academic use in ENG101, First Year Composition, section #####, Fall 2009. By default, the timeline is open to the public for the purpose of sharing your work with the larger Internet community; specifically, using the timeline application will:

    • provide an opportunity to present information in a variety of modalities,
    • allow students to conceptualize their projects in a chronological manner,
    • provide an opportunity to collaborate on large scale projects, and
    • engage a larger audience who may provide feedback on the project.

To use the timeline application responsibly please observe all laws, MCC, and MCCCD policy that are incorporated into the Codes of Conduct and Academic Integrity. Some specific aspects of law and policy that might be well to remember are prohibitions against copyright infringement, plagiarism, harassment or interferences with the underlying technical code of the software. Some resources to remind yourself about MCC and MCCCD policies as well as laws about copyright and fair use:

As a student using the timeline application certain rights accrue to you. Any original work that you make tangible belongs to you as a matter of copyright law. You also have a right to the privacy of your educational records as a matter of federal law and may choose to set your timeline privacy settings to private and only share with the instructor and your classmates. Your construction of a timeline constitutes an educational record. By constructing a timeline, and not taking other options available to you in this course equivalent to this assignment that would not be posted publicly on the Internet, you consent to the collaborative use of this material as well as to the disclosure of it in this course and potentially for the use of future courses.



About the Author

Rochelle (Shelley) Rodrigo is Assistant Professor of Rhetoric & (New) Media at Old Dominion University. She was as a full time faculty member for nine years in English and film studies at Mesa Community College in Arizona. Shelley researches how “newer” technologies better facilitate communicative interactions, more specifically teaching and learning. As well as co-authoring the first and second editions of The Wadsworth Guide to Research, Shelley was also co-editor of Rhetorically Rethinking Usability (Hampton Press). Her work has also appeared in Computers and Composition, Teaching English in the Two-Year College, EDUCAUSE Quarterly, Journal of Advancing Technology, Flow¸ as well as various edited collections.


Wiki Wars: Conversation, Negotiation, and Collaboration in Online Spaces

Jennifer Marlow, The College of Saint Rose


This article is a teaching “failure narrative” that describes a first foray into wiki (mis)use in a topics-based writing class. This pedagogical story is informed by theories of collaborative writing developed within the field of composition paired with concepts of “collective intelligence” and “knowledge communities” used by new media scholars. Ultimately, the article questions the idea of consensus as a necessary ingredient in a successful writing collaboration, asserting instead that the struggles over composing within a wiki space are actually assets to the practices of teaching and writing and have the potential to inform our collective thinking about intellectual property.


“The Internet was built for love, not profit.”

— Douglas Rushkoff, “The People’s Net”


Collaborative pedagogies in the composition classroom are often influenced (whether consciously or not) by Kenneth Bruffee’s landmark article, “Collaborative Learning and the ‘Conversation of Mankind,’ ” in which he urges those of us who teach writing to “create and maintain a demanding academic environment that makes collaboration—social engagement in intellectual pursuits—a genuine part of students’ educational development” (Bruffee 1984, 652). Since then, many scholars in the field of composition have taken up Bruffee’s call for a socially engaged and collaborative classroom space. In a 1996 article, Susan West and Andrea Lunsford echo Bruffee’s call for collaboration in the writing classroom and describe the problem with most writing instruction as “perpetuating traditional concepts of authorship, authority, and ownership of intellectual property” (West and Lunsford 1996, 397).

The role of Web 2.0 in providing spaces for writing that break from these hallmarks of traditional writing instruction has been widely addressed and frequently (though not always) celebrated in composition scholarship and new media studies. Web 2.0 is described as the participatory web that we all read and to which we also write and contribute. Various portmanteaus have emerged to describe the “new” hybrid-users of the web: Don Tapscott’s (reintroduction of the) term “prosumer” and Axel Bruns’s concept of “produser” are two examples. In particular, the use of wikis, which were designed as web pages meant to combine the roles of reader, writer, and editor, can be described as emblematic of Web 2.0’s collaborative ethos. Wikis were originally designed for groups to easily share work and ideas, making them ideal for the collaborative learning and writing that frequently takes place in a writing classroom.

Despite the large amounts of time most of our students spend occupying networked spaces, they aren’t necessarily prepared for nor open to the kinds of participation, interactivity, collaboration, and negotiation that many scholars see as the great potential of Web 2.0. I make this claim based on my experiences watching students struggle with the act of collaborative writing within the digital space of a wiki. Experiencing this struggle—what I’ve come to call a kind of “wiki war”—initially made me feel as though I were falling short of achieving my goals for the use of the wiki within the course. However, this seeming “failure” taught me something about how my students view language, ideas, and text creation. The experience gave me insight into the kinds of values that have shaped my students, and it inspired ideas for future ways of framing wiki writing in the classroom.

Failure and The Hi-Tech Gift Economy

In a recent edition of College English, editor John Schilb describes the need for more pedagogical failure narratives: “[H]ardly ever can pedagogy be smoothly ritualistic; in any classroom, the unexpected can loom. Better to acknowledge that surprise events can alter the scheme for the day” (Schilb 2012, 515). And failure seems an appropriate place to start when talking about collaboration and technology. First of all, failure is inevitable when it comes to navigating new and emerging media. Henry Jenkins reminds us that “we are still learning what it is like to operate within a knowledge culture. We are still debating and resolving the core principles that will define our interactions with each other” (Jenkins 2006, 238). The interactivity and participation that comprise the essence of Web 2.0 require strong negotiating skills, and negotiation is not easy. Given this level of difficulty, the chances for “failure” are high. My students’ struggles over text production are certainly reflective of the kinds of difficult negotiations that other scholars have identified as part of the process of wiki writing. Finally, there is the tension that resides in the notion of consensus and collaboration. For Bruffee, the idea of consensus is crucial to his work on collaborative learning and the way(s) in which he defines knowledge. The need for consensus is also a commonly accepted trait of wikis: “Because wikis allow all readers to write . . . , but write the same document, they provide a unique Web space where differing opinions are expressed, explored, and yes, sometimes eviscerated, but gradually moved toward consensus” (Barton and Cummings 2011, vii). The emphasis on the importance of consensus as essential to collaboration can contribute to the perception that a lack of consensus is equivalent to failure.

In recent years much composition scholarship has sought to incorporate Bruffee’s work on collaboration by shifting the emphasis in the classroom from grades and a competitive desire for praise and recognition to “the pleasures of companionship, community, and mutual support” (Heller 2003, 308). These types of “pleasures” are central to new media theories developed by scholars such as Henry Jenkins, Howard Rheingold, Pierre Lévy, Clay Shirky, Axel Bruns, and Richard Barbrook. They see these contemporary online collaborations as a fundamental part of the “the hi-tech gift economy,” a term that Barbrook adapted from Lewis Hyde’s concept of “gift economy” to describe the anti-capitalist, anti-copyright aspects of Web 2.0. In this version of the Web, users “[u]nconcerned about copyright . . . give and receive information without thought of payment.”  Barbrook continues: “Within the hi-tech gift economy, people successfully work together through ‘ . . . an open social process involving evaluation, comparison and collaboration’” (Barbrook 1998). Similarly, Lévy describes what happens in this participatory version of cyberspace as “collective intelligence,” which “is a form of universally distributed intelligence, constantly enhanced, coordinated in real time, and resulting in the effective mobilization of skills . . . . The basis and goal of collective intelligence is the mutual recognition and enrichment of individuals rather than the cult of fetishized or hypostatized communities” (Lévy 1997, 13).

The benefits of both contributing to and gaining from (these are both obligations cited by Hyde for participation in a gift economy) this “hi-tech gift economy” might seem apparent to many educators (as they did to me) who see the power and depth of collective knowledge formation. Our students, however, might not so easily subscribe to these modes of learning that are far afield from the meritocratic education system they are accustomed to. A question that remains to be answered is posed by Rafael Heller: “Are we really to believe that our students might so completely internalize a collaborative ideology, as if they could inhale a new set of motives and exhale the old?” (Heller 2003, 312). The follow-up questions to Heller’s seem to me to be: What are the “old motives” exactly?  How do they affect, and sometimes derail, our desire to create a more collaborative classroom space?  And more specifically related to the idea of wikis: How do “old motives” mesh with or compete against the increasingly collaborative ethos of networked digital writing spaces?

In the classroom narrative that follows, my students appear to be motivated by a sense of ownership over their words and ideas. They do not appear to be interested in moving away from the cognitive/Cartesian belief in the self as “the matrix of all thought” (Bruffee 1986, 777). These motives are dichotomous with the kinds of values that drive the “hi-tech gift economy.”  The “old motives” are attached to the idea of Author with a capital “A” and the perceived benefits that come from ownership over one’s labor (whether in the form of good grades or financial gain). The “hi-tech gift economy,” on the other hand, implies a more altruistic motivation: namely, the circulation of “gifts” (most often in the form of information/knowledge) in a social rather than an economic manner.

Negotiation and Dissensus

I have used wikis in my classes in various ways—always with the goal of supporting and improving student writing and often in ways that have traditionally been accomplished in the form of face-to-face group work. These include “workshopping” student writing, having students contribute to grading criteria and the development of rubrics, creating a space to conduct group work, and writing collaborative texts that become frameworks for concepts we’re working through in class. It was for this latter purpose that I initially implemented a class wiki in my topics-based writing course called “Writing about Society and Culture.”  The wiki served as a collaborative writing and thinking space throughout the semester and was eventually used for the joint writing of the students’ final projects. Our first foray into wiki-use (and potential misuse) involved collaboratively writing a definition for the term “culture” as used in the title of the course. My goal was to create a definition (knowledge) based on a community of peers contributing to and eventually (hopefully) reaching consensus, or, at the very least, agreeing upon a workable definition or framework. I began by posting a loose, one sentence introduction to the idea of culture as it pertained to the course:

Definitions of culture are constantly changing, but this class will be informed by the belief that culture is representative of the way(s) in which language, art, media, politics and lived experience are in constant flux and sometimes conflict as they shape our consciousness and daily lives.

The class then had the opportunity to add and make changes to my starter sentence.

I had a number of goals here: 1) simply to get them comfortable using the wiki—understanding how to edit, use the page history, etc.; 2) to come to a brief definition—a hearty paragraph about culture that we could refer to and through which we could begin framing our class discussions—a definition that we could all feel comfortable with, remember, and relate to; 3) to give them a chance to experience firsthand the temporal nature of writing, especially in digital form; and 4) to incorporate the long-line of scholarship since Bruffee that argues for the importance of collaborative learning and conversation in the writing classroom.

In “Social Construction, Language, and Knowledge” Bruffee references an article by Greg Myers that traces the publication of an article written by two biologists through its various rejections and ultimate approval. “Myers demonstrates the extent to which what these scientists actually knew gradually changed as the community of knowledgeable peers they belonged to demanded change in the language of the articles they were writing” (Bruffee 1986, 785). A similar observation can certainly be applied to the use of wikis in (or outside) of a writing classroom. The demand for changes in language can be a catalyst for learning, as the wiki’s contributors are made to think more deeply and carefully about what it is they want to say and how they want to say it in a venue shared by others. One could question whether my students constitute a group of “knowledgeable peers,” asking what it is that they know about defining culture. But, as I illustrate to these students on the first day of class, they know culture. I show them just how much they know implicitly, as I lead them through a kind of “pop culture” pop quiz. I ask them first to identify the colors used in Microsoft’s logo without looking at their computers or anything else in the room. The majority of them can name all four colors correctly. I hum the tune of Jeopardy and ask them to “name that tune”; all of them recognize it. I ask them if they know what a Swiffer is, and I describe a popular commercial to see if they know what it is used for. As these examples illustrate, these students have been defining culture long before they came to my class and, I’m hoping, continue to (re)define it during the course of the semester. This places importance on the wiki as a means of maintaining an immediate yet evolving reference to the central concept of the course.

