How might a wiki be used in a world language methods course?






"Good teachers join self and subject and students in the fabric of life" (Parker Palmer, 1998, p. 11).





To a student teacher, teaching a world language often appears to be a relatively straightforward task. When the bell rings, a teacher who knows the target language explains a few things (in English) about the rules that govern the language, answers questions, disciplines students who are not fully engaged in the lesson, and then guides students through a predetermined plan of activities and assignments. Many preservice teachers assume that students will respond to them as teachers simply because they are standing at the front of the room. Others are more realistic, but still believe that if they "do it right," students will be responsive. So when teacher candidates find themselves in the position of not knowing something, they feel inept and experience it as a threat to their authority as teachers. If things do not go well, they tend to attribute the majority of that failure to a lack of cooperation or ability on the part of the students. Additionally, they subscribe to the common belief that if the students are good enough, attentive enough, and complete enough coursework, they will learn the language.

So although the nature of the work that preservice teachers assign to their students is likely to vary depending on whether they favor a traditional approach or an orientation that is more communicative and proficiency-based, the majority of them tend to hold similar conceptions of what a teacher is and what a teacher does. This is due, in large part, to what Lortie (1975) calls "the apprenticeship of observation"--what preservice teachers have observed in their own language courses (Ariogul, 2007). While most experienced teachers would agree that these conceptions are both incomplete and oversimplified, many of them nonetheless also subscribe to their basic tenets. Consequently, the effects of this apprenticeship are often further reinforced by preservice teachers' field experiences. This makes them very powerful and difficult to dislodge because they appear to be institutionally sanctioned (Britzman, 2003). They also position student teachers to be very vulnerable to the instability and constant change that is a part of life in a school, ultimately pushing new teachers into a cyclical "survival mode" from which many are never able to extract themselves. This state of constant crisis perpetuates ineffective teaching practices and fosters unrealistic expectations regarding what it means to teach and what must be learned in order to become an effective language teacher. Furthermore, these images result in a number of unquestioned assumptions that tacitly reinforce all sorts of problematic notions such as:
  • the idea that learning only happens when it comes through established channels at prescribed times
  • the unspoken assumption that teachers are the primary, most authoritative, and best source of information
  • the belief that the answers to the majority of students' questions can be known in advance
  • the perspective that teachers can and should control learning
  • the presumption that teachers are most qualified to decide what students learn, and
  • the stance that students only learn one thing at a time, and that all students learn the same thing at the same time

Such views of what it means to teach do not make room for the idea that students come to the classroom full of knowledge and experiences that influence the learning process (Dewey, 1938/1997; Dewey, 1915/2001; Jonassen, 1999), and do not take into account that "best" way to teach something depends very much on the individual needs of particular students. These images of teaching also fail to accommodate the perspective that "grappling" with content in substantive ways is critical to the learning process (Sizer & Sizer, 1999), and make it difficult for teacher candidates to recognize the dynamic qualities of knowledge, the relational nature of teaching, and the experiential components of learning. Instead, they equate learning with control (Britzman, 2003), fostering the belief that a teacher's ability to "make" a class do things is the primary factor involved in student learning. By reinforcing the assumption that this is a productive way to organize a learning environment, they not only diminish the importance of "the management of ideas within classroom discourse" (Shulman, 1987, p. 1), but also obscure the larger social and cultural consequences of such pedagogical choices (Bullock & Freedman, 2006; Freire, 1998).

What role might technology play in teacher preparation in reshaping a world language methods course?

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Most preservice teachers don’t fully recognize that their beliefs about what it means to “know” a language have practical consequences for what they teach, how they teach it, and why they teach it. However, after entering a teacher preparation program, these students begin to realize that there are some additional subtleties involved in language education that were not previously visible to their untrained eyes. Nonetheless, it is difficult to convince them that a language is more than the sum of its parts (i.e., grammar and vocabulary), and that to truly know a language, one must also develop intercultural competence and a deep understanding of the values of the communities within which it operates.

