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UI faculty working with wonder of wikis

  Gerry Wickham
Gerry Wickham, a curriculum coordinator in the UI Carver College of Medicine, uses a wiki in his teachings as a way to improve classroom learning. Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

Things aren’t looking good these days for Mr. Sid Stolic.

He has diabetes, high blood pressure, and elevated cholesterol. He’s overweight, has a bad back, and a sore leg. A 63-year old Iowa farmer, his wife is dead and his aging mother can no longer live on her own. There are concerns he might be depressed.

“Sid is a complex outpatient case, a patient that demands good teamwork,” says Gerry Wickham, a curriculum coordinator in the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine.

Fortunately, Sid Stolic is not real, but the hypothetical patient who is being used in the medical school’s Clinical Beginnings class.

Wickham and his team—the Interdisciplinary Planning Group, which includes four faculty members and six students—are creating the narrative of Sid’s life that will be used to introduce third-year med students to teamwork clinical procedures before they begin their clinical experience.

Sid has actually been around for a few years, but this year the team is using a form of social media technology called a wiki—a central location where documents can be easily stored and modified—to develop his health history and case details. It’s one example of an innovative social media tool that’s being used at The University of Iowa to improve classroom learning and curriculum development.

For many, social media is mostly associated with things like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, where people put pictures of their dogs, quote their favorite movie lines, or let everyone know exactly what they think of President Obama.

But social media has educational aspects, too.

“If used properly, wikis, blogs, and other forms of social technology can help faculty teach their students and develop classroom material,” says Steve Silva of the UI Information Technology Services Instructional Services office, which helps faculty and staff develop and create ways to use technology to improve learning.

In Sid’s case, Wickham’s team worked with ITS to build a wiki that stored in one location all of the reports and ideas that were written abut Sid’s imaginary ills. Wickham says that before the wiki, his curriculum development team spent more time in meetings and e-mailed updated Word files to one another with comments and changes.


How you can use social media in the classroom

ITS Instructional Services offers a range of services to help faculty and staff use social media for educational purposes. They’ve developed wikis for faculty in English, rhetoric, business, journalism, fine arts, and other colleges and departments. Wikis also can be used for group collaboration or shared research notes, along with teaching or class development.

ITS also can develop WordPress blogs, and provide advice on using tools Delicious, YouTube, Facebook, and other social media tools in the classroom.

“We can guide instructors in educationally appropriate use of social technology so they can use it most effectively,” says Stephen Silva of ITS Instructional Services. “We can help them integrate it fully into their course so it’s not just slapped on and doesn’t have the educational impact it should have.”

For more information on the instructional support services offered by ITS, visit or contact Silva at 319-335-5627.


But meetings were inconvenient—the team members are scattered all over campus—and Word files tended to pile up so nobody was sure if they were reading the latest updates.

“Now, instead of having to maintain separate files from the nurse, the social worker, the physician, the pharmacist, and everyone else, we can store everything in one place,” Wickham says. “It makes it easier to keep track of all those files.”

Law professor Lea VanderVelde also found a wiki useful as a way to help her students learn about employment law. Working with ITS, she set up a wiki to illuminate how state judiciaries handle employment law cases, and to determine if each state can be considered an “at-will” state, where nonorganized workers can be terminated at will.

Each student in the class was assigned a state, and ITS technicians worked with them to build web sites for each state. They started with something simple—bios and photos of the state’s supreme court justices—then added more complexity until each site had each state’s relevant law codes, important employment law cases, analyses of which states tended to be employment law models, and other important information.

Eventually, it grew to be ITS’ largest wiki, logging in at a phonebook-sized 1,290 pages.

“If this were a law case book, it would be encyclopedic,” says Leighton Christiansen, a student instructional technology assistant in ITS Instructional Services who helped VanderVelde and her class develop the wiki. “But since it’s a wiki, we don’t have to worry about creating a gigantic tome.”

Not only has the wiki become one of the largest repositories of employment law information in the country, VanderVelde says it’s produced new knowledge in the field. The comparison produced a chart of relative equity between the employee plaintiffs and the employer defendants—a rough assessment of “justice,” as commonly perceived, she says.

“Taking that grid and analyzing win-loss case outcomes, the students could assess the extent to which the ‘black letter’ law categories had conformed to justice,” she says. “By these means, students could analyze outliers in the legal system of justice.”

Beyond the wiki

Faculty use other forms of social media as well. For his classes, Charles Stanier, assistant professor of chemical and biochemical engineering in the College of Engineering, uses Delicious, a central site to store bookmarks to other web sites. For three years now, Stanier has maintained a Delicious site for all of his courses, and when he happens upon a web site that provides information his students might find relevant and useful, he bookmarks it on the respective Delicious page. Then all the students have easy access to the information.

“For instance, in my Green Chemical and Energy Techniques course, I include links that range from sites about environmental philosophy to articles about estimating pollutant leakage,” Stanier says.

And since the Delicious sites are permanent, they can be used again and again, and can be accessed from any computer.

Law professor Peggie Smith found over the years that she kept hearing the same questions from students about the more complex parts of her courses, and she wanted a more efficient way to answer them that didn’t require writing the same thing over and over again.

She found her solution with audio files.

“If I receive a question about a given topic, I can refer the student to the relevant audio file,” she says. “I can provide a far more detailed response orally, in far less time, than I can in a written e-mail.”

In some classes, she also provides an audio file of her comments on a student’s work to accompany her written comments.

“Through the use of audio files, I can discuss what they did well and what they need to work on in a manner that greatly exceeds my handwritten comments,” she says.

Faculty who use social media say that students generally respond well. As Wickham says, they are “digital natives” who are at home working with new forms of technology.

“The students see this as real-world research that’s going somewhere and means something,” says Christiansen of VanderVelde’s wiki. “It’s more than just a research paper you share with the professor and that’s as far as it goes.”

“They seem to like the ability to listen to the message over and over,” law professor Smith says of her audio files. “I suspect it recreates the lecture process for them in a favorable manner. Educational literature confirms that students receive educational value from acquiring knowledge from a range of formats, including audio formats.”

Stanier says he opened his Delicious sites last year to students so they can add links, and many of them participated.

“My students added bookmarks to sites I had not thought of, or brought in sites they had picked up from other classes and were relevant to our class,” he says.

by Tom Snee

Office of University Relations. Copyright The University of Iowa 2006. All rights reserved.