“Intellectual negotiation,” argues Harvey S. Wiener, is what distinguishes group work that might only serve to “subdivide the traditional hierarchical classroom into several smaller versions of the same model” from true collaborative learning. In order “to assure that the teacher in a collaborative learning classroom is guiding students to collective judgments in groups,” Wiener suggests, “evaluators are right to insist that the task be written down. A written task provides the language that helps to shape students’ conversations” (Wiener 1986, 55). I agree with the necessity of writing when it comes to successful collaboration; however in the case of most face-to-face collaborative learning groups, frequently only one student is doing the actual writing. This distinction is important because, as Peter Hawkes reminds us in a response to Wiener, the differences between collaboration and group work “inhere in the nature of the task” (quoted in Wiener 1986, 56).

I am guessing that many of us have experienced or led the kind of hierarchical group work that Lisa Ede and Andrea Lunsford describe in Singular Texts/Plural Authors: Perspectives on Collaborative Writing, where they identify two modes of collaboration. One they describe as hierarchical and admit that in their research it tends to be the most common means of collaboratively producing text. They write that the hierarchical mode of collaboration is “rigidly structured, driven by highly specified goals, and carried out by people playing clearly defined and delimited roles.” They describe the goals as “designated by someone outside of and hierarchically superior to the immediate group” (Ede and Lunsford 1990, 133). While Ede and Lunsford don’t directly name these “defined and delimited roles,” it calls to mind for me collaborative endeavors that involve a “scribe” or recorder who jots down notes from the group’s conversation. All too often this same recorder is the one assigned to read from those notes to the class during the subsequent discussion. Word choice, struggles with language, and figuring out the best means to express what it is the students want to say suddenly become secondary to merely getting the work done, as the group relies on “the scribe” to take care of all of that. Subsequently, the “Burkean parlor conversation” that may have taken place becomes lost in the speech act, most of which remains unrecorded. Wrestling with the text is not always an accessible activity to the group as a whole when it comes to this traditional form of collaborative writing; whereas, with collaborative wiki writing, all students can get their hands on the text, intervene, wrestle, and negotiate. This is important, because as John Trimbur stresses, when the “process of intellectual negotiation that underwrites consensus . . . works . . . the pressure leads students to take their ideas seriously, to fight for them, and to modify or revise them in light of others’ ideas. It can also cause students to agree to disagree.” (Trimbur 1989, 54).

My Writing about Society and Culture students were eventually forced to “agree to disagree,” but not all of them were happy about it. In fact, Trimbur’s word choice of students “fighting” for their ideas is illustrated in the outcome of our collaborative composing of the definition of “culture.”  The issues arose, in part, because we were learning to use the wiki during class time and therefore were all simultaneously logged on and making changes. A student’s text might only last a second or two before it was intervened upon and transformed by another student. While this logistical fact seemed to exacerbate tensions, it is still representative of what can happen when writers contribute to a large-scale wiki. Students struggled for control over the text, and some were fairly vocal about their annoyance when “their” text was changed. Students would repeatedly return to the text and attempt to revert back or override the changes that a peer had made in an attempt to “fight” for their writing. Some even made changes to the text in defense of a friend whose words had been altered by someone else in the class. There were many rumblings of complaint, even some under-the-breath name calling.

A student with the username “smallfrii” wanted to express the “learned” or “practiced” aspects of culture. Over a series of twelve edits, smallfrii contributed to the wiki five times, adding some version of this definition of culture: “Culture can be learned or practiced through habits. For example, something that has been done or said in your family, could be automatically transferred [sic] to you.”  Four of the twelve edits were by another student who deleted smallfrii’s references to culture as “learned” or “practiced.”  Another edit that was revised was the idea of culture as “inherited.”  At 8:11 on a Thursday morning, smallfrii added this description of culture: “Culture is a learned and inherited behavior and uniting force among specific people in a society.” This was deleted by murphyt088 at 8:12, added again by smallfrii at 8:13 and promptly removed by lynchm496 at 8:13. It was the specific term “inherited” that appeared to be the source of contention; however, despite the implied dispute, there was not enough time for the disagreement to actually play out. The students did not have time to think through the word choice, learning from and making changes based on the specific meaning of language. Instead, they were concerned with getting their own idea to stick as the “permanently” recorded definition of culture.

The rapid-fire changes continued, moving from struggles over word choice to a disagreement over more universal conceptions of what culture is (or isn’t). At 8:13, “lynchm496” added: “Culture is known throughout different societies as a way of life.”  Another student who had the opposite idea in mind supplanted this almost immediately: “The idea that culture can not impact people is also a possibility.” Lynchm496 reinserted her original sentence by 8:15. Meanwhile, Kellyb816 (who was friends with Lynchm496) came to Lynchm496’s defense by deleting the other student’s statement about the possibility of culture not impacting people. Additionally, in less than a minute the text, “No matter what background you come from you’re [sic] culture will always be changing and growing based upon society and the changing times,” was added, deleted by another student, and finally reinstated by the original writer. The speed with which these deletions and additions took place seems to illustrate the fact that the students were more interested in asserting and inserting their own words and ideas into the text than considering what they might learn from and add to the work of their peers.

One of the benefits of using wikis for group work is the record they keep of the collaborative writing process: “Wikis help enable the student-centered classroom by recording the messiness of negotiation within an electronic document that can be accessed in its newest form at all times” (Vie and DeWinter 2008, 115). This record of the “messiness of negotiation” comes in the form of a wiki’s “history.”  The fact that I could access this “history” of edits made by each individual writer was one that I reminded the students of on more than one occasion; however, it did little to alleviate their collective anxiety over ownership of “their” work and ideas.

Although I had led into the assignment by describing it as a collective definition, a collaboration for the good of the class as a whole, students were not yet comfortable with viewing this “new” (to them) writing space in a celebratory manner. While my early pedagogical goal might have been similar to Bruffee’s idea about collaborative learning that calls for “negotiat[ing] a common language in the classroom, to draw students into a wider consensus, and to initiate them into the conversation as it is currently organized in the academy” (Trimbur 1989, 612-13), I was basing this goal on the assumption that students would inevitably see and automatically be invested in the creation of a “commons” available for the collective good; however, their resulting resistance to this notion is not unusual.

Whenever we set group goals we run the risk of “ ‘Tragedy of the Commons,’ biologist Garrett Hardin’s phrase for situations wherein individuals have incentive to damage the collective good” (Shirky 2008, 51). Online defacement of wiki sites, including Wikipedia and the Los Angeles Times, has been widely publicized. It is important, I think, to note that my students didn’t wreak actual havoc upon the wiki itself. In fact, in some ways, the assertive stance that my students took in defense of their own material could be indicative of their commitment to the final product. Their intense involvement in its composition can be read as interest and investment in the outcome. Instead of actual defacement, they chose to express their dissatisfaction through speech acts outside of the wiki and pointed edits within it. It is, therefore, difficult to say whether my students actually had “incentive to damage the collective good.”  Perhaps they simply felt that if they didn’t assert their voices over the voices of other students, they would miss out on some valuable participation points. Or maybe they were simply culturally constructed, as Lynn Z. Bloom, Bruffee, and others have argued, in the mode of “self reliance.” While it is difficult to ascertain to what degree these students were invested in the collective good, it is still clear to me that they were focused more on the individual and less on the collective.

Most of these students have been educated in an environment where the authority of knowledge is given to the person who ostensibly generated that knowledge originally, and they have been (mis)led into believing that they themselves were the “original” generators of the knowledge and text that they posted to the wiki. And who can blame them?  They have been raised in a culture that has seen the shift from an economy reliant on material goods and services to one that values knowledge as a product. In the introduction to his remarks on “Public Policy for a Knowledge Economy” at the Department for Trade and Industry and Center for Economic Policy Research in 1999, Joseph Stiglitz of the World Bank describes the shift from industry to ideas: “Knowledge and information is [sic] being produced today like cars and steel were produced a hundred years ago. Those, like Bill Gates, who know how to produce knowledge and information better than others reap the rewards, just as those who knew how to produce cars and steel a hundred years ago became the magnates of that era” (quoted in Hall 2008, 4). So my students’ apparent attachment to Lockean notions of ownership and labor aren’t surprising, given the cultural importance placed on the economic value of ideas.

Rethinking and Reframing the Assignment

As educators, we have undoubtedly played a role in helping form these beliefs. Lynn Z. Bloom argues that “middle class composition teachers, ever Emersonian in spirit, stress the importance of self-reliance (‘Your work must be your own’), even in nominally collaborative classrooms” (Bloom 1996, 659). Likewise, as Bruffee puts it, speaking to those of us who teach in the humanities, “If we look at what we do instead of what we say, we discover that we think of knowledge as something we acquire and wield as individuals relative to each other, not something we generate and maintain in company with and in dependency upon each other” (Bruffee 1984, 645). The reactions of these students to the online and collaborative form of writing produced in the wiki are reflective of this humanities tradition that Bruffee describes. In class I saw them asserting their will to power over the text and over each other.

A 1999 collaboratively-written essay on “textuality, collaboration, and the new essay,” by Myka Vielstimmig (the combined “pen” name for Michael Spooner and Kathleen Blake Yancey) stresses that even those of us who frequently engage in collaborative work ourselves find it to be “like taking on a new identity; issues you hadn’t foreseen arise. It’s easier not to sail to the new land” (Vielstimmig 1999, 95). These scholars attribute these difficulties with collaboration to our cultural “reverence” for the individual, especially the work/labor of the individual. Reliance on each other is often conflated with reliance on the system, which is looked at with disdain.

But regardless of whether it’s “easier not to sail the new land,” it is nothing short of irresponsible not to do so. Lunsford and West write:

The ubiquitous media coverage of the complex issues swirling around the question of who owns language-for that is what this debate is finally about-demands a response from our profession, as those most concerned with shaping and perpetuating notions about what it means to read, write, and speak. In particular, compositionists have a compelling interest in how laws governing ownership of language should be adjusted (if at all) to accommodate both new technologies and postmodern challenges to established ideas about ‘authorship.’ (Lunsford and West 1996, 383)

Lunsford and West proceed to give an example of that “ubiquitous media coverage” in the form of a Cathy comic strip circa 1995: In it, a mother gives her child a homemade Halloween costume, labeled “hand-stitched by Mama.”  The child immediately looks for a Disney label and upon not seeing one utters, “’Copyright infringement! Trademark violation! Illegal facsimile!’”  (385). Lunsford and West argue that children of the 1990s (and the same might be said for the generations of the twenty-first century, if cultural change does not take place) “will increasingly be led to accept possessive ownership as normal” (386). Our responses to debates about intellectual property and ownership of  language need to account for students’ attitudes and beliefs that have been shaped by a copyright-happy culture.

