Enlightened Educators: Reflections on Pedagogy, Website Development and Collaboration

ITP student Laura Kane (Philosophy) reflects on her independent study project 

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Visit Enlightened Educators

Just over a year ago, I set out to create a wiki for philosophers – an online, collaborative resource that would help newer graduate teaching fellows and adjuncts create lesson plans around topics they have never taught before.  I named the wiki Enlightened Educators hoping it would be a space that inspired educators with varying levels of experience to come together and offer suggestions for overcoming many of the obstacles that newer educators face when trying to determine the most effective ways to teach their students.  As I write this report summarizing my work toward this goal, the wiki remains largely unused.  It is not entirely devoid of content and contributions, but it has not taken off with the kind of enthusiasm that I had envisioned it would.  Instead, its current state has served as a reminder to me that it’s very difficult for those of us in academia to break with the traditions we’ve been inculcated with since entering doctoral study.

Academics are often encouraged to work alone and discouraged from introducing any new work until it has already reached a semi-polished state.  We become defensive about sharing our early ideas with others for fear of receiving less credit and prestige when those same ideas finally come together in formal conference presentations and published articles.  This rationale is not only limited to scholarship; the same kind of behavior occurs regularly when we approach teaching undergraduate students.

As many of us have already learned, graduate students are often thrown into the classroom with little to no pedagogical training.  We must create our own guidelines and lesson plans, with very little guidance from our peers or professors.  Expectations are immediately placed upon us to create interesting and comprehensive lesson plans that are informative, engaging and open-ended enough to allow for substantial student participation.  While it is intimidating enough to step in front of the classroom for the first time, it is even more intimidating to do so when our lesson planning is also balanced with the demands of doctoral coursework, effectively limiting the amount of time we have to spend on creative approaches to teaching new material.

Creating a lesson plan for the first time is a time consuming and challenging task.  With no clear indication of how students will engage with our chosen material, we try to determine the best way to teach complex concepts and large quantities of information without overwhelming our students or leaving most of them behind. This raises many questions, including:

  • How much should I rely on the assigned reading to guide classroom discussion?
  • What kinds of questions will best elicit responses from students?
  • Are there any exercises or activities that would help to convey the core ideas in the readings to students?
  • How can I ensure that students will engage with the material and actually understand it?

With little to no empirical evidence available as to what works best, it is often very difficult to answer these questions.

The Internet houses a vast landscape of teaching guides for undergraduate classrooms.  While it’s possible to find a useful guide for how to structure a syllabus or how to keep students awake and paying attention, it is very difficult to find any guidance on how to structure a lesson plan around Book VI of Plato’s Republic.  That’s the result of the fact that guides for teaching undergraduate students are very general and meant to be used by educators from many different academic disciplines.  While they may provide some general answers to the above questions, they don’t necessarily give us the tools we need to plan effective strategies for teaching students specific ideas and concepts.  Moreover, much of the general advice given to new educators is outdated and doesn’t reflect the varying types of education and backgrounds that current undergraduate students come to college with.

My desire to create Enlightened Educators came from reflecting upon these issues as I struggled to create my own effective lesson plans for the first time.  After discussing these issues with my colleagues, I found that I was not alone in wanting some kind of resource that would offer more targeted guidance for teaching concepts and ideas that are specific to my discipline.

Initial Proposal

My initial proposal for Enlightened Educators was largely inspired by my own struggles to come up with the most effective strategies for teaching undergraduate students.  My colleagues and I would discuss at length the types of questions we would ask students and the kinds of exercises we would do in class to encourage student participation, comprehension, and engagement with our chosen material. However, these discussions would only occur after we had already taught our lessons!  We had little or no guidance about how to make our initial lesson plans, and were only able to improve our lesson plans after we had already discovered for ourselves what worked and what didn’t work.

New educators would certainly benefit from hearing about these experiences before they teach material for the first time.  I searched for any type of tool – a blog, a database, an archive – where more experienced educators shared their tested teaching strategies with others, but I came up empty-handed.  I decided to try and build a resource that would be available to all educators who wished to collaborate with one another, building the form of a database of shared experiences related to teaching specific content to students.