In other words, preparing future world language teachers is a complex task that requires more than just a knowledge of how to teach grammar and vocabulary. It necessitates the reshaping of teacher candidates' images of what it means to teach (Shulman, 1987). One way to accomplish this is to offer them a contrasting set of experiences. Hammadou & Bernhardt suggest that, "In foreign language teaching, the content and the process for learning the content are the same. In other words, in foreign language teaching the medium is the message" (1987, p. 301). The same might also be said of teacher preparation programs. By changing the medium within which much of our classroom interaction occurred to a wiki, it became possible to engage teacher candidates in design-based inquiry and reflection that allowed us both to come to new understandings about what it means to teach and to learn.

Why use a wiki in a world language methods course?

My course wiki, began as a simple solution to what I viewed at the time as technical problems. The first was that the course management system we were using automatically deleted course materials uploaded to it after a certain number of semesters, but my student teachers desired continuing access to resources we had used during our world language methods course after the semester had ended. Although it was possible to circumvent this problem by setting the end date of a course several years into the future, there were no guarantees that as policies changed, the content would continue to be available, particularly once I left the university. A wiki provided a fast, free, flexible alternative that made uploading and structuring content easier, gave me more control over the display and navigation of the material, and provided a host of additional affordances.

The second issue was my growing concern at the lack of technological awareness, understanding, and proficiency of the student teachers with whom I worked. I had asked Seniors who were world language majors and student teachers from a variety of different disciplines (including world language) to complete an informal survey about their technology use that would help me to better tailor our course activities to their needs.

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Their responses revealed that many were lacking technology skills that I considered fundamental to the success of their future students in a 21st Century society, including the ability to refine searches, save audio and video files, create webpages, maintain blogs, use wikis, subscribe to RSS feeds, or evaluate the quality and validity of the information they found online. The skills they lacked also meant they were missing the opportunities to expand their professional networks and enhance their natural gifts and talents that technology provides. Including a wiki as a key component of the course seemed like a promising way to address these concerns, while foregrounding issues of transliteracy (Cazden, et. al, 1996). By immersing teacher candidates in a long-term, personal experience with technology around their immediate community of practice, I hoped to assist them in developing the technological pedagogical content knowledge (Mishra & Koehler, 2006) they would need to capacitate their own students.

How might one organize a wiki community?

Initially, only members of the world language methods course who were embarking on a year-long internship as student teachers contributed to the development of the wiki. Three months later, I invited the members of the upcoming cohort and their course instructors to join us. This time lag allowed the members of my class to cohere as an online community and to develop the foundational tech skills they needed in order to mentor their peers as new users. Once the students in both courses appeared to be accessing and contributing to the wiki with some degree of success, we extended invitations to field instructors and mentor teachers to participate. However, we quickly discovered that many lacked confidence in their technology skills and were, thus, reluctant to participate. Additionally, we learned that the wiki was blocked in some schools, and that it did not always display properly on Macs using Safari as a browser.

Consequently, during the 2007-2008 academic year, we initiated more systematic efforts to support field instructors and mentor teachers in using the wiki. These efforts included helping them to set up accounts during inservice meetings, preparing them for some of the difficulties they might encounter, and explicitly teaching the basics of posting to discussion forums and adding text, hyperlinks, and images to pages. We also explained several ways they might approach their administration and technology specialists to address school policies that prohibited school-based wiki access. In addition, we directly addressed the issue of technology mentoring with teacher candidates, offering strategies they could use to encourage their field instructors and mentor teachers to use the wiki, as well as practical ideas for effectively scaffolding technical support as they did so. Although field instructors and mentor teachers do not contribute to the wiki on a regular basis, they have expressed that they value the materials to which it gives them access, and the insights they are able to gain through the discussion forums about the concerns, needs, and successes of the student teachers with whom they work.