Despite this “norm” of “possessive ownership,” there is much scholarship being done on a participatory and collaborative revolution that is taking place in online spaces and with the help of technological tools. Clay Shirky’s 2008 book, Here Comes Everybody describes this as the “power of organizing without organizations.”  Shirky describes the “old way” of working within organizations, companies, and institutions as being governed by “institutional costs” and “managerial organization.”  Employees agreed to be managed based on pay and were so managed “by making continued receipt of their pay contingent on their responsiveness to manager’s requests” (Shirky 2008, 43). Employees advanced in the company through their contributions and ability to climb the ladder of the imposed hierarchy. This generally resulted in higher pay, and so the incentive to exceed other employees is in place. Similarly we see this kind of “climbing” in the classroom scenarios described above where grades can (supposedly) be exchanged for a future, paying job. Students care about the perceived exchange value of grades, and they buy into the notion that the producers of knowledge will “reap the rewards.”  But in contrast to the individualized mode of work traditionally encouraged by writing instructors, as described by Bloom, Shirky asserts that “people have always desired to share, and the obstacles that prevented sharing on a global scale are now gone” because of social networking in the form of web tools such as Flickr, Wikipedia, Facebook, and del.icio.us (45). “Social tools provide . . . action by loosely structured groups, operating without managerial direction and outside the profit motive” (47). The types of personal motivation to do group work in a collaborative spirit, which Shirky has claimed are ever-present desires, were clearly not present for my students.

Despite Shirky’s claims about the strong interest in sharing that most people have, he is well aware of the challenges of negotiation. He describes the increasingly difficult levels of involvement a group must undertake in order to truly work collaboratively. In order of difficulty they are sharing, cooperation, and collective action. Cooperation requires a group identity, as well as “changing your behavior to synchronize with people who are changing their behavior to synchronize with you” (Shirky 2008, 50). My students, holding steadfastly to “old ways” of working, did not modify their behavior in any form of synchronization, thereby leaving us unable to move forward (at that time) to more complex forms of collaborative knowledge making. From cooperation, Shirky describes a more involved form of group activity, which he calls “collaborative production.”  “The litmus test for collaborative production is simple: no one person can take credit for what gets created, and the project could not come about without the participation of many” (50). This was my goal for using a wiki in Writing about Society and Culture—a class that I based on pedagogical theories that seek to decentralize authority and focus on collaborative writing and shared responsibility for knowledge making.

Shirky’s “litmus test” for collaborative production—that no one person can take credit for what has been created—takes Roland Barthes concept of the “death of the author” to an interesting digital realm. Rafael Heller points out that it is Michel Foucault’s 1979 “What is an Author?” that has influenced much of the work on collaborative writing done in composition. In “What is an Author?” Foucault draws on Barthes’ 1967 “Death of the Author” and borrows from Samuel Beckett in order to pose the question: “What does it matter who is speaking?”  Heller subsequently asks the question that seems necessary to the collaborative model of writing: “How do we speak together?” (Heller 2003, 309). While I consider the differences between these questions to be important, I find both of them applicable to the kind of writing that happens within a wiki where it truly doesn’t matter who is speaking. By creating a space where no one person owns the co-created text, wikis have provided a technology that determines “how” we speak in ways that can possibly transcend the modern author function as defined by the idea of the solitary writer and original genius.

In fact, a wiki actually seems constructed to work towards the kind of equality in dialogue that Habermas discusses. A wiki’s unique ability to track all voices gives it a power not often available to us in other forms of group work and collaborative writing. Habermas’s “ideal speech situation” is “a utopian discursive space that distributes symmetrically the opportunity to speak, to initiate discourse, to question, to give reasons, to do all those other things necessary to justify knowledge socially” (Trimbur 1989, 612). A wiki, unlike other online writing spaces, doesn’t create discussion threads (though it also has this capability), and it doesn’t privilege one writer as the creator of ideas and text. Instead, it “distributes symmetrically” the opportunity for students to compose a singular text, and, additionally, through the use of “discussion” tabs, it makes a separate space for questions, ideas, and comments to be raised about the text at hand. Therefore, a wiki has the potential to break from the hierarchical mode of collaboration described earlier by Ede and Lunsford.

However, the symmetrically created form of “collective intelligence,” particularly as it takes place through the act of writing, creates a complex authorial situation, because “it reflects the dynamic exchange between individual knowledge and shared knowledge” (Vielstimmig 1999, 99). In this way, attempting to assign a “creator” to particular passages, words, or ideas is always going to be arbitrary and not necessarily representative of the actual composing process. This fact sits uneasily with students educated to own ideas and products (and the product of their ideas) within an educational system imbued with capitalist values. I think that the conflicts these students had with collaborative writing and the process of collectively formulating knowledge were not only valuable struggles but also inevitable ones. Ede and Lunsford remind us of this: “Like gender roles, discourse situations are, Burke reminds us, inherently mixed and paradoxical . . . . Surely it seems reasonable to find inscribed in any piece of collaboration . . . the same kind of risks and tensions that are generally inscribed in our culture” (Ede and Lunsford 1990, 134). My students’ struggles over text production are certainly reflective of culturally inscribed tensions around ownership of intellectual property that play out frequently in our own debates about open source versus propriety software and open access versus proprietary journal publications.

I now see that it is my responsibility to bring these cultural tensions to the attention of my students. Certainly, it seems necessary to help students become knowledgeable about and invested in the idea of the “collective good” instead of assuming they have a “natural desire” to share and act collaboratively. In the future I could open this activity with a discussion around community, collective intelligence, and knowledge as collaborative artifact and socially justified belief. Maybe I should have explained that from Bruffee’s perspective, knowledge results from “intellectual negotiations” and depends on social relations, not on attempting to have the last word in print, untouchable and eternal. For future wiki implementation, I can explain to students that the goal is empowerment in the form of a “smart mob.”  I can inform them that according to Howard Rheingold, “Groups of people using these tools will gain new forms of social power” (Rheingold 2002, xii). Henry Jenkins also writes about “social power,” using the example of the citizens in Manila and Madrid and their ability to create “transformations of power” based on technology. While group solidarity may continue to be looked on with great skepticism in a society on the lookout for “freeloaders,” in a world of social networking and digital tools, the economic arrangement tends to be looked at differently—characterized by labels like a “digital economy,” Barbrook’s notion of a “gift economy,” and Maurizio Lazzarato’s description of “immaterial labor.”

For future versions of this wiki activity, I will certainly frame differently the collaborative work that I am assigning students; however, this first try was not a complete failure. For one thing, like Jenkins I am particularly interested in how groups react when a shift occurs in how they typically process and evaluate knowledge. By putting my students into a composing situation quite unfamiliar to them, they struggled to negotiate both on and off the screen how to manage their collective knowledge making. This created a level of discomfort and anxiety within the classroom community; however, as Jenkins asserts, “It is at moments of crisis, conflict, and controversy that communities are forced to articulate the principles that guide them” (Jenkins 2006, 26). This assertion harkens back to a central argument of Thomas Kuhn’s about the revolutionary nature of scientific knowledge: “In both political and scientific development the sense of malfunction that can lead to crisis is prerequisite to revolution” (Kuhn 1996, 92). This experience with wikis in my Writing about Society and Culture class can certainly be described as a “teachable moment” not in spite of but because of the apparent “malfunction.” This “crisis” was more precisely an act of negotiation that served to keep the students returning again and again to the act of writing and thinking about the key term they were asked to define. Rethinking and discussing the ideas of classroom and community would be the logical next step in our “wiki war crisis.”  As Andrew Feenberg argues, technology is “not a destiny but a scene of struggle. It is a social battlefield.” (Feenberg 1991, 14) Technology is not neutral and it should not be a seamless space in which group interactions take place with unprecedented ease. Instead, it is a place where “civilizational alternatives are debated and decided” (Feenberg 1991, 14).

I approached this assignment, as I think we often do in composition, grounding it in pedagogical theories that seem sound and beneficial to students. My particular area of research interest focuses on how longstanding pedagogical approaches can be integrated into but also looked at anew in digital writing spaces. However, whenever theory hits practice in the classroom, we end up needing to meet the students where they are. In this case, it turned out that my students did not share the same values regarding the open, collaborative ethos of the Web that I did/do. As Heller reminds us, I also can’t make my students “breathe in” a new set of motives and classroom practices. I can’t expect their investment in collective knowledge to be as natural as taking a breath. I can, however, introduce them to these alternative motivations and help tune them in to the ways in which the digital spaces that many of them inhabit on a daily basis are a valuable tool for a different kind of knowledge production that gets its value in the processes of negotiation and struggle over ideas and language. The temporary nature of the written word and the questionable status of the author are brought to the fore in digital writing spaces, and these aspects of digital composing can make our students nervous, uncomfortable, and quick to act and to assert control over the text at hand. Gregory Ulmer argues that our discipline has “a primary responsibility for inventing the practices of reasoning and communicating in ways native to new media” (Ulmer 2007, xi). These practices will need to attend to the fact students think differently than many of us about the “ownership” they believe they have over their ideas and over language—something that, as Bruffee has shown, has always been at the center of collaboration of any kind, even if he could not have envisioned the added challenges that these technological sites of struggle present.


Barbrook, Richard. 1998. “The Hi-Tech Gift Economy.” Subsol. Accessed March 24, 2011. http://subsol.c3.hu/subsol_2/contributors3/barbrooktext2.html

Bloom, Lynn Z. 1996. “Freshman Composition as Middle-Class Enterprise.” College English 58: 654-75. OCLC 477416930.

Bruffee, Kenneth. 1984. “Collaborative Learning and the ‘Conversation of Mankind.’”  College English 46: 635-52. OCLC 486755706.

———. 1986. “Social Construction, Language, and the Authority of Knowledge: A Biliographical Essay.” College English 48: 773-90. OCLC 486757661.

Cummings, Robert E. and Matt Barton, eds. 2008. Wiki Writing: Collaborative Learning in the College Classroom. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. OCLC 228372295.

DiNucci, Darcy. 1999. “Fragmented Future.”  Print 53: 32, 221-2. OCLC 93592608.

Ede, Lisa and Andrea Lunsford. 1990. Singular Texts/Plural Authors: Perspectives on Collaborative Writing. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press. OCLC 45732382.

Feenberg, Andrew. 1991. Critical Theory of Technology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. OCLC 22860236.

Haefner, Joel. 1992. “Democracy, Pedagogy, and the Personal Essay.” College English. 54: 127-37. OCLC 486762937.

Hall, Gary. 2008. Digitize this Book: The Politics of New Media or Why We Need Open Access Now. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press. OCLC 222249169.

Heller, Rafael. 2003. “Questionable Categories and the Case for Collaborative Writing.” Rhetoric Review 22.3: 300-18. OCLC 438062920.

Jenkins, Henry. 2006. Convergence Culture. New York: New York University Press. OCLC 64594290.

Kuhn, Thomas. 1996. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. OCLC 34548541.

Levy, Pierre. 1997. Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books. OCLC 37195391.

Lunsford, Andrea and Susan West. 1996. “Intellectual Property and Composition Studies.” College Composition and Communication 47.3: 383-411. OCLC 486675736.

