A wiki, a community of practice, and a stumbling internship

by Mr. Sheehy

I’m almost 20 hours into the “internship” portion of my graduate studies, and I’m hitting a point where I’m losing enthusiasm. I wondered if this would happen, and I asked my buddy who is writing a dissertation if it ever happens to his colleagues – do they lose interest in their own topic and want to move on so much that they never finish the original? Not surprisingly, he confirmed my hunch and said that’s exactly what happens to many people. That’s why, he said, he’s thankful he has a fantastic topic that thoroughly intrigues him and which he feels an obligation to communicate well.

I, on the other hand, am convinced my project is a waste of time. It’s melodramatic to say it that way, which is why I say it, and I admit I’m being a bit hyperbolic, but the problem with the project and in a sense with the internship is that it involves working with my peers and asking something of them, and that is not a situation I enjoy. They don’t want what I have to offer. If they do want it, they don’t want to use any time to take it.

That’s my conviction, and 20 hours of reading research behind me, the hunch is pretty well confirmed. Teachers’ complaint in every study: no time. My colleagues don’t want to stay after school to be trained to use something that will take more of their professional time to use, and they’re not going to be tempted by an hour of $20 an hour pay, because they don’t need $20 that badly. They’ll take the hour, thank you.

But this makes no sense unless you know what my project is. I’ll step back to the beginning, or somewhere near it.

Of all the material I read in my graduate studies, the only stuff that was new to me and therefore newly intriguing was the field of knowledge management. This area struck me as so powerful – powerfully obvious in a “Hey, now that you say it that way, of course!” way – that I refocused my thinking for my internship away from blogging as a topic and towards knowledge management.

I thought that I might be able to use something like a wiki as a fitting compliment to knowledge management in my workplace. Teachers work strangely independent of one another – we have the same job descriptions, are held accountable as a group, and yet we all go into our isolated classrooms all day and grade our papers and design our lessons that have nothing to do with anyone else. Nothing.

So I thought that a wiki, used by a department like mine, might serve as a tool of connection, a way to interact even when we’re in different rooms. It wouldn’t replace the interactions that currently take place – the lunch conversations, the planning period chats, the heads poked into another teacher’s classroom – but it might give a nice concrete place for exchange of knowledge, the kind of knowledge exchange that requires more than those chance flashes of interaction.

Sounds neat, right? My research has led me into literature examining communities of practice, which I will argue at least partly exists in my department (certainly what does exist is significantly closer to a community of practice than the other places where I have worked). I would therefore like to strengthen the “formal” exchange of knowledge within that community by creating on the Internet an informal location for exchange: a wiki.

The research is plentiful on communities of practice, and I could likely spend the entire 120 required hours just reading that research. But then, of course, I could also spend 120 hours washing my garage with a toothbrush. For some things, there is no need.

What there is not, and this is a huge problem I think, is good, formal research on implementation of wikis. I have searched educational databases for wikis, and so far what comes up are mostly articles from peer-reviewed journals that notify readers what a wiki is. Research has not been done. One study posed a research question of how wikis could be a knowledge management tool – a potential gold study for me – but the instructor in charge of implementing the wiki for the study had not even used a wiki before the study. Um, how am I supposed to learn from him? It wasn’t even good teaching, let alone good research.

So far, the best information about implementing wikis is from bloggers and professionals who have published their experiences online. Tony Bowden’s little blip about becoming a wiki champion, for example, helps me. Or there’s a website called Wiki Patterns, which dispenses much practical advice on wikis and people. But this is not research, which is what I’d love to base my study upon.

I’m not wedded to the idea of official research only, of course. Even as I have been writing this post I have begun to drift away into Bowden’s other posts on wikis, which would grow my knowledge of strategic implementation exponentially, it appears . . .

I return to this post, however, and have to say that I have a non-shameful quantity of experience with wikis and web design as they interact with people. I center dispersal of most of my classroom materials on a wiki, including my lesson plans, and I have seen what is easier for students to navigate and use. I am no expert, but the hours and effort I’ve put into this make me no dummy.

That no-dummy experience is what makes me fear that my colleagues will not buy into this wiki I want to create. It will be another website they have to check, another place they have to remember to go, another username and password they have to track, another piece of software they have to remember how to use – even if it is a simple piece of software.

None of them will be the wiki champion, which means that even if I can get them to use it, to make it truly functional and nice, where it takes on “a life of it’s own” as a collaborative tool, I’ll have to be the gardener, the maid, and the promoter. That’s more work for me, and I don’t need to be the unpaid webmaster of another website – I’ve already got enough of those, thank you.

Sure, part of the work is my internship, so that’s no big deal, but why would I create this if I did not intend for it to last beyond my graduate school experience? It’s a project, not an exercise.

I have thought I would add to this initial project the creation of another wiki for another community of practice within the school district – the technology leadership team of which I am a part. This second group has a totally different dynamic than my department, and its members are more familiar with wiki technology, which could potentially mean less badgering and hand-holding from my end.

But here, like with the department, I am still not the boss, and this is not mandatory, and I have to invent for these busy, distracted educators reasons why this could be useful. Regarding that task, I admittedly want to say, “No thanks. I am not in the mood to sell this.” Actually, I have never been in the mood to sell anything. I couldn’t get hired in sales because I always felt that if the customer didn’t want something, there was no point trying to badger him into another position. Badgering would only get him buyer’s remorse and me a begrudged check.

Teachers get so many things thrown at them – a new program, a new way of configuring classes, a new mandatory test, a new gradebook, a new system for tracking lesson plans – that I hesitate to add another piece of newness. It adds to the onslaught that already has left us tired and pessimistic. We’re so covered in poor change management that we picture every new idea as garbage before it’s even been consumed.

I wanted to add to that last paragraph some sort of “That’s how I feel, but this is what I’ll do.” I wanted to add that, but I can’t because I don’t have anything right now. I’m a bit stuck, because helping colleagues – adults – is discouraging. It’s why I did not submit a resume to TIE last year when a position opened up for which I was fittingly qualified. Such a position would have meant working with teachers and not kids; somehow, students’ apathy and dismissal of me is different than adults’. I take it better.

Where I go from here, I’ll soon enough decide. I suppose it’ll be to a wiki; whether I will be the only one there or not – we’ll see.

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