There were, however, a few things that I wanted to avoid when creating this kind of resource.  Firstly, it couldn’t be something with a blog-like structure.  A blog-like structure would privilege the first account written – the main blog post – leaving alternative accounts, suggestions, revisions and additions in a comment stream that would not receive nearly as much attention.  Such a structure would ensure that these strategies,despite whatever feedback was given by those who commented, would remain static and unchanging, so that someone stumbling onto the blog for the first time might find a strategy that was posted three years prior that hasn’t been updated or vetted since. Teaching strategies change over time as we repeat lessons over and over again, and this resource needed to reflect the kinds of revisions that we make year after year.  Blog posts are not meant to be revised over and over again, nor are they typically capable of being collaboratively edited to reflect multiple experiences.  The discussions around lesson planning are extremely important for educators as we seek to build off one another’s experiences and suggestions.  A blog would severely limit how much these lesson plans might change over time as compounded experiences are taken into account.

Secondly, the resource needed to be dynamic in terms of navigability.  A blog does not offer the same kind of dynamic environment as a wiki.  While one can tag blog posts so that they can be aggregated in different categories, a wiki provides a user with a fluid searching experience.  Users can search for a topic that directly links to other related topics, and all of these topics are taxonomized as a network instead of a hierarchy.  A network of topics is far easier to navigate than a hierarchy, as no particular topics receive preference over others and no topic is subsumed under another.  Hence, it would be easier to add topics to something based on a wiki.

Thirdly, the resource couldn’t be something that allowed one strategy to become dominant.  A wiki would keep the main content for each post open to revision so that different voices could participate with equal authority in crafting a teaching strategy.  Such openness and equality should encourage any educator to feel comfortable adding their experiences to the database.

With these criteria in mind, I proposed to build a wiki using MediaWiki, a free open source wiki software package, that would be inviting, easy to navigate and easy to contribute to.  My goal was to create a venue for educators to come together and collaborate with one another to develop the most effective lesson strategies for teaching philosophy to undergraduate students.  I emphasized how each page would be modifiable to encourage potential users to generate and edit content, and to collaborate with one another to ensure that each lesson plan was as comprehensive and adaptable as possible.  I also emphasized that the wiki would be open to all so as not to exclude anyone who wishes to participate in discussions around certain topics.  With these goals in mind, I set out to create my wiki, though it was not quite the experience that I had hope it would be.

Build-Out

My initial proposal indicated that it would take about one month to do a complete structural build-out of the site, before user content could be added.  This estimate wound up being fairly accurate.

I had used Wikipedia – a wiki also built using the MediaWiki software package – pretty extensively in the past and was very familiar with how to create and edit content, create pages and participate in discussions.  However, I had no clue how to build my own wiki.  I researched how one would go about creating a wiki using MediaWiki and discovered that MediaWiki has a quick installation option called a “1-Click Installation” – an option allows one to bypass a manual installation of software.  The quick installation option is compatible with several different hosting services, so I set out to find the best one for my purposes.

Initially, I had wanted to host my website on OpenCUNY or the CUNY Academic Commons; however, I also wanted to ensure that my wiki could be used by non-CUNY adjuncts and educators alike.  I discussed what option would be best with my professor, Michael Mandiberg, who had been guiding my progress on the wiki’s development.  He suggested that I host the website on my own so that I would have the option to expand my user base to include non-CUNY members.  He also advised me to limit my initial user base to Graduate Center colleagues only – something he thought would contain any potential scope creep regarding managing users in the site’s earlier phases. Tasked with finding my own hosting service, I asked for recommendations from friends and colleagues and decided to use DreamHost.com.

Installing the wiki software was very simple (it was designed to be), and soon I was staring at the home screen of my very own blank wiki!  I felt very empowered – this was going to be the start of a new and exciting project! – so I got to work right away putting content on the site.  I created the Main Page with an inviting welcome section and included a mission statement about the intended use of the wiki; I created the main discipline page and an FAQ Page for users who were unfamiliar with wikis; and lastly, I created the first entry on the site: how to teach Kant’s Categorical Imperative.  Everything was going smoothly, and I began to mention the site to my colleagues in the philosophy department.  Given our previous conversations about pedagogy and the dearth of resources to help us with our lesson planning, they all seemed very excited that a new tool might be available soon.  I felt confident that they would be enthusiastic to jump in and start adding their own teaching experiences.

And then the spammers hit.

Obstacles

I had heard from friends who were working on their own wikis that they were having problems with spammers, but I didn’t think much of it.  How would spammers even find my wiki?  It had only been built a month prior and barely had any user activity.  As far as the Internet was concerned, it existed more in potentiality than actuality with its low MB usage.  Much to my surprise, it is exactly these types of websites that spammers attack.

I went to my site one afternoon and thought I had typed in the wrong URL.  The site I had landed on was blank save for some barely comprehensible text about Viagra and life insurance.  My site had been spammed.