Reid, Alex. 2008. “Changing Economics of Classroom Management.” digital digs. Accessed March 19, 2012. http://www.alex-reid.net/2008/03/changing-econom.html

Rheingold, Howard. 2002. Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Basic Books. OCLC 464363327.

Rushkoff, Douglas. 2008. “The People’s Net.” Accessed August 18, 2012. http://www.rushkoff.com/articles-individual/2008/5/13/the-peoples-net.html.

Schilb, John. 2012 “From the Editor.” College English. 74: 513-19. OCLC 802369104.

Shirky, Clay. 2008. Here Comes Everybody. New York: Penguin Press. OCLC 168716646.

Trimbur, John. 1989. “Consensus and Difference in Collaborative Learning.” College English 51: 602-16. OCLC 486760586.

Ulmer, Gregory. 2007. Foreword to The Rhetoric of Cool: Composition Studies and New Media, by Jeff Rice, ix-xv. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press. OCLC 71946546.

Vie, Stephanie and Jennifer deWinter. 2008. “Disrupting Intellectual Property: Collaboration and Resistance in Wikis,” In Wiki Writing: Collaborative Learning in the College Classroom, edited by Robert E. Cummings and Matt Barton,109-22. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. OCLC 228372295.

Vielstimmig, Myka. 1999. “Petals on a Wet, Black Bough: Textuality, Collaboration, and the New Essay” in Passions, Pedagogies, and 21st Century Technologies, edited by Gail E. Hawisher and Cynthia L. Selfe, 89-114. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press. OCLC 42330336.

Wiener, Harvey S. 1986. “Collaborative Learning in the Classroom: A Guide to Evaluation.” College English 48: 52-61. OCLC 486756851.


About the Author

Jennifer Marlow is an assistant professor of English at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY, where she teaches courses in composition and new media. Her work focuses on educational technology software and its uses and abuses in the writing classroom. When she is not busy experimenting with innovative digital technologies that bring learning “outside the box,” she and colleague, Megan Fulwiler, utilize documentary filmmaking to show how the labor conditions of higher education affect everything from academic freedom to student learning to how we implement and think about technology.

Steps, Stumbles, and Successes: Reflections on Integrating Web 2.0 Technology for Collaborative Learning in a Research Methods Course

Kate B. Pok-Carabalona, the Graduate Center of the City University of New York


This paper reflects on a semester-long experience of integrating several Web 2.0 technologies including Google Groups, Google Docs, and Google Sites into two Research Methods classes based on an active constructivist model of pedagogy. The technologies used in the course allow students the opportunity to actively engage with the central concepts in Research Methods under an apprenticeship model whereby they participate in all the steps of developing, conducting, and reporting on a research project. Students also interact with each other regularly through simultaneous collaborative writing and discussion. Despite evidence of the first and second digital divides as well as glitches and limitations associated with some new technologies, students overwhelmingly rated the experience positively, suggesting a promising argument for employing new technologies to make the central concepts in Research Methods more accessible and transparent to students.



In the spring of 2011, I was assigned to teach two Introduction to Research Methods classes in the Sociology Department at Hunter College-CUNY. As I planned the course, I again faced the struggle of how to engage undergraduates in a topic that at times can seem fairly dry and abstract. Most students are accustomed to writing some kind of term research paper, usually requiring a visit to the library (or increasingly the Internet) to gather existing literature that they synthesize into new papers. But most of my students had never engaged in the kind of inquiry a research methods class addresses. Of course, term research papers as described above continue to be highly relevant and offer students practice analyzing, evaluating, and synthesizing literature. In short, such assignments strengthen students’ information literacy skills—an aptitude of particular importance in an age when the problem is more often too much rather than too little information. However, such assignments highlight only a small fraction of the skills emphasized in a research methods class where the focus is much more on practice—the framing, design, and implementation of actual research projects, the methodologies of conducting social science research.

I had taught Introduction to Research Methods several times before and each time I had learned better techniques to make the subject more relevant and “real” to undergraduate students. Lecture-only classes that depended primarily on textbook readings had morphed into classes that included substantial focus on analyzing the methods employed by researchers in existing journal articles. These classes had given way to ones that included more group work, more assignment scaffolding, and more technology to facilitate sharing student work and peer review. In short, I had steadily moved away from a top-down teaching style to one that was more experiential and constructivist, a style that seemed more fitting for the applied nature of research methods courses.

My previous attempts to integrate technology into a research methods course took the form of students using wikis to create ongoing “portfolios” of their semester-long work. Each portfolio could be reviewed by all students, making individual students’ research process, writing, and peer-review remarkably transparent. At the time, I worried that students might be nervous about making their work so publicly accessible to each other. Instead, many reported satisfaction that their work could be viewed by a larger audience. In fact, students seemed to find the process particularly informative and often incorporated each other’s comments as well as mine into revisions of their own work. They also seemed to take a certain pride in the idea that their work was being developed in a pseudo-published environment. In a perhaps controversial (but ultimately well-received) practice, students were able to see my comments not only on their own work but also on the work of their peers. Again, I worried that some students might be embarrassed by public critical comments, and indeed they expressed trepidation with this format. However, they later reported that they found this transparency refreshing; it seems that while the experience of being critiqued may be unpleasant, seeing just as many corrections on a peer’s work was liberating! Most students indicated that seeing the same error repeated by a peer helped them remember not to commit the same error in future assignments.1

Despite these positive reviews, this format still clung to a top-down approach to teaching and learning. Moreover, students still seemed to struggle with the substantive content of a research methods course. Students gained a nebulous and indistinct understanding of the course, but full comprehension of core concepts such as designing and carrying out research projects remained just out of their reach. I hypothesized that part of the difficulty resulted from the stronger focus on procedure and practice in Research Methods compared to other sociology courses.

Introductory research methods courses may include considerations of theoretical paradigms, but at their core, they introduce students to how social science research projects are designed and carried out and how data is collected—concepts that are fundamentally process-oriented. While “hard science” courses such as biology or chemistry usually include lab components to help students understand the basic foundations of data collection in these fields, a similar practicum is often absent in social science research methods courses.2 This conspicuous absence is not a casual oversight on the part of social scientists; social science projects tend to be remarkably complex and unwieldy to implement. Unlike recording data in laboratory experiments or even collecting data on Drosophila flies to understand genetic mutation, sociological research projects rarely take place inside controlled environments and often require outside interaction with respondents (and usually quite a few of them).3 Moreover, many social science projects are fairly large undertakings, often carried out collaboratively by teams of researchers, and can take years to complete. As such, the experience of carrying out a social science research project can be difficult to replicate in only one semester. In the absence of research-based practicums, we ask students to read about how research is conducted and to imagine themselves into this process. Even assignments that ask students to write up proposals or draft surveys do not fully address how research projects are implemented or how data collection and analysis might take place. It’s these aspects of research methods that I felt students had such a hard time fully grasping.

Meanwhile, Web-based technology had changed rapidly even in the short time since I first implemented student portfolios, and I wondered if the nature of Web 2.0 architecture, with its emphasis on communication, scalability, web applications, and collaboration might offer some solutions. I was particularly interested in web applications, such as collaboration and survey platforms, that might allow me to implement an apprenticeship model of learning. This type of platform would allow students to actively learn about research methods by designing, implementing, and deploying a class-based research project. In fact, I had recently collaborated with researchers in a similar manner using Web 2.0 survey and publishing tools, so why not do the same with students on a class project? With these considerations in mind, I set out to integrate some Web 2.0 tools into my two Introduction to Research Methods classes.4

Now that I have completed teaching these two classes (forthwith Class A and Class B), I can reflect on my semester-long experiment with integrating Web 2.0 technologies into Introduction to Research Methods courses. I should make clear that when classes began I had not planned to write a paper about the experience. Perhaps somewhat ironically then, this paper is not a methodologically planned, pre-crafted assessment of the effectiveness of technological innovations in teaching research methods. Rather, class outcomes and the seeds germinated by continuous student feedback and discussion throughout the semester resulted in my conlusion that this semester-long experience was worthy of a sustained post-mortem reflection on the steps, stumbles, and successes of integrating technology in research methods classes and pedagogy more generally.

Changing Pedagogy, Changing Technology

The literature on technology and pedagogy has grown steadily since the 1970s, but rose exponentially in the late 1990s as Web access became more pervasive. As late as the mid-1990s, only about 35 percent of American public schools were connected to the Internet; that percentage is now 100 percent (Greenhow, Robelia, and Hughes 2009). This explosive growth has been accompanied by a fast-paced rise in the construction of technology-based instructional classrooms and computer labs, a process that has steadily lowered student to computer ratios from 12:1 a decade ago to the current 3.8:1 (Greenhow et al. 2009). Penetration of Internet access outside of schools has been no less pervasive or fast-paced; Smith (2010) reports that as of May 2010, as many as two-thirds of American adults report having a broadband connection at home, up from 55% in May 2008.

Early Web architecture ushered in the transition to online library catalogues and facilitated access to academic information that might otherwise have been sheltered in imposing buildings, accessible only to elites or through cumbersome processes. However, it did not radically change the locus of the production or construction of knowledge. Information management on the Web continued to be restricted to “gatekeepers” who understood and had facility in its language (HTML) or who had the resources to hire programmers and designers to create their websites. The early Web, then, dovetailed well with forms of hierarchical knowledge construction, which remained largely the exclusive provenance of elites, specialists, or those with sufficient resources.

Given the relatively restrictive structure of this early Web architecture, it’s not surprising that academic interest and research into the nexus of technology and pedagogy also showed a marked weakness both in the integration of technological innovations by instructors and the ability to reinforce constructivist forms of classroom pedagogy. Studies of technological integration in classes at that time often reported that such attempts were fraught with the problem of simultaneously teaching course content with the more complex protocols of the technology, including HTML coding (Nicaise and Crane 1999). Attempts to integrate technology into classrooms often translated into a struggle between making the technology itself accessible to students and focusing on substantive course content. Predictably, these outcomes tempered academics’ attempts to integrate technology into classrooms, and arguably laid the groundwork for the continuing discourse over the limitations of technological innovation in classrooms.

While the Web 2.0 environment does not do away with these tensions altogether, it may lessen them, as Web 2.0 tools make it easier to contribute content to the Internet. Web 2.0 environments and architecture are characterized by a “read-write” model whereby users go beyond “surfing” the Internet to actually adding content through a multitude of venues and media, such as YouTube videos, comments, blogs, and Twitter. These environments have allowed the Internet to become an increasingly participatory medium, making it easier for users to become creators rather than just consumers of the Web by enabling them to add sophisticated content that is readily available for comment or revision. In these ways, Web 2.0 inherently embodies some of the main tenets of constructivist pedagogy, which similarly encourage students to be active participants in their learning through creation and discovery.

That being said, technology alone is not a cure-all for problems in the classroom, and the implementation of Web 2.0 technologies is unlikely to alleviate the “digital divide” (differential access to computers and the Internet) or the “second digital divide” (differences in technology use). These problems, which are rooted in socioeconomic disparities and are strongly correlated with race and sometimes even gender (Attewell 2000; Scott, Cole, and Engel 1992), may in fact be exacerbated by the use of Web 2.0 technologies in classrooms, by favoring those students who have had access to and experience with these new technologies. Moreover, the second digital divide is not a problem relegated only to students; there is evidence to suggest that wide disparities exist among instructors with respect to their knowledge and familiarity with newer technologies (Anderson 1976; Mumtaz 2000; Becker and Riel 2000; Wynn 2009). Finally, the ease with which information can be shared and re-shared comes with its own set of problems. As Jianwei Zhang (2009) cogently points out, Web 2.0 architecture may offer the promise of “generative social interactions, adaptability, interactivity, dynamic updating, [and] public accessibility,” but its unstructured and changing sociotechnical spaces can also challenge and even resist interpretation and synthesis— factors that limit the possibility of truly sustained knowledge creation.

