Thinking through wikis

As a dyed-in-the-wool geek, I was very happy to join the Digital Literacies Working Group and contribute from the perspective of an academic involved in quite a bit undergraduate teaching; as a recovering Facebook addict and all-round party planner, I offered my thoughts particularly on the use of social media and networking. What follows are my musings on a first year module I created, and how I’ve used a group project to enhance digital skills, and used the digital tools on which the project is based to enhance research skills. (Spoiler alert…the short version of what follows is: students create an encyclopedia website through VITAL’s wiki tool, and hopefully come out better able to do dissertations in later years.) At the very least, it should serve as an illustration of technology-enhanced academic practice at undergraduate level, and hopefully generate some ideas for others, and some feedback on the concept at my end!

When I first started working at the University of Liverpool’s School of Music in September 2005, there was an intriguing discrepancy between the two main undergraduate programmes in the department. One–a BA in Popular Music–made a third-year dissertation a compulsory element, and to prepare students for that project, there was a second-year module called Researching Popular Music. The other–a BA in Music*–did not make a dissertation compulsory, but it remained available as an option.

* By “Music”, undergraduate degrees generally mean western art, “classical”, music–odd, since presumably other types of music are also music, but there it is…

So, for those students wanting to write a dissertation on New Labour’s use of Britpop in the ’97 election campaign, or misogynistic hip-hop lyrics, there was second year guidance as to how to conduct an independent project of 10,000 words; meanwhile, those wanting to write about the contribution of Samuel Wesley to nineteenth-century organ music, or the impact of the Reformation on English church music…well, they pretty much went it alone. At the same time, there was no consistent instruction in bibliographic methods, referencing techniques, and other core ‘study skills’ expected of undergraduates and not previously taught at school.

In an effort to fill some of these gaps and better equip students for the transition from school and college to independent research, we introduced a compulsory first year module–MUSI100 Studying Music–in 2008. After a semester of core ‘study skills’ (using the library, note-taking, critical reading, bibliographies, etc. etc.), students undertake a group project over the whole of the second semester. In years past, the task was to create a wiki in VITAL for a hypothetical audience of first year music students all about the study skills and learning literacies they’d need to develop.


Not only did the students consolidate the skills covered in semester one, but they enhanced their group work and project management. But the reason for the wiki as a vehicle (as opposed to anything else–a presentation, for instance) was in no small part to make the task somewhat more engaging than it might otherwise have been…

This year, I have changed the project so that the medium of the wiki and the digital workspace are a more integral part. Now, groups are given a number of subject-specific topics to choose from, and they develop a wiki site about that topic:

  • ‘Genre’ as a concept in music
  • The history of music notation
  • A genre of music (choose one…) under a political regime (choose one…)
  • ‘World music’ in relation to western cultures

Still, project management skills are tested; still, groups have to work well together and deal with the inevitable freeloaders; still, they engage on some level with the digital medium.

But more than that, they are more challenged in terms of the independent research elements–they are, in essence, creating an encyclopedia about their topic, and anyone who’s ever written an encyclopedia entry knows how rigorous your research and writing have to be!! And, even more usefully (to my mind), they are actively encouraged to think through the medium of the wiki.

In a sense, we are dealing with the “affordances” of the tool–a concept my colleague Rob Strachan has been dealing with in relation to creativity, asking how music-making software informs the creative process. (I’ll try and get him to write here one day, but for now, back to the first years….

By situating the research topic in a dynamic environment, where hyperlinks abound and audiovisual media is de rigueur, the research itself is thus afforded different opportunities. No longer are the knots of ideas and the complexes of concepts constrained by the beginning-middle-end form of an essay. And no longer is the content limited to what works on a printed page. Rather, the digital medium allows the cross-linking of ideas, enables video and audio content, and situates the project in the ever-expanding online universe by allowing links to external content–thereby facing students head on with the need to be critical thinkers in response to online sources.

Whether this will contribute in any further way to the quality of third year dissertations is a question whose answer is, by definition, two years away. (And even then, I don’t have a control group….) With a bit of luck, though, all students–regardless of their interests, and regardless of whether they ever even do a dissertation, since that is now optional to all–will have some experience of independent research and the place of the digital world in relation to that.

But since I’m pondering the use value of this project, I wonder…have you ever constructed a website as a research output? What effects did it have on the way you undertook the research? Or even…have you used this kind of project in your own teaching at all? What happened?

I’d be very interested to know whether my hunches are anywhere approaching correct, so do leave a comment!

Dr Freya Jarman, Senior Lecturer, School of Music