WikiSpam, as it is properly called, is perpetrated by owners of different websites who wish to improve their position in Google searches.  They spam wikis with advertisements to their websites, not realizing that these spamming attempts actually have no bearing on Google’s page ranking system.  The way they spam is infuriating; when spammers enter a wiki, they remove all of the original content on the page (in my case, it was my Main Page that kept being spammed) and replace it with their advertisements.

Fortunately, MediaWiki has a failsafe for such situations.  One is able to revert back to earlier edits of a page, essentially erasing any damage to page content that spammers have done.  Unfortunately, the spammers are relentless.  When one spammer finds your wiki, other spammers join in, arriving to your wiki in droves.  Worse still, these spammers “carpet-bag” wikis – they continually edit the same page over and over again, adding one or two new lines of text each time, until your original page is so far back in the history that it is difficult to find.  This process can result in hundreds of edits per day on your wiki, effectively destroying any original purpose the wiki had.  After several months of constant spamming, I decided that I’d had enough and took the site offline.

Eight months later, fueled with a new eagerness to get my wiki up and operational, I brought the site back to life again.  I had restored the wiki back to my original posts and began to research ways to combat spammers.  Soon after I relaunched the site the spammers were back, but I was determined to find a way to beat them.

My original build-out did not take spammers into account; hence, I did not have any protective firewalls to keep them out.  What I needed was a way to put editing obstacles on my site to deter spammers from endlessly posting advertisements without also deterring my intended audience from posting real content to the site.  What I found was a bit of PHP code that would make it mandatory for anyone who wanted to post on the site to create an account before they would be allowed to post.  This seemed like a pretty solid fix; the spambots that were targeting my site might not be able to get past a mandatory account creation and my users would be required to create accounts that would give them a greater sense of responsibility for their content.  I felt confident that I would finally be able to share my site with my colleagues.

Several days after I added the code to my site I noticed that I was receiving the same volume of spam again, only this time my spammers all had random account names.  My “solution” did nothing other than give me a false sense of security for a few days.  Increasingly frustrated, I began to reach out to more experienced wiki builders for their advice and assistance.  I was growing desperate and resigned to the fact that I might never get the wiki to a stable place for users.

I explained my situation to Micki Kaufman, one of my fellow CUNY Graduate Center Digital Fellows, and asked her for any advice she might have.  Micki offered to help me create a stronger barrier for account creation – one that would require an email confirmation from me (acting as the site administrator) for the creation of any new account.  When I went to log into the site to show her what we were up against, I was again surprised at what I had found: my site was gone.  Completely gone.  An error code, “MediaWiki internal error. Exception caught inside exception handler,“was all that existed in place of the entire wiki.

After digging around a bit in PHPMyAdmin, the MYSQL database manager for my wiki, Micki was able to detect what had happened.  One of the spammers had hacked into my site and deleted the database.  The MYSQL database for a website holds all of the content for that website – every bit of site structure, every post, every photo, etc. – and the database for my wiki had been completely wiped out.  I was crushed; why would someone commit such a malicious act against a complete stranger?  My wiki wasn’t political or offensive; it didn’t make any unjustified claims or spread any rumors.  The wantonness of the act made my skin crawl.

Micki was quick to point out that most hosting services back up the data for their users, so there might be a copy of the database on DreamHost’s servers.  After poking around the DreamHost site for a bit, we discovered that it does have a backup service that continually backs up your database for you; however, these backups are only saved for five days and then replaced.  Since I hadn’t been to my wiki in a couple of weeks at that point, the oldest backup contained the already wiped database.  My site was, in fact, totally lost.

Before I could completely give up, Micki assured me that this was a step in the right direction.  We could install a completely new and updated version of MediaWiki that would have the built-in protection needed to defend my wiki against spammers and hackers.  The quick installation options that MediaWiki offered came with various levels of restricted access for unregistered users and had been updated to make it more difficult for hackers to enter the backend of the software.  After discussing some of the positives and negatives of the different builds, we decided upon a type of installation that would mandate that all edits require accounts and that all accounts had to be created by the site administrator.

The downside to this added security is that the wiki would lose the openness that I wanted it to have.  Anyone that wished to contribute an experience to the site would now have to contact me first, and I would have to generate a new username and temporary password before they could log into the site and make a contribution.  I knew that these new restrictions would limit the number of users who would actually make contributions to the site; however, realizing that this was the only option available for a truly secure wiki, I decided that sacrificing this openness was worth it.  After we completed the install, Micki showed me how to make my own backups of the database.  I remade all of my original pages, including a rewrite of all of my original content, and made a database backup.