Folk Pedagogy & Instructor Objectives

Before discussing the structure of the classes and how I employed technologies within them, it is important to clarify my own pedagogical preferences about the in-class use of technology since such orientations tend to be closely correlated with the ways in which technology is actually used (Gobbo and Girardi 2002). Like most instructors, one of my primary goals was to impart some greater understanding of the substantive content of the course. Here, my goal was primarily to help students develop a sophisticated understanding of research methods, as well as fluency in the working vocabulary and concepts of the course. Ideally, an illumination and demystification of the research process would allow students to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to evaluate existing research and conduct their own research projects. Because I had such end-goals in mind, my pedagogy does not fit strictly defined constructivist pedagogy whereby students locate and expand their own interests. However, neither do I fully embrace a top-down model of teaching and learning. Instead, I believe that students’’ active participation in process-oriented practice enables them to explore and truly build a sophisticated understanding of the central concepts in any course. Thus, my pedagogy is a constructivist one insofar as I view my role more as that of a facilitator and guide than as a disseminator of knowledge.

This pedagogical orientation has also informed my conception of technology itself and its incorporation in the classroom. As the Internet, smartphones, tablets, and e-readers have become virtually ubiquitous, it is increasingly difficult to live outside the realm of technological influence.  Therefore, I believe that: 1) learning unfamiliar technologies better prepares students to adapt to future innovations; and 2) active engagement with technology may help to bring a wider group of students into the world of online knowledge communities. Going through the process of mastering an unfamiliar technology not only allows one to develop competency in its use, but also teaches students new ways of thinking and problem-solving that they can use in future encounters with unfamiliar tools. This is especially true for learning newer Web-based platforms, such as Google Docs, wikis, or blogs, which provide a different usage paradigm than desktop programs such as Microsoft Word, and are often public and therefore speak to a different orientation, intention, and purpose of creation. In contrast to closed content which is either private or limited to a few readers, the public nature of many blogs and wikis opens the creative paradigm to immediate public engagement, forcing blog and wiki creators to consider and reconsider for whom the content is created and for what purpose, and address the impact of discussions and issues of re-use. Moreover, the collaborative nature of wikis raises issues of individual authorship and ownership.

To provide scaffolding upon which students can develop such proficiency, I combine active participatory learning with the generative promise and possibilities of more constructive learning tools as afforded by these technologies. Students are not given entirely free rein to decide on projects and follow their own learning paths, because I have specific goals and objectives relating to research methods that I wish to impart to students. But I do apply some models of constructivist pedagogy by encouraging active student participation through conversation and feedback. My objectives for the class include the following:

  1. students should gain a better understanding of the substantive concepts of research methods;
  2. students should develop skills for critically analyzing existing research;
  3. students should gain a better understanding of planning, organizing, and conducting their own research project;
  4. students should gain an understanding of new technologies and apply the learning process to other unfamiliar forms of technological innovation;
  5. technology should be a pedagogical tool, not a primary objective;
  6. through understanding substantive concepts and the practice of knowledge creation, students should be able to think more critically and reflexively about the general concepts of sociology as well as communities of knowledge production;
  7. students should improve research writing skills.

In this way, I am attempting to harness some of the promise of Web 2.0 environments to enhance my students’ experience of the class and its content and to further my course goals.

Class Organization and Technology Components

The overarching structure for the research methods course was relatively straightforward: each class would select a semester project and collaboratively to design and implement a class project, culminating in a collaboratively written report. The classes did not collaborate with each other, but the students within each class collaborated with each other on significant assignments. In short, each class was structured along the lines of a collaborative community charged with the goal of choosing, developing, implementing, and reporting on a semester-long research project. In fact, I welcomed students on the first day by congratulating them on their new jobs as “Research Associates” for an as-yet-to-be-determined research project. Assignments, in-class group work, and homework were sequenced throughout the semester to assist students at each step. At first glance, this structure may not be altogether unusual in a research methods class, but present technological innovations made it possible to take these demands a step further— namely, each class was also charged with fully implementing most of this project online and collaboratively. Each class would work collaboratively to write and revise a research proposal, conduct a literature search, annotate and share a literature review, develop a survey, collect data, analyze the results, and write a final report. It is worth repeating that while a great deal of research was implemented online, much of the students’ work consisted of in-class activities including workshops in computer classrooms, small group and whole-class discussions, and short writing assignments.

The core tools used in the class were Google-based, including Google Groups, Sites, and Docs.5 All are freely available and allow users relatively good control over permissions and privacy; while initially it may seem like these constitute a significant number of technology tools, they are the minimum required to operate effectively in this environment. Google Groups served as our discussion forum and listserv and is the linchpin to all Google services, providing the means to easily share Google services with a large group. The threaded organization of Google Groups allowed students (and me) to regularly view discussions contextually, making conversations that took place outside the classroom far more robust. The main public class website as well as two private class websites were created using Google Sites. The private individual class websites offered a space where students could post their own pictures and profiles, and collaboratively create content. Together, these two tools were intended to foster a greater sense of community, connectivity, and dialogue. Finally, we used Google Docs as the primary writing platform to allow students to collaboratively create their bibliography, survey, and final report. A feature of Google Docs called Forms allowed students’ class surveys to be turned into online surveys to ease data collection and analysis.

In addition to these Google tools, I also incorporated a blog developed on WordPress.com. Although Google has its own blog platform in Blogger.com, I elected to use WordPress because I felt that it offered greater flexibility. Both classes shared the same blog and all students were added as authors to the blog (www.thinkingsociology.wordpress.com).6 I incorporated and created the blog in this manner for several reasons. First, I thought it could be used to address the more theoretical orientation of research methods courses by requiring that blog posts be analyses of students’ daily encounters with research methodologies and studies. In other words, I intended this blog to be an online version of students’ assessments of the research methods used in existing research.7 I thought such an innovation would encourage students to think through the types of research that get undertaken. I also wanted to reinforce the idea of more diverse knowledge communities. While their class projects could be seen as contributions to and extensions of a very academically structured literature, I wanted to show that such formal research projects were not the only avenues of knowledge construction. Finally, since an increasing number of students rely on the Internet for their research, I hoped that as they began contributing to this information ether, they would become more critical consumers of this material.

However, I quickly realized that this framing of blog posts made the blog rather difficult for students, especially early in the semester. This owed to the fact that this type of analysis is actually quite difficult to make unless one already has a fairly good understanding of the weaknesses and strengths of different research methodologies. Thus, the blog as I had structured it actually limited rather than clarified the central concepts of Research Methods.

Upon reflection, the disconnect between the blog component and the research project was clearly a creative failure on my part. I had not considered alternative ways of organizing the blog and my requirements for blog posts still made it a very outcome-oriented enterprise. If the blog had been more process oriented, it could have been much better intertwined with the class project. Moreover, I did not make the blog a required component of the class since I felt the course already made heavy demands on students. Instead, students were able to earn as much as three percent extra credit if they elected to participate by making posts or comments, but none were penalized for non-participation.8 I learned a valuable lesson in structure and pedagogy when students reported in their exit survey that they would have been happy to contribute to the blog had it been a requirement. In fact, when asked what suggestion they had to improve the class, this suggestion came up repeatedly.

Discussion: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, and the Not So Ugly

In order to come to a better understanding of students’ perceptions of their technological skills, I began the semester with a survey created and deployed using the Forms feature in Google Docs. The survey comprised of questions moving from very broad to more exacting measures of technological skill and fluency. Questions included “On a scale of 1-5, how would you rate your technological skills?”, “On a scale of 1-5, how familiar are you with discussion listservs? Blogs? Google Docs?” etc. After students had completed the survey, I used Google Docs’ basic data summaries and charts to report results on each variable to both classes.

Not surprisingly, when technology was defined broadly, the large majority of students in both classes rated their own level of technology skills relatively highly (3-5 on a scale of 5). However, as these skills became increasingly defined by specific products, including discussion groups (Google Groups), Google Docs, Google Sites, wikis, and blog platforms such as WordPress or Blogger, students’ reported level of familiarity dropped precipitously (see Figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1: Familiarity with Specific technology – Class A

Figure 2: Familiarity with Specific Technology – Class B

Both classes indicated the least familiarity with blog platforms such as WordPress and Blogger. It’s clear from these results that the largest percentage of students in both classes was either “Somewhat” or “Not At All” familiar with most of these technological tools. The outlier is Class B’s reported familiarity with Google Sites— a whopping 15 of 28 students (52 percent) of Class B reported that they were ‘Very Familiar’ with Google Sites. However, in subsequent class discussions, it became clear that my formulation of the question led to some confusion and few students in this class had used or knew very much about Google Sites. There were more mixed results for Google Docs. While as many as 15 of 31 (48 percent) of Class A and 18 of 28 (62 percent) of Class B indicated that they were ‘Somewhat’ familiar with Google Docs, this description turned out to be rather broad. Class discussions about these technologies revealed that few students actually made actual use of Google Docs. Instead, students reporting this level of familiarity also took it to mean that he/she remembered hearing about Google Docs or knew of its existence. In short, all the Web 2.0 tools planned for this course were relatively new to students in both classes.

This survey served several purposes. First, it gave me a rough gauge of students’ skills and perceptions of their own skills as they pertain to the technology tools I had chosen to use for the course. More importantly for the students, this survey offered them a first glimpse into one technological tool that they would soon be learning to use and also introduced them to a few of the central concepts in Research Methods—questionnaire design and the operationalization of variables. This exercise gave students their first chance to analyze and consider the importance of survey questions and how their construction affects and determines the actual data collected. Many students were startled to see the difference between how a broad and relatively unspecific term such as “technology skills” could yield radically different results once it was more rigorously defined, reinforcing the importance of clarity and detail in questionnaire construction. I hoped that that this experience would raise students’ curiosity and interest about research methods as well as the format of the course.

Once the necessary steps had been taken and the structure set up for collaborative work, students were ready to begin their new “jobs” as “research associates,” which included choosing a project, crafting a research proposal, developing a literature review, constructing a survey, gathering and analyzing data, and ultimately writing a final research paper. In short, students were ready to engage in all the activities that researchers undertake in genuine research projects.

Selecting a Topic and First Discussions

The students’ first assignment to select a research project immediately offered valuable insight into how Web 2.0 technology might be particularly useful. I initially assigned several in-class group discussions to encourage students to think through their nascent research proposals. I also encouraged them to use their discussion forum (Google Groups) to continue discussing their ideas. I was surprised by their dedication and readiness in adapting to an online discussion. Many of the online debates were as impassioned and sometimes as acrimonious as their in-class discussions. Moreover, ideas arising in online discussions were usually ported back to in-class discussions.

