Wikis as Teaching Tools: A Reflection

A confession: I tend to have quite a bit of disdain for “teaching with technology.” Call me old fashioned, but I don’t see the point in many of the teaching innovations that technology is supposed to have brought us. No doubt there are exceptions: electronic lecture slides are easier to manage than overhead projector slides, Clickers are great for giant introductory classes, and I am happy to use Blackboard for announcements and virtual course packets (although I use only about 5% of its functionality).

Yet with the possible exception of the clicker, I don’t see these things as changing teaching so much as making my job more convenient. That’s what Blackboard does: I just have an easier way to communicate with students than I would otherwise have. Clearly I need to attend more education-technology fora to learn how stodgy old me can get with the program for connecting with today’s modern active learners. I’m so old fashioned in my insistence that they do readings and then listen and ask questions in lecture.

All of this said, I embarked on a teaching-with-technology experiment for my Asian Political Economy seminar this semester. Here’s the background: this is a seminar which serves as a sort of introduction to contemporary research on political economy in Asia (essentially the India-Japan-Indonesia triangle). The problem I face is that no matter what sorts of pre-reqs I put on the course, I will never be able to find students who all have the same background as they need to have, or the same background as one another. Some will have lots of political science but no Asia; some will have lots of Asia but no political science; some will have lots of econ but not the kind that political scientists use. It’s a seminar-leader’s nightmare. To work, the seminar needs regular participation, but to participate, they have to read and digest the readings. Yet, few arrive able to do the readings the way that I want them to, so most of the seminar just consists of figuring out what terms mean.

My experiment, once I realized the gravity of the potential problem, was to make a course wiki that the students would edit themselves. I scanned each week’s readings beforehand, created a list of terms that they  needed to know, and then they filled them out on their own, defining them and (in the best cases) explaining where they show up in the readings and why they matter. I assigned the “wiki updating” task to each week’s discussion leader, so that 2-3 students collaborated in each week’s wiki page.

I didn’t really think this through, and my initial goals were modest. Basically, I figured that at least 2 students a week would be able to get the readings because they knew the terms. But there were other, unanticipated benefits.

  1. It turned out that all students (not just discussion leaders) would look at the list of terms each week before doing the reading. I think that this gave them a great head-start on the reading, prompting them to focus exactly on what I wanted them to get out of each reading. Very good stuff.
  2. We spent less time than we otherwise would have defining what basic terms meant, and more time debating whether the definitions made sense.
  3. There’s an opportunity for friendly competition and extra credit built right in. I made available some extra credit points for “wiki editing,” which can be done at any point in the semester and by any student on any entry. If they do this (some of them have) they can build competence by thinking hard about, for instance, if the initial definition provided by a classmate was a good one, or how to link various terms from different classes.

Of course, there are some downsides.

  1. Lots more work to create the wiki and pick the terms. I essentially had to do all the reading one more time. Then the wiki entries have to be graded. You can see how this adds up.
  2. I’m still not convinced that an unmotivated student cares about the course wiki or takes it seriously. This is a tool that’s most useful for a motivated and eager yet somehow underprepared student.

In all, I call it a success. But course evaluations have yet to come in yet, so perhaps they’ll all tell me that they hated the course wiki. If they do, I’ll update.

PS: In case you’re wondering, here are the terms that I thought most important for them to know. If you know all of these things and why they matter, you’re in a great position to understand why Asian economies look the way they do today.

Aggregate demand; Anglo-Saxon model; Asset stripping; Barter trade; Big Push; Budget constraint; Bureaucracy; Capital account; Capital controls; Capital specificity; Case control; Central bank; Central government transfers; Centralization; Chaebol; Civil society; Class compromise; Closed-list PR; Coasian bargaining; Collective bargaining; Colonialism; Command economy; Commercial paper; Confucianism; Constituency; Constructivist; Contagion; Contractionary macroeconomic policy; Cooptation; Corporatism; Corruption; Credible commitment; Credit allocation; Cronyism; Cultural Revolution; Currency peg; Current account; De facto versus de jure; Deadweight loss; Debt-to-reserves ratio; Decommodification; Decoupling; Delegation; Depoliticization; Devolution; Difference-in-difference; Distributive preferences; Doi moi; Double movement; Dual pricing; Efficiency; Electoral rules; Embedded autonomy; Emergence; Endogenous growth theory; Evolutionary reform; Exogenous technological change; Externalities; Factionalism; Factor endowments; Factor mobility; Federalism; Fence breaking; Financial repression; Fiscal contracting; Fiscal decentralization; Folklore of corruption; Foreign investment: horizontal, vertical, and conglomerate; Gaige kaifan; Globalization skeptic; Hedging; Holding company; Household responsibility system; Human capital; Import substitution; Incomplete contracts; Increasing returns; Industrial policy; Industrial relations; Informal institutions; Informal labor; Information; Institutional design; Integralist; Integration: horizontal and vertical; Interjurisdictional competition; Joint stock company; Keiretsu; Kuznets curve; Labor action; Late-late-industrialization; Legitimacy; Leverage; Liberalization; Line ministry; Liquidity crunch; Lost decade; Majoritarianism; Market confidence; Market failures and coordination problems; Marketization; Market-preserving federalism; Middleman; Minjung; Minority shareholder protections; MITI; Mixed economy; Modernization theory; Monetization; Money politics; Monitoring; Morselized public goods; Multiple equilibria; Natural experiment; Neoliberalism; Networks; New Left (in China); Nonperforming loans; Norm entrepreneur; Observational equivalence; Oligarchy; Overseas Chinese; Overseas development assistance; Ownership concentration; Pancasila; Panchayati raj; Pareto efficiency; Partial reform; Particularistic contracting; Path dependence; Patron-client relations; Personalism; Pluralism; Policy rigidity; Policy volatility; Political culture; Political decentralization; Populism; Primitive accumulation; Principal-agent relations; Profiteering; Programmatic policy; Public sector; Race to the bottom; Recapitalization; Regime type / political regime; Regulatory institutions; Rents; Reserved seats (India); Schumpeterian rent; Second-best world; Segmented labor market; Selectorate; Self-enforcing; Single nontransferable vote with multi-member electoral districts; Single-party regime; Soft budget constraint; Special Economic Zone; Speculation; Speculative attack; State autonomy; Stochastic; Structural adjustment; Subsidies; Systemic insolvency; Technical assistance; Technocrat; Total factor productivity; Tragedy of the commons; Transactions costs; Unitism; Upgrading; Veto point; Winning coalition; X-inefficiency; Zaibatsu

Comments 4

  1. Elizabeth Pisani May 4, 2012

    I’m quite surprised not to find either “Decentralisation” or “Regional Autonomy” on your otherwise comprehensive list. It’s hard to think about the political economy of either Indonesia or China without wrestling with the meaning of those terms in theory and practice.

  2. Tom May 4, 2012

    We had a whole week decentralization, and the terms are right there. “Fiscal decentralization,” “political decentralization,” “fiscal federalism,” “market-preserving federalism,” “fence-breaking,” “panchayati raj,” “soft budget constraint,” and so forth.

  3. Tom May 13, 2012

    It’s just a figure of speech for everything that is included in the triangle that has at its corners India, Japan and Indonesia. It’s a way to refer to “East Asia,” “Southeast Asia,” and “South Asia.”

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