Federated Wiki for teaching and learning basic composition

The FedWikiHappening has mainly explored Federated Wiki as an environment for collaborative writing. But the underlying software is rich with unexplored capability. It is, among many other possible uses, a great platform for the teaching and learning of basic writing skills.

Every page in FedWiki is backed by two data structures. The story is a sequence of paragraphs. The journal is a sequence of actions that add, edit, move, or delete paragraphs. Because editing is paragraph-oriented, the progressive rewriting of a paragraph is recorded in the journal.

I once taught an introductory writing class to undergraduates. Part of my method was to awaken students to the notion that paragraphs can and should evolve, and that it’s useful to observe and discuss that evolution. In FedWiki the evolution of a paragraph is not directly visible, but it’s available just below the surface. Here’s a beautiful example from a Kate Bowles essay called Sentences that get things done. The essay emerged in response to a collaborative riff that ends with Kate’s title. But here let’s watch one paragraph in Kate’s essay grow and change.

1. The relevance to wiki is that vernacular language is both capable of sustaining narrative and does not depend on citation.


2. The relevance to SFW is that vernacular language is both capable of sustaining narrative and does not depend on citation.


3. The relevance to SFW is that vernacular language is both capable of sustaining and amplifying personal narrative and yet does not depend on authorial celebrity or citation.


4. The relevance to SFW is that vernacular language is both capable of sustaining and amplifying personal narrative and yet does not depend on authorial celebrity or citation. Vernacular language is available to be borrowed, forked, repurposed.


5. The relevance to SFW is that vernacular language is both capable of sustaining and amplifying personal narrative and yet does not depend on authorial celebrity or citation. Vernacular language is available to be borrowed, forked, repurposed, and so becomes a practice of creating sentences that get things done, rather than further intensification of the spectacle of heroic individuals doing things.


6. The relevance to SFW is that vernacular language is both capable of sustaining and amplifying personal narrative and yet does not depend on authorial celebrity or citation. Vernacular language is available to be borrowed, forked, repurposed, and so becomes a practice of collaboratively creating sentences that get things done, rather than further intensification of the spectacle of heroic individuals doing things.


7. The relevance to SFW is that vernacular language is both capable of sustaining and amplifying personal narrative and yet does not depend on authorial celebrity or citation. Vernacular language is available to be borrowed, forked, repurposed, and so becomes a practice of collaboratively creating sentences that get things done, as a counterpoint to the intensification of heroic individuals doing things.


8. The relevance to SFW is that vernacular language is both capable of sustaining and amplifying personal narrative and yet does not depend on authorial celebrity or citation. Vernacular language is available to be borrowed, forked, repurposed, and so becomes a practice of collaboratively creating sentences that get things done.

Version 4 might have been a keeper. But something propelled Kate to work through versions 5, 6, and 7. In the final version we see what she was reaching for: a way to land on the sentence that is both the essay’s title and a reference to the context from which the essay arose.

Any kind of web client software, running in the browser or in the cloud, could access that essay’s journal and surface that paragraph history. The FedWiki API (application programming interface) is simple and universal: just subtract /view from a FedWiki URL and append .json to the name of a page. So, for example:

Kate’s page: http://kate.au.fedwikihappening.net/view/sentences-that-get-things-done

The API for Kate’s page: http://kate.au.fedwikihappening.net/sentences-that-get-things-done.json

We can also construct URLs that arrange versions side by side. Here’s a FedWiki lineup that arranges two versions of the paragraph side by side and in context:

http://kate.au.fedwikihappening.net/view/sentences-that-get-things-done_rev26/view/sentences-that-get-things-done_rev36

Now imagine that I’m the teacher, Kate is the student, I’ve forked Kate’s essay, and I’ve written version 8 as an example for Kate. Here’s an URL that arranges her version alongside mine:

http://kate.au.fedwikihappening.net/view/sentences-that-get-things-done_rev26/jon.sf.fedwikihappening.net/sentences-that-get-things-done_rev36

I would love to help build tools that mine FedWiki’s latent ability to support the teaching and learning of prose composition. And I would equally love using those tools to facilitate that teaching and learning.

11 Comments

  1. One thing people might not get reading this is how much the HTML 5/event-driven editor plays a role in this.

    So in a normal wiki we’d see revisions, but they’d be snapshots more on the level of an hour or a day.

    In a more modern auto-saving wiki (or blog) we’d have auto-saves, but they’d be random, and unrelated to the structure of the document. And maybe not logged as revisions.