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Meanwhile, our wiki community has continued to grow. It is now comprised of new cohorts of Seniors and student teachers enrolled in world language methods courses; program graduates who are now first or second-year teachers; course instructors, field instructors, and mentor teachers affiliated with our teacher preparation program; and a number of experienced world language educators in other states and countries who have requested membership. As a result, it has become not only a primary focal point for our weekly course activities, but also an important nexus where course work, field work, and the work of the profession at large converge.

What did we do with the wiki?

In its early development, we used the wiki primarily for administrative purposes. I uploaded the course schedule and syllabus to the wiki so teacher candidates could download them easily, and posted weekly agendas to the wiki so they could see at a glance what we would be discussing and which assignments were due each week. As we discussed various resources in class, I posted them to the wiki so that could begin to use it as a library of professional resources. When a substitute was necessary, I posted the lesson plan with accompanying materials and links to resources so that there was no confusion during class. It is important to note that at this point in our wiki use, teacher candidates nearly always functioned as "consumers," while I served as the primary "producer" of content.

It is no wonder, then that student teachers seemed overwhelmed by the content on the wiki at first. When they began posting requests for resources and materials that I knew already existed on the wiki, I inferred that they had not yet developed a mental map of the field that was detailed enough to enable them to determine what to click in order to locate what they sought. I also realized that the switch to the wiki as a platform for much of our interaction was foregrounding and clarifying many conceptual misunderstandings and pedagogical problems that had previously been invisible to me. I began to answer their questions by including direct links to pages on our wiki, believing that repeated, carefully scaffolded engagement with those physical links had the potential to create similar conceptual linkages that could eventually support the growth of well-developed schemas of professional knowledge in their minds. I began employing a similar approach with the faculty and staff associated with the world language teacher preparation program. When field instructors or mentors contacted me with concerns about student teachers, I directed them to relevant posts made by those students on our weekly discussion boards. When mentor teachers asked questions about changes in state policy or the instructional strategies we were discussing in class, I also directed them to relevant pages, and when program personnel forwarded requests to disseminate information about job openings or special events, I posted it to the Getting a Job or Professional Development pages of the wiki.

As everyone became more comfortable with using the wiki, we also became more adept at recognizing how to use it to prioritize our work, to improve the quality of our face-to-face activities, to support learning at a distance, and to extend our class time (which always seemed to be in short supply). Teacher candidates frequently suggested using the wiki as a way of organizing course assignments (such as forming small groups for projects, signing up for teaching demonstrations, or sharing swap shop activities), thus increasing the time available to us in class for issues that deserved a more substantial investment of our attention. The discussion feature of the wiki allowed us to continue and extend conversations about topics raised in class, and because our class met only on selected Fridays, it also became an important vehicle through which teacher candidates could obtain just-in-time support throughout the week, collaborate on projects outside of class, and obtain feedback on work in progress from me and from their peers. Student teachers began taking the personal initiative to use a combination of the wiki's features to address issues of immediate personal concern to them. For example, near the end of the semester, many were concerned about various aspects of their professional portfolios and sought advice and feedback from their peers via the weekly discussion forum. As the discussion evolved, someone spontaneously created a new page and suggested that those who were following the discussion post elements of their portfolios on the page (in the form of digital photos, links to Flickr, or Word documents) so that they could more effectively provide one another with specific feedback related to each product (as opposed to merely describing concerns and problems and soliciting general comments). Many did just that. Feedback was quickly exchanged with comments posted directly to the documents and re-uploaded, and the overall quality of the portfolios improved.

Teacher candidates who used the wiki regularly became more comfortable with the content, structure, and functions of the wiki. As they did so, they also began to develop more confidence in their ability to use other technologies, as well as more interest in doing so. The more they participated in the wiki, the more ownership they began to toward it. Although this sense of ownership was very positive because it engendered willing participation and regular contributions on the part of many, I believe it also contributed to a sense of insulation that caused some to forget the extremely public nature of the wiki. (Statistical information collected by the wiki indicated that it was receiving several hundred visitors per day from countries around the world.)

