WikiFAIL: Students and the Orthodoxy of Practice in the Classroom

Kimon Keramidas, Bard Graduate Center

Recognizing and adapting to student tolerance of the integration of technology in the classroom.

In our quest to encourage the use of interactive technology in the classroom, we often presume that we will receive the most resistance from obstinate educators who are unwilling to integrate new tools or consider changes to their pedagogical practice. This assumption is based on a notion that students, who are supposedly bored with traditional pedagogical methods, will be eager and willing participants in experimentation in the classroom. But in many cases it is the students themselves who push back against experiments and who have just as much invested in pedagogical orthodoxy as teachers and administrators. This is the story of one such failure that helped me learn this lesson and how it has shaped my subsequent approach to the integration of interactive technology into the classroom.

A few years ago I was teaching a doctoral-level course in the CUNY Graduate Center’s Certificate Program in Interactive Technology and Pedagogy. The course focused on digital tools and methods for their integration into the classroom, especially at the collegiate level. My co-teacher Adrianne Wortzel and I devised an exercise that used wikis to encourage experimentation with collaborative authoring and group composition. The assignment was structured as follows:

  • The first week of the assignment students would compose and post their proposals for final projects for the course–the outline of an original teaching tool they would theorize and prototype–on the course wiki.
  • Students were then assigned to review another student’s proposal and given two weeks to edit, adapt, and expand upon the original proposal.
  • Students would then have two weeks to go back to their own proposal, review the changes that had been made, further incorporate those changes, and further expand and improve their proposals.
  • During the final two weeks of the course all the students were to look at all of the proposals (there were eight students in the class) and continue to make edits, expanding and/or refining the proposals wherever they saw fit.

My co-teacher and I had high hopes for the project, thinking that since all of the students were enrolled in the certificate program and already interested in questions of alternative pedagogies that they would be eager to embrace the challenges of collaborative work. In an ideal scenario, the students would take ownership of the proposals, adding, editing, and elaborating on them at various stages of the process, and, in the end, the proposals would be more complex, more deeply thought out, and richer as a result of the collaborative reenvisioning and revising process. In practice however, the project could not have failed more completely.

While the students posted their initial proposals as planned, the first round of edits turned out not really to be edits at all. Almost all of the editorial contributions took the form of marginal comments and suggestions made either within the text or on the discussion page. There were few if any alterations of original text and few substantial additions to original proposals. Students did offer minor copyedits and grammar corrections, but they were hesistant (or in some cases unwilling) to make the leap to the type of collaborative writing that would overcome ingrained deference to original authors and allow them to really change the substance and quality of the proposals made by their fellow students.

There were probably a number of structural changes in the assignment that might have made it work better,1 but what I did learn from this exercise and from this particular cohort was that students often have very concrete expectations about what types of work they should be doing and how much can be asked of them. Teachers in search of new pedagogical practices and armed with the desire to implement new technologies often lose sight of this condition. We hope that students immersed in the educational process will welcome fresh approaches and the challenges that come with them. But for many students, a full course load performed under even predictable academic conditions can be taxing. As a result, students can be highly resistant, sometimes out of stubbornness and sometimes out of anxiety, to doing work that goes above and beyond the expected norms of student labor in and outside of the classroom. I have often found this even more true of graduate students who are more deeply embedded in the practices of academia. They see alternative practices dismissed by their advisors and undervalued in the job market, and often question the value of the extra exertion that learning a new pedagogical tool or technique typically entails.

In our case, my colleague and I misjudged how ready our particular group of students was to use a new technology that not only introduced new methods of composition, but challenged traditional academic perceptions regarding the value of collaborative work. The students were unwilling to cede their authorship, nor were they willing to tread on the work of others and we ended up with a near revolt on our hands. When we argued the virtues of working collaboratively, the students argued that the individual author’s view was still sacrosanct and should not be altered. When we championed the liberating anarchy of the relatively authorless nature of wiki contributions, they expressed concern over who would get credit for what work. They became entrenched in their stance and the entire project came to a grinding halt. We made an attempt to back up to the beginning and reboot the project, but at a certain point all parties became too deeply entrenched for any real changes to be enacted and soon the semester was at an end.

My current position at the Bard Graduate Center is almost completely about implementing technology in the curriculum. As such, the lessons from this experience resonate with me on an almost daily basis, and I am now more careful about assessing the relative value of implementing a technology that forces students or faculty to break from more orthodox academic practices. If a change causes a significant deviation from the norms of traditional pedagogy, I consider whether that change will cause a disruption and whether that disruption is likely to cause a positive reaction or if it will destabilize a learning environment. I think about how students might react to the new experience and make sure that I take that into consideration in my teaching practice and in the teaching practice of those professors I assist. Will students be too worried about learning a new tool that they will be distracted from the content of their course? Is the work required to complete a digital media project feasible in a semester and fair to ask of a student? Does the faculty member I am working with really understand the implications of an experimental assignment and the extra work it may demand of them?. And whenever I come to that point where I need to make a decision about whether something is going to work or not, I go back to my memories of this previous wiki assignment and make sure that I am not repeating those mistakes.



About the Author

Kimon Keramidas is Assistant Director for the Digital Media Lab at the Bard Graduate Center where he is responsible for the development and implementation of digital media practices across academic programs. His research focuses on digital media through the lenses of political economy and sociology of culture, and he is currently working on a book project about contemporary corporate theatrical production and a gallery project on the materiality of computer interface design. Kimon received his PhD in Theatre from the CUNY Graduate Center where he also completed the CUNY Graduate Center’s Certificate in Interactive Technology and Pedagogy.

  1. The biggest change we could have made would have been to mandate explicit numbers of changes at each stage of the project. I believe that the main reason we didn’t do so can be traced back to our original belief that the students would eagerly dive into this work. We could also have found explicit models of collaborative writing to provide as examples, but those are few and far between and it would have been difficult to find ones that compared favorably to the type of proposal they were working on. Collaborative grant writing might have been a good place to start.

'WikiFAIL: Students and the Orthodoxy of Practice in the Classroom' has 3 comments

  1. November 24, 2012 @ 6:05 am Srinidhi

    Ah, well hopefully I’ll get an otprotunipy to hear you present it at some point. There’s not much grad-student control over department colloquium schedule here at Cornell, but if the otprotunipy ever arose, I’d love to see if we could get you out here to present. I’ll keep digging.


  2. September 18, 2012 @ 7:03 pm Shawn Graham

    I’ve encountered this same pushback in other classes where I’ve tried, as you’ve done here, to offer novel engagements with materials through digital media. There’s a huge streak of conservatism. I’m baffled sometimes as to what needs to be done to break it. I am convinced however that if we continue to discuss openly what works, what doesn’t, and why, we’ll crack it eventually…


  3. June 18, 2012 @ 7:46 am Jack Dougherty

    Glad to see this section on “TeachingFails” with contributors who bravely acknowledge what did not work, and why, in their classrooms. See a related article by Shawn Graham on student resistance to his “Wikiblitz” writing assignment. He reported “pushback from an unexpected quarter” of his first-year seminar — declared history majors — who “already had quite clear ideas about authority, authorship, and intellectual property that fit in quite well with established ways of writing history.” See


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