With the use of blogs and wikis, students may reach unexpected audiences and collaborate at unexpected moments in contrast with traditional reading and writing experiences.
First in regards to audience, Charles Tryon advocates using blogs to help students gain an identity as global citizens in “Writing and Citizenship: Using Blogs to Teach First-Year Composition.” The unlimited reach of blogs makes student writing available to a global audience. When students receive comments and feedback about their writing from the greater public, the writing they have done for the public sphere in the blog gains a more profound validity than classroom writing.
While blogging may open up student writing to a global audience, some dangers come with that level of access. In “Learning to Write Publicly,” a qualitative research study done by John Benson and Jessica Reyman, the authors note that only about one or two students out of sixty-seven, who were observed blogging in a first year composition class, had concerns about the public nature of blogging, and the other sixty-five viewed blogging as totally anonymous or like talking to a “close friend.” Despite the propensity of students to over-estimate the amount of personal information that can safely be shared (a phenomenon well known by now and mocked on websites such as Failblog or in this SNL sketch), the authors of the research study still note that the exercise in rhetorical awareness is hugely beneficial to students because even just going through the motions of having fellow students comment on their work (albeit required comments by the teacher) expands a student’s notions of audience.
Coming from more of a K-12 perspective, Will Richardson proposes many methods for limiting the audience of student blogs, so that students can practice writing for a larger audience (even if it’s just the whole class) without risks of allowing students to overshare or discover unsavory content. Richardson sees the blog as more of a pedagogical tool that should be managed so that students can use new media tools more effectively outside of the classroom. Richardson’s perspective, that of the private class blog, is training wheels for real-world blogging. I, in any many instances think it’s more appropriate for the classroom to be a safe space, but many students will learn the harsh lessons of over-sharing outside of the classroom one way or another.
Take me for example, long ago (2005), I e-mailed a letter to the editor of SF Weekly about iPods. The newspaper had run a story about how podcasts were a “medium for dissent.” I received notice that they were going to print my letter and I became excited. I eagerly waited for the next edition of the weekly to come out, and when I raced to the page where the “Letters to The Editor” were, I discovered that my letter had been saddled with a sarcastic title “Manifesto from the Outer Sunset.” My glee turned to disappointment as I realized the editors were making fun of my letter, one containing a few too many Marxist sounding words (common man, upper classes, dissent).
Long story short, it has taken YEARS for that letter to the editor to stop showing up in the top 10 results when you Google my name (and yes I know that by linking to it in this post, I am counteracting that effect). The lesson I learned from all of this is that—the internet follows you. I’m sad to say this is not the only lesson I learned about discretion in regards to the internet and new media, but it was a valuable learning experience, and in retrospect, a shareable blunder.
Students are invariably going to make mistakes when trying to take part in civic discourse, and eventually we do have to take off the training wheels and let them ride their internet bikes into ditches. Especially nowadays, there is more recourse for internet blunders (privacy settings, delete functions) so most of the time students will bounce back unless they do something as profoundly shocking as UCLA student Alexandra Wallace posting a YouTube video containing a racist rant about Asians in the UCLA library. Wallace had to publicly apologize and withdrew from UCLA, but I think cases like hers are an extreme example.
Extreme examples aside, students must get used to the fact that when they write online, audience changes. Wikis provide an intermediate experience, and one distinctly different than blogs. With wikis, students collaborate on a document or web resource. While the wiki can be changed by anyone, the wiki retains a history of all changes made so that the wiki can be reverted back to previous versions. A student will experience a different type of audience on the wiki, not that of commenters, but of authorial discussions about the nature of the content on the wiki. Students must feel bold in changing the work of others, but also be comfortable with the fact that their writing will most likely be edited and/or deleted. The notion of authorship and audience completely changes on the wiki: from singular to shared authorship, and simultaneously an unlimited audience (on the internet) and a limited audience (fellow authors of the wiki). In “Erasing “Property Lines”: A Collaborative Notion of Authorship and Textual Ownership on a Fan Wiki,” Rik Hunter observes these phenomenons regarding audience and authorship in the context of a World of Warcraft Wiki, WOWWIKI.
I wholeheartedly agree with the notion that it is beneficial and possible crucial to teach students how to use these tools critically. We might not save them from a few badly written letters to the editor, but we might save them from life altering viral video status if they are a little more aware of the power of these tools. We can show them how to use a tricycle and maybe someday, they will build something like this.