These discussions were also important because they made evident at least two problems that affected a relatively small number of students, but which I had not thoroughly considered. Those who were not accustomed to participating in online discussions found the extensive commenting somewhat disorienting. Many reported that since they receive email directly on their smartphones, they found the numerous posts a disruptive experience and were likely to just stop reading. The result was that these students might come to class unaware that several points or topics had already been discussed and debated by a large proportion of the students in the class. Consequently, students who did not participate were likely to feel as if their input was being ignored or disregarded while students who participated more readily in online discussions found it frustrating to have to repeat material that they felt had already been settled. I tried to rectify this issue by suggesting that students change their email notification settings in Google Groups to stop push notifications to their email and smartphones and participate in class discussion through the online portal. However, I also pointed out that their active participation in these online discussions was expected and a part of the course.

The second issue was more problematic and required more delicate handling. In some cases, differential participation in the online discussion resulted not only from a technological divide, but from a more old-fashioned delimiter between students: language ability and fluency. A small number of students for whom English was not a native language or who were uncomfortable with either their speaking or writing ability were much more likely to refrain from contributing to the discussion forum. Although I had sequenced an in-class discussion to prepare them for the online discussion, I had not required that they prepare anything written, believing that a pre-written statement would lead to less organic conversations online. However, I instituted a low-stakes writing policy whereby students were given time to write down their ideas to better prepare more reticent students so that they would at least have a base upon which to build their online comments. Moreover, as the semester progressed, extensive in-class group work helped foster greater familiarity and camaraderie and I found all students became far less reticent about participating in either in-class or online discussions.

In order to assess the extent to which the technologies used in the course contributed to clarifying the processes of and concepts related to conducting a research project, I asked students to complete a non-anonymous exit survey focused on the course format. Since the exit survey was extra credit, not all students participated in it; of the 56 students, 48 took the exit survey and eight did not.9 The results from the exit survey confirm that students found the Google Group discussion board invaluable to their work in this class.  As much as 90 percent of students (43 students out of the 48 who took the survey) reported that Google Groups was useful.10

Student A:      I find it useful yes. I found receiving all the e mails as rather annoying, but overall feel the listserv was very useful for contacting the professor and other students. i feel it is was very useful in regards to the the communal aspect of the class and research project. For the project to be successful, i feel it was important for us all to be on contact.

Student B:       It made it easy to communicate with my fellow classmates. I found myself communicating more with classmates in this class than others.

Even students who viewed it negatively found it to be a useful tool for communication:

Student C:       Too many emails and it was frustrating at times. Although it was an easy way to communicate with group members it was a bit annoying to recieve 10 eamils within 5 mins.

Despite these issues, I believe that this exercise teaches a crucial lesson in a research methods class; these debates offered students the chance to experience the kinds of discussions, compromises, and considerations that often influence the choice and realization of actual research projects. In short, students’ own debates often mirrored the same processes among practicing researchers. I was thoroughly impressed with the level of these discussions and student engagement in them. Even students who initially expressed discontent with the technology or who were shy about participating in online discussions were eager to offer their opinions and defend their positions during class discussions. Moreover, since the selection of a research project took place over the course of a couple of weeks, students soon found a system that worked for them and all students began to participate more regularly in online discussions. In fact, perhaps the toughest part of this assignment was forcing students to narrow their choices and “settle” on only one topic. In a telling moment, Class A initially selected a research project centered on technology use and access. They even collaboratively drafted a proposal for this project. But after a growing feeling of injustice over what they perceived to be a social stratification system within their own college, they actually elected to change their project completely including revising and resubmitting a new draft proposal.11 Admittedly, I was thrilled that they had the chance to experience how the perception of injustice could inform their choice of a research project. Class A ultimately decided on a project that compared Honors College students with non-Honors College students. This project assessed the differences between these two groups of students, and attempted to gauge the extent to which the general student body was aware of the specialized Honors College program. Class B, perhaps influenced by the heavy integration of technology into this class, chose a descriptive project on New Yorkers’ use of Internet-enabled devices. Students wanted to research the demographic profile of who uses these devices, how they use them, and if technologies such as emails and text messages had usurped traditional communication such as phone calls. Both of these projects were challenging and sophisticated undertakings that essentially asked new questions requiring data collection. I believe that the level of sophistication owes much to collaborative revisions and in-class and online discussions.

Collaborating on a Proposal

Having successfully chosen a research project, students were required to collaboratively edit and create a page, titled Research Proposal, in their private Google Sites class website. I assigned them to do it on their wiki site because I thought they would enjoy seeing their class website evolve to reflect their semester’s work as each stage of their project contributed to building their website. Moreover, since Google Sites is a wiki platform, I envisioned the slow evolution and incremental changes so typical of Wikipedia articles. Instead, this assignment offered me and the students our first lesson in the incongruity between our expectations and outcomes when it comes to technology. Rather than slow, incremental changes to the assignment page, students were more apt to wait until the evening before the assignment was due to add their revisions. The result was a sudden influx and bottleneck of students competing with each other to add and delete comments. Worse, wiki platforms are not designed for simultaneous editing. Although a page is “locked” when it is being edited in Google Sites, contributors also have the chance to “break” the lock, and students did so with abandon, often causing each other’s contributions to be entirely lost. Their fear that they would not have contributed to the assignment prior to its being due easily overrode any sense of loyalty to each other.

In the class meeting following this debacle, I reassured them this farce was entirely a failing on my part. I clearly had failed to take into account the problems that might ensue from a mismatch between how students tend to work and the chosen technology. The wide-scale edits that take place in Wikipedia are radically different in scale and form than those that take place in smaller wikis with instituted deadlines. After this fiasco, we moved permanently to Google Docs for all future collaborative work and retained their class website primarily as a space for them to add more personal content such as pictures and descriptions of themselves— a makeshift Facebook, if you will. I do not mean to suggest that wikis do not have a place as a pedagogical tool; I merely point out that Google Docs offered a better fit for the purposes and assignments of this class. And although we largely abandoned their wiki as the primary space for the writing, I believe that its continued use as a more personal space for students encouraged the kind of camaraderie that eventually developed among the students. Many commented on each other’s photos and personal pages. Eventually, we also embedded various completed assignments into their website to give them a greater sense of progression, which they appreciated.

Understandably, this wiki assignment was particularly frustrating and students eyed the rest of the technological tools in the course somewhat warily. Given the problems in execution, I was surprised to see that students nevertheless rated this assignment quite highly in terms of usefulness as reported in the exit survey:

Figure 3: Usefulness of Research Proposal

I believe such high ratings reflect the importance of giving students the chance to discuss, revise, and make mistakes. Even if the assignment was far from perfect, it did demonstrate how committed students were to contributing to the assignment. Moreover, these repeated efforts to develop the assignment helped them to refine their ideas, ultimately resulting in a better proposal. It’s difficult to imagine a similar experience arising from a more traditional approach.

Sharing Knowledge through Collaborative References

The next assignment, a shared annotated bibliography, required each student to first locate ten journal articles that might be relevant to the class research project. In addition to sharing bibliographic references, each student also shared his or her search terms and strategies for locating articles. Thus, this exercise addressed individual skills-building as well as peer-teaching and development. Each student then annotated two articles and shared the annotations with his or her class. In this way, the students gained individual practice reading and assessing articles while participating in knowledge construction by creating a shared repository of knowledge. These assignments also received high ratings in the exit survey:

Figure 4: Usefulness of Shared References

Figure 5: Usefulness of Shared Annotated Bibliography

Constructing a Survey Together

Perhaps one of the most enriching assignments as well as the one that arguably took the most advantage of the benefits offered by Web 2.0 technologies was students’ collaboratively crafted project survey. After spending two to three weeks in small, in-class group activities developing broad themes (derived from their literature review) to include in their survey, students collaboratively created a questionnaire for the targeted population of their research project.12 The premise here was that through collaborative writing and ongoing discussions, students could develop a more rigorous and detailed survey than by working alone. By having students work in Google Docs, I could also view, monitor, and comment on their work in an ongoing manner; I could see not only how students’ ideas progressed, but also what concepts they struggled with the most. In short, I could provide continuous feedback to students as they developed their assignment. And while I never outright suggested survey questions, I did often highlight or prod them to clarify some of their own questions.

Figure 6: Usefulness of Survey Design

It was impressive to witness how often students commented on each other’s work and how often they made revisions based on other students’ comments. As students in each class struggled to create their collaborative survey, it was not unusual for individuals to make comments such as “Can we phrase this better?” “Let’s expand on this,” or “Shouldn’t we ask the exact age, rather than categories?” Even more impressive was how often my suggestions were ignored! This assignment also received very high ratings from students in terms of how well it contributed to clarifying concepts in Research Methods.

Of the 48 students who took the Exit Survey, only one indicated that this assignment was only “Somewhat Useful.” The rest of the students found this assignment at least “Useful” with a large majority reporting that it was ‘Very Useful.’ Of course such an assignment does not require using tools such as Google Docs, but students’ comments about using Google Docs contextualize the value of employing a Web 2.0 technology for such an assignment:

Student A:      It was cool being able to see other classmates viewing/editing the document at the same time and have a real-time discussion about our document.

Student B:       I started using Google Docs for my own personal uses after you introduced it to me in class. I thought the editing simultaneously part was the best!

Student C:       Despite the times it froze and was inaccessible due to high volume of student usage, Google Docs was amazing because it allowed us to work [our] assignments simultaneous and provided the means of critical feedback and necessary editing.

Clearly, students felt that the simultaneous collaborative possibilities of Google Docs in combination with its integrated discussion component made the tool particularly useful for collaborative group work. The technology component made it possible for students to engage in an ongoing dialectic of discussion and creation, leading to the development of far richer and more detailed questions on their survey.

At this stage, in a more conventionally structured research methods course, copies of the survey might be printed and students assigned to go out and gather data. Such a process might entail gathering data, developing and readying the database structure to receive data, data entry, and learning the chosen data analysis software. Given the time-consuming nature of the process, this step is often skipped over. However, advances in online survey tools—particularly the ease with which they can be created and deployed—offer an ideal opportunity for students to attempt to answer their research questions by actually deploying the surveys they worked so hard to create. I initially planned for students to turn their survey document into an online questionnaire using Google Forms. I altered the assignment when I determined that while such a requirement would teach students how to use another tool, the skill itself would contribute little to clarifying the concepts of research methods. Instead, I used Google forms to turn their questionnaires into online surveys that they could then deploy to collect data. As a final quality check, students completed the surveys themselves before they were finalized.13 This exercise immediately made it clear to them which questions required additional revisions.

The next step included recruiting respondents and entering the data. At least two lessons learned during this process point to the importance of integrating survey technologies into research methods. The first lesson came in the form of problems students encountered during recruitment. At first, many students assumed that friends, family, and acquaintances would readily answer their calls for help to complete a class assignment. Instead, students reported that it was often difficult to get even these familiar associates to complete the survey. Students were forced to find methods for locating additional participants, thereby learning a valuable lesson about the complexities and difficulties involved in recruiting respondents. Again, I doubt that students would have had the same opportunity to learn such lessons without the chance to collect data as afforded by the integration of these survey tools.

