A future trend in research writing education? Let's hope so!

Putting the student in touch with the products and tools of the skill set s/he is learning makes obvious pedagogical sense, but in the “academic subjects” of math, science, and language, there is sometimes a “disconnect” between the student and his subject’s ultimate purposes–at least at the secondary level, where I work. In my high school, we have excellent vocational and fine arts programs. And a big part of their success is that they have fully embraced the principal of end-purposes and “leveraged” the motivation that a real-world audience brings to performance.

For instance Autos class at our school has students working on real cars; Home-economics has students delivering pre-school curriculum to real youngsters–the same department provides a commercial grade kitchen-restaurant that serves breakfast and lunch to real townspeople and visiting dignitaries; fine and performing arts students stage regular show cases for real audiences to appreciate and evaluate their work. To extend the analysis to our P.E. department, student bodies are well-trained and outfitted to the end-purposes of championship-level, public competition. We know this by the regular trophies our teams bring back.

In my department (English), there is no shortage of successful real end-purposes skill applications:  the official public performances of the department–its yearbook, literary magazine and student newspapers, its dramatic productions and speech team–showcase how well our kids can take the English language and outfit it to the high-end public purposes.  I have observed that for many students with highly proficient English skills, the exigency that a real-life audience brings (if only in a competition) results in deeper, more motivated learning experiences.

But for plain old research writing projects, the audience is traditionally (if there is an audience outside the instructor) the students’ classmates or parents. The whole socially relevant knowledge seeking and sharing function is put off till–well probably till grad school, where scholarly research writing seems to be the main product. Traditionally, the completed research project is as forgotten as the trashed posters done for Math class, or the discarded materials measured and subjected to testing in Chemistry labs.

Well, a consortium of colleges are partnering with Wikpedia to make student research writing as real as their world gets:  they are researching and creating their own Wikpedia articles, and in the process bringing their highly-proficient skills to the top-levels. At Berkeley, Harvard, and elsewhere, educators are building the end-purpose right into research writing instruction. And it’s about time.

Such free out-sourcing of the academic research makes great pedagogic sense.  Students of this kind of writing–those who want to make it their career–will certainly need the abilities required of the wikipedia projects:

  • scrupulous verification of sources
  • online, collaborative editing
  • discussion and debate to maintain the “non-biased” presentation of information

In addition, the project makes the responsibility of the writer meaningful in a way that classroom simulations or closed-end researches can not. Students in the Berkeley course in research writing know their ultimate end-purpose of t is to serve the end-user with an authoritative article on a specific area of law:

For the final project in Kline and Senate’s course, students will form groups and create and edit a Wikipedia page from start to finish. Subjects of the pages include “Legality of rooting Android OS” and the “Digital Millennium Copyright Act.”

Brian Carver, assistant professor at UCBerkeley, underscores the social importance of what students are doing. “The students contribute to a public resource that is seen the world over, and their work has a lasting impact,” he said. They also learn to have their work reviewed and edited by others, which Carver says is an important skill in the business world.” 

In the future, I hope English teachers and others teaching research writing–one thinks of all the traditional academic subjects–will use the open-ness of the Internet to give their students (or at least those who are up to the responsibilities inherent therein) experiences communicating with real-life audiences. Some of us are already starting at the high school level, with various wikipages and blogs open to the world’s perusal (if not commenting), and soon, when our district gets behind it, our students will have Google site-based portfolios (like these from Clemson University) to gain a public audience.   These limited audience sites, however, do not have the significance of Wikipedia, which for the majority of students today has the significance The Encyclopedia Brittanica had for the previous generations.

Not all students may be inclined or able to rise to the world-class standard of research writing that a Wikipedia article demands. But given how global and enduring students’ current audiences already are–one thinks of their youtube videos and their Facebook postings–it really is time to give them the option to perform at the highest levels of performance, doesn’t it?

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