I finally had a secure wiki with reassuring failsafe measures in place, and finally felt confident about recruiting my first group of contributors.

Site Usage

After securing my site, I crafted an email to my friends in the Philosophy Department that explained my motivation behind making the wiki, a list of potential uses for our PhD program, and a request for contributions to help build the database of teaching resources.  Almost immediately after sending the email off I received several positive responses and offers for contributions.  I was elated!  My colleagues were genuinely into the concept behind the wiki – especially those who were going to be teaching for the first time – and seemed excited to take part as contributors.  Within days after sending my initial email, I had made six new user accounts and was anxiously waiting for the wiki to become a hub for strategizing about the best ways to teach Philosophy students about topics like Compatibilism, Virtue Ethics and Skepticism.  Two contributions were made fairly quickly, sustaining my excitement for the future of the site.  But then the site just sat; no new colleagues offered to participate, and no other contributions had been made in the month following my initial email.

I started to feel defeated again; I had made so much progress battling the technical setbacks I encountered that I assumed my struggles getting the wiki off the ground were over.  I was determined to get eight to ten new contributions on the site, so I decided to send an email to my colleagues again.  However, this time I opted to send individual pleas for participation hoping that a more personal request would motivate some colleagues to make contributions.  As it happened, the individual emails did the trick; within two weeks of sending the personalized pleas I had twelve unique contributions to my site.

The contributions posted to the wiki were very good – they were candid, on point and very informative:

Each contribution reflected a strategy for teaching certain philosophical concepts or articles to undergraduate students – precisely what I had hoped for.  The posts provided secondary source materials, open-ended questions to generate discussion, targeted questions to elicit certain responses, recommended classroom activities and step-by-step guides for clear presentations.

I would love to say that these contributions amounted to “success” for the wiki. However, after the contributions were entered the wiki sat again, and continues to sit with no additional contributions.  There have been no discussions and no collaborations around how to teach certain topics.  There have been no revisions or alternative suggestions made for posted strategies.  Instead, all of the contributions were made in isolation from one another, and logged site activity has plummeted: no users have signed back into the wiki since making their original contribution.  A total failure? No, certainly not.  The wiki has some fantastic content on it that reflects a breadth of the topics that typically fall under an Introduction to Philosophy course.  Hence, the wiki already has the potential to be useful to someone crafting lesson plans for the first time.  Nonetheless, the conceptual impetus behind creating the wiki has yet to be realized.

Upon reading all of the contributions, I noticed that none of them involved the use of digital tools as teaching aids.  I suspect the most plausible explanation behind this observation is that philosophy doesn’t require much beyond the faculties of reason and imagination, at least not in a classroom setting.  We are asking students to apply critical thinking skills to centuries-old problems that have never required digital tools in the first place.  If philosophers aren’t using digital tools within their lessons, then how likely are they to use a digital tool to help them plan lessons?

I’d like to think that these are two disparate issues.  Philosophy graduate students use digital tools all of the time to help them with research, networking, job searches and citation management.  The addition of a digital tool to assist with lesson planning seems par for the course not only for philosophy graduate students, but for graduate students in all disciplines.  That philosophers are not using digital tools as regularly as some of their peers in other disciplines is not a bad omen for Enlightened Educators – it merely reflects the process behind teaching philosophy as one that requires very little beyond an apt mind.

Still, in its current state, the wiki lacks the vibrant discussions and revisions that it was created to foster.  The collaborative structure of the wiki has done little to motivate the contributors to interact with one another through the site.  Instead, it seems to have perpetuated the isolated approach to lesson planning that we’re already familiar with – one that doesn’t require the use of a digital tool like Enlightened Educators.  This result is not necessarily permanent, though, and I haven’t given up on making the site a true success.  Perhaps it’s a matter of involving more individuals with the site by reaching out to a wider audience beyond the Graduate Center, or perhaps it’s a matter of offering alternative suggestions or revisions to the already existing content to motivate those who have already contributed to revisit their strategies. I plan to promote the site throughListservs, the CUNY Academic Commons Philosophy Page, various Philosophy Blogs and Facebook Groups, and I plan to ask faculty members to contribute to the site.  One way or another, I intend to continue recruiting more individuals to the site with the hope that a community of users will eventually emerge.