A second telling moment came during the data analysis portion. Students could collect data in two ways: 1) conduct face-to-face interviews with respondents and enter the data themselves through the online link; or 2) send the link to the online survey directly to a respondent and allow for self-reporting. Although students elected the latter because it was seemingly more convenient, they quickly learned that the easy route was fraught with pitfalls. When at least one respondent participating in the survey entered “Klingon” as his/her race, they realized the cost of exchanging face-to-face interviews for the online survey and were immensely relieved that not all the participants had done the same. Once again, students learned a valuable lesson about the unintended difficulties of data collection that was able to be made more cogently because of affordances provided by the Web 2.0 tools used to perform and process data collection.

Ultimately, each class recruited nearly 300 respondents (8-10 respondents per student), and while the data collection process alone was irreplaceable, the fact that Google Docs also offered basic data summary tables and charts made this an even more valuable exercise for students. Students expressed pride and even awe in seeing their work summarized into colorful bar and pie charts. I wanted to show them how their data might answer their questions so we spent one class entirely devoted to statistical analysis. Students developed questions that they wanted to find from the data and I ran the analyses for them in SPSS.14 Again, they expressed pride in the types of answers they were able to determine from their data.

Even when students are provided with summary tables and sophisticated data analyses, turning them into coherent narratives still requires a certain amount of skill and training; it was here that students ran into the most trouble. While they could report the data summaries and even the results of crosstabs or inferential statistics that I provided for them, they found it more difficult to craft sophisticated answers to their research question using this data output. As previously noted, this outcome is not surprising given that the goals of an introductory research methods class do not usually include data analysis; most students go on to take an introductory statistics course which addresses this goal more directly. However, even without a clear understanding of the data analysis, students seemed to recognize that the process of data collection gave them a better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of how data is collected as reflected in their high ratings of this exercise:

Figure 7: Usefulness of Data Collection

In fact, the Survey Design and Data Collection assignments received the highest approval ratings of all the assignments.

A Research Paper Beckons

This semester-long work culminated in a collaborative final paper written in Google Docs. Given the amount of work most students had already put into their project, I debated whether to assign a final paper; I ultimately elected to do so because I believed that it would address one of the concerns I had about relying too heavily on process as product. The strength of Web 2.0 architecture, according to Zhang, is the ease with which it is “generative [of] social interactions and sharing, adaptability, interactivity, dynamic updating, information, and public accessibility (quoted in Greenhow et al. 2009).” However, like Zhang (2009), I believe that these same strengths can too easily work against a sustained and steady evolution of ideas (Greenhow et al. 2009). In other words, the ease with which Web 2.0 architecture allows for sharing and commenting all too often leads to merely commenting or opinion-making, falling far short of the requirements of structured, formal education. For better or worse, the ability to write a coherent, cohesive paper is still at the forefront of standards of education— I know of no educational institution that rewards graduate students for merely speaking about their doctoral research. Discussion clearly helps to clarify concepts, but the ability to synthesize, interpret, and think critically about information (whether it arises from discussion, collaboration, or elsewhere) is equally important in academia and beyond. Nonetheless, I hoped that by making this assignment a collaborative one, such a goal-oriented assignment could also be combined with independent learning and constructivist models of knowledge creation.

The usefulness of this last assignment received slightly more mixed reviews. While a majority of students rated this assignment ‘Very Useful,’ at least a few rated it “Not At All Useful’ or only “Somewhat Useful.’

Figure 8 : Usefulness of Final Paper

This final assignment was the least popular of all the assignments amongand it easily garnered the greatest contention and loudest grumbles. Tellingly, student resistance was not necessarily to a final paper or report. Rather, student resistance centered on the assignment of a single and collaborative final paper. Despite an entire semester of collaboratively working together and often successfully producing complex and critical work, many students continued to worry about “freeloaders” and perceived disparities in writing ability and even critical thinking (I did offer students the option to write their own research paper if they preferred, but only two took me up on this offer).

A more general complaint about this assignment was directed at the technology itself. Although Google Docs claims that it allows simultaneous collaborative editing for up to fifty users at a time and can be shared with as many as 200 users, students repeatedly remarked on how slow the document could become when too many students were editing it at the same time, a factor that frustrated them and deterred their enthusiasm for the technology.15 It was clearly a difficult process to have thirty students all collaborating on one document even if it was only being edited by two to seven students at any given time.

Despite these laments, each class’s final paper represents some most of the most sophisticated undergraduate research work I’ve seen. I believe that what imperfections they exhibit result from the nature of diffuse, collaborative work rather than a lack of comprehension on the part of students. In fact, the ideas and concepts elaborated in each paper were relatively sound and creative. That being said, I tend to agree with their assessment— 30 students working on one single paper was difficult to manage. A few alternatives to this situation come to mind: 1) have students work in smaller groups of four to five students to write several papers; 2) have smaller groups of students simultaneously editing different sections of the same paper so that all students still have the opportunity to work on all parts of the paper; 3) assign different sections of the paper to smaller groups of students. Admittedly, the first and second options are the most appealing to me. In the first, all the papers would be on the same topic (the class project), but that does not preclude the submission of several papers and in fact such an approach is likely to allow for greater creativity and more nuanced details as each group may focus on different aspects of the topic. Meanwhile, the strength of the second allows for all students to work on all parts of the paper, ensuring that all students have similar levels of competency in all areas of the research project. By contrast, the third option is the least attractive and may still lead to some of the same issues involved with writing a single paper, and given the diverse voices, may actually result in a more discordant final report. Moreover, assigning different sections to small groups of students may limit students’ competency to their assigned section.

Grading such collaborative work was another challenge of this project, since it was such a central component of this course and also a primary concern for students. I tried to balance collaborative work with individual work by sequencing all larger assignments and offering individual credit for each smaller assignment. For example, students earned individual credit for participating in class discussions, locating and annotating references for the collaborative bibliography, creating survey questions for the class survey, collecting data, etc. While few students complained about this individual grading policy, the grading policy for the collaborative pieces was far more contentious since all students theoretically received the same grade on these components (the proposal, survey, and final report). My solution was to offer feedback at least two or three times as they were in the process of writing the assignment in hopes of improving their final work. Once the assignment had been turned in, I graded it. Then I used Google Docs’ revision history feature to track student contributions (see here). So long as students contributed to the work and made improvements to it, they received full credit (the grade that I had given the assignment). If students made only minor changes such as adding a period or indenting a paragraph, they received slightly lower grades. Students who made significantly more contributions than others received slightly higher grades. I also considered students’ comments, suggestions, and replies on the document as measures of participation, but with the stipulation that these could not be the only contribution to these assignments. I hoped that by making individual student assignments a relatively large percentage of their final grades, it would balance out any perceived injustice in grades on their collaborative assignments. Admittedly, this system was far from perfect–in particular, Google Docs’ revision history feature is not nearly as robust as I would like–and grading was a stressful task.

The literature on grading collaborative work suggests asking students to grade or rank contributions made by themselves and others. However, this suggestion would have been virtually impossible to implement given how I had structured some of these collaborative assignments. Since each class worked as a unit, how could thirty students grade or rank each other’s contributions? This struggle alone suggests revamping some of these collaborative assignments to be based on smaller groups and is something I’m seriously considering.

Final Remarks & Further Considerations

Figure 9: Class Format

Figure 10: Technology Use in Class

In conclusion, the experience of integrating Web 2.0 technologies into these Introduction to Research Methods courses was overwhelmingly positive for both the students and myself. In the exit survey, students gave high scores to the class format and use of technology in the course. When asked to rank on a scale of scale of 1-5 where 1 was “Hated it” and 5 was “Loved it,” 36 of 48 students (75 percent) rated the format of the class a four or higher. Another ten students (21 percent) rated the course format a three, and only two students reported disliking the class format.
Students reported similar ratings for the integration of technology such as Google Groups, Google Docs, and Google Sites in the class with even more students giving the use of technology in the class the highest possible score of five.

Figure 11: Comprehension

One final question in the survey asked students to rate their own understandings of research methods as a way to provide some kind of grounded base for reading these results. Although this was purely self-assessment, it is worthwhile to report that—at least by their own gauge—an overwhelming majority of the students reported that they now have a ‘Good’ to ‘Very Good’ understanding of research methods, and as many as four students think of themselves as experts.
Perhaps more valuable than how students felt about the course format, the use of technology in the course, or even their own understanding of research methods, were questions that specifically asked students to consider the extent to which they felt that the assignments and class activities helped to clarify the concepts and processes involved in conducting research. As Figures 3-8 (above) indicate, students’ responses to how well the assignments helped them to understand the central concepts of research methods was overwhelmingly positive. And while it is clear that a few students did indeed repeatedly report that they did not find these assignments useful, a much larger percentage of students regularly gave the assignments high marks in terms of their usefulness in clarifying concepts of the course. Moreover, the vast majority of students consistently gave the highest possible rating, “Very Useful,” to all of these assignments. Of course in the absence of other, more conventional assignments in this course, it is perhaps not too surprising that students would rate these assignments so highly. However, since each assignment was grounded in and designed to take full advantage of Web 2.0 technologies, I believe that a significant portion of their valuation can be attributed to this relationship.

In many ways, this format allowed students to gain a very nuanced, rich, and applied understanding about the central processes of conducting social research: survey design, implementation, and data collection. Together, these steps demystified the process of quantitative data collection and allowed students to directly address many of the most central issues and concepts in research methods, including ethics, respondent anonymity and confidentiality, cost, population sampling and design, and questionnaire design and construction. By structuring the class in this way, the course effectively became a problem-solving exercise—how would students structure and organize their inquiry to best answer the research question they had chosen? Such an exercise can easily be translated beyond the confines of a research methods course.

The incorporation of Web 2.0 technology tools allows research methods courses to be conducted in an apprenticeship model, giving students the opportunity to learn about research methods and methodologies by conducting research. Could such an apprenticeship model be conducted without the use of technologies such as Google Docs, Google Groups, and Google Sites? Yes and no. Certainly students could be asked to work in groups to collaboratively create a survey, but this method would result in several surveys that would have to be re-synthesized into a single survey, a process that would require significant time either inside or outside the classroom. Another option is for students to email documents back and forth to each other as researchers have traditionally done. However, part of the strength and richness of students’ surveys owed much to the fact that the entire class collaboratively contributed to a single document, creating, adding, or revising questions and expanding on concepts. Moreover, I continue to believe that the ease with which the survey could be deployed and data collected and summarized makes this a unique addition to research methods courses. In the absence of such tools, the data collection and analysis portions of this assignment would have required significant class time devoted to explaining the use of quantitative software such as SPSS.16

However, far from being a panacea to smooth over differences between students, the integration of these digital tools and the format of the class also contributed their own set of problems. By far the most prominent problem was the persistence of both the first and second digital divides; students who had more access to computers at home and expressed greater comfort using newer technologies—those who were more likely to say that they followed blogs, had contributed to blogs, or saw themselves as particularly comfortable in online environments—were also more likely to be committed to the format of the class and to learning the technologies used in the class. Students who were more comfortable in a traditionally structured classroom found the class somewhat confusing and reported feeling uncomfortable navigating the numerous technological resources used in the class.

Student D:      Google documents was useful, it let the class work together and we could see what each other was working on, so it helped. However, there were issues with working together on google documents that made it difficult to fully appreciate it.

Student E:       I was a bit weary about google docs because I’ve never used them before. I got used to working with google docs towards the end of the class but I would say to have an extra class showing up more about how to use google docs.

Student F:       It was better than blackboard but I’ll never love online work. It’s a bit confusing.

