A Cure For Meetings?

March 15, 2010

Wikis — Web-based text documents that can be edited and annotated by visitors — have been a thorn in the side of many professors, who scorn their students’ reliance on the world’s most famous wiki, Wikipedia, for research. On the other hand, some professors find wikis useful as a useful teaching and research tool.

But can they help professors govern themselves?

Ohio State University is trying to find out. The university last year decided to switch its academic calendar from quarters to semesters. The switch meant that certain course offerings would have to be eliminated and degree requirements would have to be reworked — and each department would have to work out those changes.

The university encouraged the departments to utilize wikis, hoping that the tool would allow department heads to solicit lots of input and come to a consensus on how to restructure each major (a daunting task when one considers the size of each department) more efficiently than by hashing it out in meetings, said Manuel Martinez, director of undergraduate studies for the English department.

The English department was among those that decided to try the wiki idea. The department leadership posted documents outlining the proposed changes on wikis where professors could annotate text and debate points via discussion threads, and declared open season. Two months later, the professors convened to revise the documents. The idea was that the discussion on the wiki would generate ideas and resolve some conflicts ahead of time and face-to-face meeting more dynamic.

The experiment got mixed reviews within the department. Martinez said that after some initial technical glitches, the wiki accomplished exactly what it was supposed to. While some faculty “took some convincing,” about two-thirds of the department ended up writing on the wiki, he said. About 40 posted more than once. That indicates a much higher level of participation than at normal departmental meetings, which are not usually well-attended, Martinez said.

Some professors agreed that the social media tool proved useful. “The wiki provided useful scaffolding for our discussions concerning restructuring our curriculum,” said David Herman, a professor. “We were able to go into a face-to-face departmental meeting with a prior history of discussion to draw on, and this left more time for hashing out some of the thornier issues at hand.”

“While we still value the retreat and the regular department meeting as an opportunity to come together in one very crowded room, there are limits to how many voices can be heard when the department is this large,” noted Jared Gardner, another department member.

Also, because the wiki organized the discussion threads by topic, it was easier to follow the back-and-forth between two or more viewpoints on each particular point, said Karen Winstead. “At meetings, people can’t really have [linear] discussions because people are called upon in the order that they raised their hands,” she said. Also, debates that take place on the wiki are preserved with perfect accuracy, Winstead added — whereas at face-to-face meetings “things get lost in the minutes.”

But the wiki idea also drew its fair share of skeptics. “I believe (and think most colleagues share this belief) that there’s a value in getting together in the same room to debate and to decide on issues,” wrote Jim Phelan in an e-mail. “The concentrated thinking and discussing is beneficial for group decision-making.”

Professor Lee Martin, who is on sabbatical and admitted he did not use the wiki, agreed generally on the principle that face-to-face interaction is preferable to virtual contact. “In general, I'm wary of depersonalizing our to and fro, which, to my way of thinking, lessens the ownership we take of our comments and opinions,” he wrote via e-mail. “…I still believe we should look one another in the eyes when we express our opinions.”

On the other hand, Martin allowed, the online, asynchronous format might allow certain faculty who would not have had the time or inclination to hold forth at a large faculty meeting to make their voices heard.

Lev Gonick, CIO at the nearby Case Western Reserve University and an advocate for the broader use of wikis in governance, suggested that the professorial zeitgeist skews skeptical when it comes to applying wiki technology in new contexts. “Ten years ago using the wiki for learning and planning was an expression of organizational innovation,” Gonick wrote in an e-mail. “Today, the rate limiting challenge in using wiki technology has much more to do with deep organizational culture and surprising resist to change. As always humans turn out to be much more complex than technology.”

But some of the Ohio State English professors objected to the use of wikis for practical, not antiquarian, reasons. After all, despite all the theoretical reasons why a wiki should have made the follow-up faculty meeting more dynamic, the professors were unable to reach a consensus about the departmental restructuring documents. Associate professor Chadwick Allen described the meeting as “chaotic,” and Richard F. Green said, “I believe that I was not alone in feeling that the meeting itself proceeded as if the wiki had never really existed.”

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