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Consequently, it was necessary to provide some direct instruction regarding confidentiality and privacy issues, copyright and fair use, professional language and tone, and the generous interpretation of others' postings. We had discussions about the ways in which student teachers' postings could impact the students, parents, mentor teachers, and colleagues from their K-12 settings, as well as their future ability to secure a professional position. For some, a growing awareness of these potential consequences engendered anxiety about contributing anything at all. For others, the recognition that the wiki's audience had grown to extend well beyond the confines of our class or the teacher preparation program in our institution positioned them to see themselves as members of a "real" community of professional practice who could contribute to it in legitimate ways and motivated sustained engagement with it over time. This became particularly apparent near the end of the semester when teacher candidates requested that we spend some class time discussing how best to manage the logistics of their continuing involvement with the wiki. It was finally suggested that a new "Staying Connected" page be added and a message sent to all "alumni" encouraging them to join the continuing discussion.

Of the many purposes for which we used the wiki, however, the one that had the most transformative impact was the simple invitation to student teachers to comment on the tentative agendas I posted each week--adding additional items of concern, asking questions, and making suggestions. Their contributions provided a valuable source of feedback that enabled me to adjust my instruction in more moment-to-moment ways. More importantly, however, this practice changed our relationship to one another by altering the dynamics in our classroom. Hammadou & Bernhardt (1987) suggest that, "Preservice teachers should be given self- and peer-supervision skills and made aware that when they are inservice teachers they will be almost exclusively responsible for their own professional development." (p. 304). This practice contributed substantially toward the achievement of that goal by repositioning teacher candidates as active producers of content and, in so doing, enabled them to assume responsibility as collaborative designers of their own education.

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One situation that served as particularly strong evidence that this transformation had occurred was an e-mail I received from a student teacher indicating that she and another student had prepared something to share with the rest of the class. The e-mail stated that they had already added themselves to the week's agenda and concluded that they thought I might appreciate receiving advanced notification of that fact. What pleased me most about this encounter is that it clearly demonstrated that they viewed themselves as co-owners of our community of learners, and as co-responsible for its structure and content. Nonetheless, they still continued to demonstrate their respect for my efforts as their teacher through numerous small courtesies like this one.

The weekly agenda, then, functioned as a "boundary object" (Cobb, Kay, Lamberg, & Dean, 2003) around which we evaluated our understandings and renegotiated our personal and professional identities each week. This practice also granted us all the authority, permission, tools, voice to interrogate and challenge the current products, practices, and perspectives of schooling.

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As we did so, I found myself deliberately abandoning a preoccupation with pre-determined content in favor of an increasingly responsive stance toward my students. I believe many of them found themselves moving away from passive acceptance of (or hidden resistance to) what they were being taught toward a more critical appropriation of concepts and a more active construction of their own professional identities.



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References

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Multimedia References

Free Buttons. (n.d.). Blur metal. Freebuttons.com. Retrieved March 17, 2008, from http://www.freebuttons.com/index.php?page=freebuttons&buttonName=BlurMetal&color=3

Montgomery, Cherice. (2006). Discussion boards PowerPoint slide. Photos of Rachel MacKenzie, Carl Armstrong, Sarah Blitz, & Amy Burger used with permission.

Montgomery, Cherice. (2006). Inquiry-research-reflection PowerPoint slide. Photo of Debbie Kim used with permission.

Montgomery, Cherice. (2006). Transforming with technology PowerPoint slide. Photos of Anthony Fontana, Rachel Klomp, Rachel MacKenzie, Katie Maiolatesi, & Stephanie Peterson used with permission.

Montgomery, Cherice. (2006). The power of conversation PowerPoint slide. Photo of Anthony Fontana, Heinke Raymond, Rachel Klomp, Chris Guajardo, Sarah Paquette, and Brittany Droste used with permission.