Student G:      I learned alot about using Google document… it would be nice if you taught us how to use before we had to figure it out ourselves and it took me days to learn which i lost motivation …

For this group of students, rather than making it easier to collaborate, online tools made the process more intimidating and confusing, and they often expressed a preference for traditional group work where students meet outside the classroom in small groups to work on an assignment. Moreover, even for students comfortable with technological innovations, it was clear that the promise of these new technologies as described in much of the literature remained theoretical. Students often stumbled in working with these technologies, and many still required considerable guidance to critically assess and use these online tools. To address this issue from a pedagogical standpoint, it is crucial that instructors continuously monitor and provide sufficient training on all technological tools, as well as make sure that the use of these tools does not become the central part of any grading scheme. Additionally, steps should be taken to ensure that students have equality of access to hardware—if a student does not have home access to computers, laptop lending or other similar programs should certainly be considered.

Despite these concerns, the fact that so few students provided consistently negative feedback about either the course structure or content leads me to believe that the vast majority of students felt that the class structure contributed to their understanding of course content. Further, while the second digital divide was evident among students, exposing and training students on these technologies affords the opportunity to go through a process of learning that may help them learn unfamiliar tools in the future, thereby narrowing that divide.

It remains to be seen how applicable or useful Web 2.0 technology is to all courses. Generally, “real-world” research projects are collaborative enterprises, and a fair number of researchers have learned about research methods through experience and practice. Thus, the technologies integrated into this course fit particularly well with the demands and paradigms associated with research methods. However, that does not mean that these technologies are equally applicable or suited to all courses. My misstep with my initial implementation of the class blog demonstrates how important it is for instructors to think carefully about how they wish to structure the tools they plan to integrate. While my initial structuring of the class blog led to very little participation, after I opened up the discussion to any topic students could relate to larger sociological concepts, students immediately began adding content. Thus it was not the technology itself that was ineffectual, but how I had designed the assignment.

Their few posts immediately demonstrated that at least one strength of blog platforms lies in the opportunities they offer for students to critically reflect on broader issues and themes from other courses. It also hinted at an interesting pedagogical issue. Just as students sometimes ignored my comments on their collaborative work, preferring to pay attention to the comments of their peers, their few blog posts made quite plain the diffuse nature of information and knowledge construction. That many of the students made posts on topics that I was either unaware of or which were of no concern to me, but nevertheless seemed quite valuable to them, speaks to a more complete decoupling between instructor and the dissemination of information. The more such free-form tools are integrated into teaching, the more the nodes of knowledge become diffuse and multiple. Just as specific Web 2.0 technologies were used to fulfill a constructivist pedagogy in this Introduction to Research Methods course, the integration of a blog platform in more theoretical courses may better fit the demands of constructivist learning in them.17

A more generalized problem with using these technologies is that despite their advances and functionality, they have not actually quite caught up with the demands and requirements of an academic environment, probably because they were not designed initially for academia. There is no unified digital platform linking knowledge creation, bibliographic management, and project management. Because Google Sites does not allow single pages to be locked,18 I juggled a main website alongside two class websites which were kept private and accessible only to students; this made the flow of information somewhat disjointed. In addition, because bibliographic and annotated reference management was somewhat makeshift and clumsy (we used the spreadsheet option in Google Docs for this purpose), their papers were written in Google Docs, and their blog was hosted entirely on a different online service (WordPress), students found the flow clumsy to navigate. In the words of one student, it was actually “information overkill.”19

A final problem, more related the constructivist and somewhat self-directed format of the class than to technology, should be noted: some students respond better than others to different styles of teaching. A constructivist model demands a great deal of self-motivation and self-discipline on the part of students and it is paramount that instructors remember that in many ways, this requirement may actually be an added burden for both teacher and students. To my great surprise, quite a few students (although a relatively small minority) requested more and greater instructor oversight in the form of regular quizzes (to ensure that they read the assigned readings) and mandatory assignments (including the blog). While I worried that my presence on their discussion board or my ability to review their work in Google Docs was too intrusive or dictatorial, many students reported preferring that I provide even more feedback, especially in the form of PowerPoint presentations and even lecture notes to make sure they grasped the most important aspects of the course. In short, many students reported preferring a more top-down approach toward discipline and control. And although a relatively small number of students indicated such preferences, it does speak to different learning styles that some students may find the more free-form constructivist model of pedagogy more difficult. However, such demands may need to be balanced with the goal of fostering greater self-discipline in students.

What has emerged from this experience is that despite some problems, Web 2.0 technologies offer a promising and tantalizing possibility for making the concepts of research methods courses more accessible and transparent for many students. In addition to making it possible for students to carry out fairly complex projects, it helped to foster a sense of community among students and helped them to see themselves as active knowledge creators and contributors. Clearly, instructors must continue to be aware of the way students actually work to ensure a proper match between technological tools and assignments; since many students are likely to wait until the last minute to complete an assignment, this fact may well determine how to structure an assignment. And while we must continue to consider differential levels of technology use among students as well as cultural contexts (Bruce 2005), I firmly believe that the technological tools employed as described offer students the chance to engage with the central concepts of research methods in a manner that would not have been possible through a more conventionally structured course. Moreover, the collaborative nature of these tools bolstered student confidence, helping to foster a sense of ownership and pride in their own contributions to the overall project, which could be readily identified by students and myself; students often proudly pointed out which questions were “hers” or “his” at various times throughout the data collection and analysis phase of the project.

Additionally, the sense that educational institutions continue to play technological catch-up persists, as an overwhelming number of students preferred even these ad hoc digital methods of course organization over those of Blackboard. When asked if they would have preferred if we had worked more in Blackboard, only eight (17 percent) students answered “Yes” while forty (83 percent) reported “No.” Those who preferred Blackboard usually did so for the sake of convenience, noting that it would have been easier if this course could be found in the same place with their other courses, more than any other reason. Finally, it is clear from student comments that they found learning the technology itself a valuable experience. There is little higher praise than the fact that quite a few students indicated that they intended to continue using Google Docs or had already begun doing so. One student even reported that when another course required group work, he took the initiative to introduce Google Docs to his group as an additional means of collaboration!


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Attewell, Paul. 2011. “The First and Second Digital Divides.” Sociology of Education 74, no. 3: 252-259. ISSN 0038-0407.

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About the Author

Kate B. Pok-Carabalona is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY). Her interests include immigration, race and ethnicity, comparative urban contexts, and the changing role and impact of technology; her dissertation uses in-depth interviews to examine how contexts structure the integration and subjective experiences of Chinese second generation immigrants living in Paris and New York. She has received funding from a Social Science Research Council (SSRC) summer grant, CUNY Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship, and a CUNY Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) Fellowship. Kate holds a BA in History with concentrations in Classical History and Women’s Studies from Cornell University and an M.Phil.from the Graduate Center.



  1. I did not make overly extensive feedback to student papers online. Instead, my public criticism tended to be restricted to common errors committed by many students such as suggestions for strengthening thesis statements, grammar and syntax corrections, and pointing out citation mistakes. Since such errors were committed by most of the students, few felt embarrassed by them— in fact, many expressed relief that they were not alone in their errors. In addition, I also made public suggestions about how a research project might be conducted and pointed out when a research question needed to be revised or restructured since it couldn’t be answered in the current way it was framed. These last two types of public comments directly address one of the central goals of research methods courses— to teach students how to formulate and frame research questions in a manner that they can be answered using common social science research methodologies. Students tended to find such comments to be some of the most useful; in effect this exercise gave them practice considering the weaknesses and strengths of many research questions rather than just their own. Nevertheless, I also elected to send the most detailed and critical comments to students individually to alleviate any embarrassment for students.
  2. Although scant research exists on how many research methods classes implement the kind of semester-long project I describe in this paper, I believe that I am correct in my assertion that few classes do. I came to this conclusion based on reviewing numerous research methods syllabi as well as on personal networks of faculty and graduate students who teach research methods at CUNY. This assertion does not mean that some classes do not require students to gather data or have group projects, but the scale and form of these projects tend to be smaller or limited to unobtrusive observation. I have never heard of a student class that collaboratively created a survey or carried out research projects like the ones described in this paper.
  3. The exception of course is research projects using secondary or existing data and artifacts.
  4. According to McManus (2005), the term “Web 2.0” was first coined in 2004.
  5. A Google Calendar was used in lieu of a traditional syllabus, but students did not actually use this tool in the sense that they did not add to it or manipulate it in any way. Since I used it as a syllabus to add readings, due dates, and reminders, students primarily used to keep track of assignments.
  6. I’ve continued to use the blog in more recent classes so it has grown quite a bit.
  7. For example, an article in the New York Times reporting statistics on unemployment should lead students to consider the strengths and weaknesses of the methodology employed in the data collection. Such assignments are not entirely novel in research methods courses.
  8. There were also other opportunities to earn extra credit so that students who might be less enamored with technology would still have the opportunity to improve their grade through extra credit.
  9. The grade split for the eight students was three As, two Bs, and three Cs.
  10. Grammar and syntax errors for students’ quotes have been retained.
  11. The Honors College program is a specialized program instituted throughout the CUNY’s 4-year colleges. The stated purpose of the program is to attract high-achieving students and to “raise the academic quality” throughout CUNY. By and large, the Honors College does attract very talented students; many of the students in the Honors College have competitive GPAs and SAT scores. However, the program has also been controversial in that students in the Honors College program also receive benefits such as free tuition, room and board in some cases, laptop computers, and educational stipends to name only a few. That these students tend to come from wealthier backgrounds than their non-Honors College peers has led to charges that such benefits and focus are being unfairly allocated to those students least likely to need them at the expense of the broader student body.
  12. At this juncture, we also transitioned to using Google Docs almost exclusively to avoid the problems associated with wiki mediums. Unlike wikis, Google Docs allows for simultaneous editing with as many as 50 people at the same time and can be shared with as many as 200 people.
  13. Again, although they did not actually create the physical online survey, the design, format, questions, etc. were essentially their work. I did little more than translate their questions into a digital survey form.
  14. Another advantage of using Google Forms is that the data is collected in a spreadsheet that can be relatively easily exported to SPSS for further analysis.
  15. See http://docs.google.com/support/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=44680
  16. In many cases, SPSS is taught in conjunction with Introduction to Statistics classes where students learn in greater detail to analyze quantitative data. For this class, students formulated questions and relationships between variables that they thought might exist, and if it was possible to run such an analysis, I ran the analysis for them in class.
  17. In my current course, the blog is much better integrated and students’ critical thinking as well as the diffuse nature of knowledge is even more evident.
  18. As of August 2011, Google has started to offer page-level permissions, see: http://googledocs.blogspot.com/2011/08/better-control-in-google-sites-with.html and https://support.google.com/sites/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=1387384&topic=1387383&rd=1
  19. Some might suggest that the Blackboard (Bb) course management system may be a better alternative, but I have seen little evidence of this. Bb may have wiki, discussion forum, and even blogging functionality, but compared to the existing services described in this paper, these functionalities are poorly implemented and in many ways less robust. Moreover, academic work in a content-management system (CMS) service such as Bb is fundamentally different than creating work in a public environment. For a more detailed discussion of these differences, see Web 2.0 and Emergent Multiliteracies (Alexander 2008). When asked, my students overwhelmingly report a preference for the digital structure that I developed over that of Bb.

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