Isn’t Everybody a Geek?

Last Thursday night I attended a meeting of the Lamar County Coalition of Education, Business, and Industry. My role there was to present a web application I’ve been developing. Also in attendance were representatives from each school district in Lamar County, three students from each district, and a few business people from the area. I think there were about 25 people there total.

The Coalition’s goal is to develop a website to bridge the gap between high school students and business people in order to help students prepare for jobs. With this in mind, I thought a wiki would be the perfect tool to facilitate this collaboration. Also, I’ve been working on a wiki of my own for a while now (more on that later), and I thought this might be just the thing to push me into finally completing it.

Over the last few weeks I finished up all of the essential features of the wiki and added some content provided by a guy from a local business. My hope was that this site could be expanded by students and business people into something really useful — similar to how Wikipedia is maintained by visitors to the site, only on a smaller scale.

I was in for some big surprises that night…

Before I showed the website to the students, I asked if anyone in the room knew what a “wiki” was. Out of the 20 students in the room, three raised their hands. All three were students in my class at Paris High. Next, I asked if anyone had ever heard of Wikipedia. A few more hands went up, maybe five or six students had at least heard of it. So I gave a quick overview of wikis and Wikipedia in particular.

A wiki is a type of website that allows anyone visiting the site to add, to remove, or otherwise to edit all content, very quickly and easily, sometimes without the need for registration. This ease of interaction and operation makes a wiki an effective tool for collaborative writing.

With this out of the way, I proceeded to take them through the site. There were only four pages to look at, so it didn’t take long. I mentioned how students could post comments on each page, and showed how easy it was to add and edit pages. I was quite proud of myself at this point, but it was obvious that the students were unimpressed by the limited content on the site.

One student had already mentioned how she went about researching her chosen career of Marine Biology. She spent several days searching the web for information about the job including colleges offering Marine Biology as a major, required courses, job opportunities, and basically everything else you would need to know to become a Marine Biologist. Seeing as she was now an expert on this topic, I asked if she would contribute to the site.

Her answer was simple – No. I asked the rest of the students if they would contribute to the site, and they answered in a similar fashion. If the content they wanted was available on the site, they would use it, but if they had to do research to find what they were looking for, they would not return to the site and share the information. So much for sharing.

Keep in mind these weren’t just average students attending this meeting. The three from Paris High were National Honor Society members. This really made me wonder about all of the “user generated content” on the web. I wonder how many people use Wikipedia compared to how many actually edit articles. Who generates the content in the first place? Obviously someone out there is working on it, but it’s no one that I know.

2 Replies to “Isn’t Everybody a Geek?”

  1. Did you really think that the average high schooler would do research and then actually write it up? That sounds like an assignment. I’d be surprised if the average high schooler even thinks realistically about life after Paris High considering the number of “sports stars” and such I ran into when I strayed out of advanced classes.

    I don’t know of anyone who edits wikipedia articles. I suppose I would if I happened to notice an error, or if there was something I ran across where I already knew a great deal but there wasn’t anything there. Currently I’ve been very pleased by the depth of the mathematics information on wikipedia. It’s been invaluble in my classes, but if I ran across something that wasn’t there would I add it later after I’d learned it? I don’t know.

    I think maybe one person out of a hundred (and that may be overgenerous by an order of magnitude) would take the time to contribute. Wikipedia works because of the vast number of people that use it. It’s large enough that content is created and updated very rapidly. On a smaller scale it would have to be a fairly fanatical group of users to work (linux geeks come to mind, but a non-tech group could work as well, though it’s less likely). On a school level it would fail completely.

    Now if the wiki held common test questions and homework answers the honors kids would jump all over that. Come to think of it, why didn’t me and my friends do that? We do something similar here where we have a dorm-test bank so you can see every test a teacher has ever given. Very useful the night before. (The teachers know about this and adjust each test accordingly, but it helps focus studying.)

    I should be back in Paris in the first few days of May, but I’ll be leaving again the 27th. Can’t let it suck me in…

  2. I wonder if part of the problem is the audience? Think about who you knew in high school that was a geek. The students I see actually pursuing their interests on the internet are not usually National Honor Society students. They are following their own paths and in a lot of cases many would be considered at risk as far as education. They are often the kids that you hope will be late-bloomers and find something to be passionate about at some point that will turn out to be an interest they can make a living doing.

    They are frequently creative and not using the web for “academic” purposes. The two main things I see them being interested in are music and games. My heart would be to find a way to channel some of that but I’m not sure that 1. they could be channeled, 2. That we could find a way that would help them learn that we could sell to the administration, and 3. That we could make it be something positive and safe and yet be high interest for them.

    Another problem is that change just happens slowly. I have seen the level of use of technology grow in the last few years but it still seems to stay way behind the times at least in the mainstream. We are surprised when the students are not willing to do extra to benefit others and still have a hard time with adults in the same way. I think before we can motivate students we have to create some excitement in a group of adults who would be willing to enthusiastically learn and mentor.

    Anyway – that’s my two cents – take it for what it’s worth. I would say, hang in there because your work may pay off in some other area you don’t even suspect right now. I don’t mean financially though I would definitely wish that for you, I mean that the wiki will be utilized. Maybe we need to do a presentation on wikis and their uses for teachers?

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