User Reception and Experience

The user reaction to the wiki was, for the most part, extremely positive.  I received several emails from newer Graduate Teaching Fellows who were excited about the potential of the wiki, and several emails from more experienced Graduate Teaching Fellows who were happy to have a place to share their teaching experiences.  Despite the small number of contributions by friends in my department, there seems to be an acknowledgement that a resource like Enlightened Educators could have a tremendous impact on the way we teach lessons to undergraduate students.

After contributions were made to the site, I sent a questionnaire to those who participated to ask about their experience using the wiki and their assessment for how useful the wiki could be for our department.  I received responses from a third of the contributors, and those responses were relatively similar across the board.

Of those who responded, none had any difficulty logging onto the site for the first time after receiving their accounts from the site administrator.  This was a positive sign for me, as I was worried about how difficult the new login restrictions would be for new users to navigate the site and worried they would deter some from wanting to participate in the first place.  Of those who responded, all agreed that the main Philosophy Menu was easy to navigate, but responses were split about how difficult it was to add content to the site.  Two respondents had difficultly with HTML formatting, adding that they did not feel that they were able to format their contribution as they wanted.  Two respondents mentioned that they had consulted the FAQ to help them with their contributions.  All of the respondents agreed that the information on the site, once entered, was easy to find and easy to access.

I was very happy to receive such positive responses.  Although most people are familiar with wikis like Wikipedia, many have never made a contribution before.  I was worried that this would be an impediment to using my wiki, but I was happy to hear that contributors were able to complete posts on their own or with the assistance of the FAQ.

Lastly, all of the respondents agreed that Enlightened Educators would be a useful resource for our department, and all respondents answered that they would use the site again if it became an official departmental resource.  I was pleasantly surprised by one respondent’s disclosure that they had used an entry on the site to help with a lesson plan!

Concluding Remarks

Despite the myriad difficulties I’ve encountered as I try to build my wiki into a comprehensive database for educators, I’m happy with the way the site has taken shape.  It is far more secure now than it has ever been, and I perform regular backups to ensure that no content is ever lost.  There is a decent amount of content up on the site right now, though it is far sparser than I had envisioned it would be.  This problem, along with the collaboration issue, may be resolved by attracting new users to the site.  While this has proven to be a difficult task, there are steps I can take to try and promote the site as a valuable resource worthy of continued participation.

After sending out both requests for participation – the more general request and the more personal request – I realized that the wiki, as a new, empty database, doesn’t have anything to attract users.  The responses I received after sending out my general request for participation were focused primarily on the concept behind the wiki, and an excitement over what potential it may have once it was full of content.  However, something like a bystander effect occurred among those to whom I sent the email: they all assumed that someone else was going to contribute, so they didn’t have to.  Hence, the site only received a contribution from one person after that initial request.  My more personal pleas for participation were successful at attracting more users to the site because my colleagues are also my friends, and their contributions were made to help me move my project forward.  The next phase of my project must address the issue of how to attract more users to the site on their own terms.  This may be a bit easier now that there is some content up on the site, but I’m sure a bystander effect will still linger among those that visit the site for the first time.  One possible solution involves my department endorsing the site as an official departmental resource.  This is something that I plan to work on in the next year.

My final remarks concern two particular responses I received when I sent out individual requests for participation.  These responses encapsulated for me the main obstacle behind academic and educational collaboration.

Two respondents seemed very interested in contributing to the wiki, mentioning that they had crafted some excellent exercises for specific topics.  Both of these respondents also inquired about what kind of credit they would receive if others used their exercises.

I had gone to great lengths to convey to my colleagues that the wiki was to be a collaborative endeavor, one that encouraged educators to come together to help one another create successful lesson plans for their classes.  The structure of a wiki precludes giving formal credit for contributions; instead, it encourages users to engage with one another over the best way to represent a certain topic or idea.  Unfortunately, this approach is in tension with how academics traditionally do research and, consequently, how they create their lessons.  The responses I received from these two colleagues captured this tension and further exemplified the resistance to change that plagues many of us who wish to receive as much credit as possible for all of our academic pursuits.  Granted, we are all at the beginnings of our careers and receiving credit for our projects and endeavors is an important part of establishing ourselves as scholars.  However, academia is becoming increasingly more collaborative – especially with the recent surge in digital humanities partnerships – and this is a good thing.  Collaboration doesn’t preclude the assignment of credit for work done.  Rather, it has the potential to increase the profile of the projects that we work on and the potential to improve how we begin and sustain our own scholarly pursuits.  My goal for Enlightened Educators is to create a venue for collaboration to take place where individuals are less concerned about the credit they receive for their contributions and more concerned about whether their contributions are improving the type of scholarship that we are all involved with.