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Student Wikis Spread Research to Web Audience

Although master's candidate Neil Spears had used wikis as a sixth grade teacher in East Los Angeles, he wasn't prepared for the amount of work that goes into putting together a site on a controversial issue such as school turnaround. Like many of the students in Assistant Professor Jal Mehta's Introduction to Educational Policy course, it was the first time Spears has ever compiled a wiki. "I didn't understand the magnitude of compiling a website," he admits.

"Wikis are forms whereby students can work collectively on the web to develop a series of information about a topic," Mehta says. Last semester students from Mehta's class presented a 22-page wiki site focused on a wide range of hot topics in education policy including desegregation and METCO, teacher preparation, merit pay, and socioeconomic integration of schools.

The inclusion of the wiki site as a course project provided an opportunity for students to share information and research of a wide interest to a web audience. Mehta envisions the wikis as a way to create an "information center" about specific topics including links to other organizations and resources that could be useful beyond the walls of the Introduction to Educational Policy class.

"There's a lot of information you want to know from researchers, students, and advocates collected on the website," Mehta says. "In this case, the projects really worked. The hope in teaching is that you can learn from students, and by the end of the project the students really had become experts on some of the topics."

In celebration of the site going live, the students presented their wiki sites to their fellow students and the HGSE community at a wiki fair. Mehta hosted the fair as a way for students to share the collective knowledge of the class and also for students to present their work to the broader community. "It really was a nice opportunity for students to learn from one another," he says, noting that students truly wanted to share their experiences and research throughout the semester. Additionally, the fair offered students an opportunity to interact the community. "It was valuable for students to have a chance to get out and talk about these difficult and contentious issues with people who may disagree," Mehta says.

For almost six weeks, students worked together in groups generating information for their selected topics. On top of the history, research, politics, and policy recommendations made by each group, they also interviewed eight experts in the field. Among the interviewees were many prominent voices in fields of education and social welfare, such as Thomas Fordham Institute President Checker Finn, M.A.T.'67, Ed.D.'70; Forum for Democracy and Education Director and Advisor Debbie Meier; Education Sector Managing Director Bill Tucker; Economic Policy Institute Research Associate Richard Rothstein; HGSE Professor Tom Payzant, M.A.T.'63, C.A.S.'66, Ed.D.'68; and Harvard Sociologist William Julius Wilson.

"The students really did a fabulous job of getting out in the world," Mehta says, pointing out that each student interviewed at least two people. "They found national experts on their topics.... They had talked to a number of people who I had not talked to and was really envious. It enriched their perspective."

The course attracted over 100 students including some outside of the Ed School such as Harvard College undergraduates, Harvard Business School students, and also Harvard employees. Mallory Stark, a Harvard Business School staff member who enrolled in Mehta's class, relished the opportunity to conduct secondary and primary research. "It was very interesting, useful, and practical," she says. "It was one of the reasons I took the class."

Due to her deep interest in education, Lucerito Ortiz, a Harvard College Senior, cross-registered solely to enroll in Mehta's class. She had never put together a Wiki before. "It was really nerve-wracking figuring out how to present the information," she says. Ortiz's wiki looks at the complex issue of teacher preparation and how to prepare higher quality teachers in American schools.

"I feel like I learned a lot about the subject but think it was an interesting idea to put it on Wiki," Ortiz says, pointing out that often you are unable to see the results of fellow students' research. "I like going around and seeing the other research. It is so interesting to see that there is no consensus."

For many students, the controversial and unsettled topics in educational policy proved fertile grounds for collecting and presenting information. "This really was a way to investigate a new topic but also to collaborate with a group of people," says Adam Sapp, master's candidate in the Higher Education Program. Sapp worked with Spears on the school turnaround wiki. "This is still uncharted territory. It's very much a moving target" Sapp says about the issue of school turnaround.

Wikis are really a perfect format for educational policy issues, says Spears, since "school turnaround is happening right now in real time." Spears says that it will be interesting to see how the public adds on and changes the A100 wiki site over time as the debate around the issues grow and change.

In the meantime, as the students wait to see how their respective wikis evolve in the days that come, the experience itself has been invaluable. "I would do it again because despite the labor involved, I probably learned the most in this class the entire semester," Sapp says.


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