    One thing that makes federated wiki really powerful is that it understands what a paragraph is. So when you edit the paragraph and then go edit something else (or just “click out” to read) it logs the edit in the journal and pushed the change to the server. And if you move that paragraph, the ID stays with it, so you don’t lose the value of the history.

    And here we come to something that is very hard to get about federated wiki which I would love your help explaining — Ward likes to say his interest is can you take a few simple ideas and data structures and make them really generative. And so you have this simple idea of paragraphs as the atomic structure rather than pages, and suddenly the lousy revision histories we have turn into this beautiful, almost poetic view.

    I have worked in educational materials reuse for ages, and looked at every tool imaginable — they all try to deal with reuse at the level of the page, and bad things happen. But the paragraph/item! Suddenly revision histories make sense, partial reuse is simple, data can live next to text in harmony.

    There’s maybe ten ideas in federated wiki like that — where Ward has (I think) realized either that complexity was being generated by having the wrong underlying model or that generative potential was being quashed. And each one on its own could radically change things. But it’s hard for people to see that part until they start digging in. We’re used to minimal viable products, we’re unused to maximally viable models.

    1. I hope that this post will help suggest the power of a sequence of versioned paragraphs/items. Because you’re right, page-oriented reuse is a non-starter. (And not only for ed-tech. For all its amazingness GitHub remains line-oriented, as my friends at SoftwareCarpentry.org have long lamented, despite the content being naturally divided into units of modules and functions.) More examples will help make the case. But they’ve got to bubble up from real use of SFW. I could have imagined the scenario described in this post but it wouldn’t have been compelling. Showing what actually happened is, I hope, very compelling. I’m sure the FedWikihappening will repeat in the ed-tech realm. It needs to occur in other and very different realms too.

  2. When you broke it down in this way I saw something I hadn’t previously been able to explain well at all: composition as a practice of taking away. Being able to slow this process down to the point that I can see the switch from adding content to subtracting its expression has shown me a new way of explaining paragraphing to student writers as pathmaking by adjustment to terrain.

    The only experience I’ve had like it is watching the replay of a document being composed in Etherpad.

    I work with student writers whose sense of paragraphing as inflexible discipline (and thus structure overall) is radically cramped by high school training–I suspect this relates to the rise and rise of the brutalising “grammar of governance” in Fitzgerald’s beautiful post on recovering the vernacular. I’ve been at a loss for ways to show them that paragraphing can both step away from those rules and at the same time through an appreciation of order can sustain meaning in the way that metre weaves through a poem.

    Like you, I’ve been unable to tear myself away from this whole FW process. Unlike you (and Mike), I have absolutely zero idea how it works. I can just see how to work within it. This is the most uplifting experience. So now I’m really interested in FW as a writers’ studio.

    But I do think the non-coder user experience can be addressed. As much as anything, this is about shared language. Coders relate FW to Github; non-coders compare it to Moleskin and a soft pencil.

    Thank you so much for writing this.

    1. When you say you have zero idea about how it works, I think you’re mainly referring to SFW-in-the-large: a radically dynamic system that enables pages to proliferate, diverge, and mix in ways that nobody can yet easily visualize, even those of us who grok GitHub. Our ability to understand and work effectively within that dynamic system can improve in two complementary ways: by users evolving patterns and practices that become well-trodden paths, and by the system evolving affordances that codify and support those patterns and practices.

      In this example, though, we’re mainly dealing with SFW-in-the-small: a single essay that you wrote on your SFW site. It contains the history that enabled me to reveal your composition process. And crucially it records that history as a sequence of paragraph-level changes. The edits are therefore chunked in a way that makes playback very different from watching a finely-granular character-by-character editing sequence as you’d see in EtherPad, or a coarsely-granular set of diffs as you’d see in GitHub.

      Your paragraph became the expression of an idea. Because SFW does paragraph-granular versioning, we can easily observe how the expression of that idea evolved. As you say, it evolves by accretion but also by pruning. I think this mechanism of paragraph-level versioning will be completely understandable to a non-coder, once it’s revealed. And as a coder, I can tell you that it will not be hard to create views that reveal that version history.

      Trickier, but still doable, would be enabling a teacher to arrange a pipeline that compares versions of a page from several sites in a way that enables observation and discussion of an individual paragraph in context.

      The key to making all this happen would be to pair somebody like you, to pioneer the use of SFW in a writing workshop, with somebody like me to define the workflow, help implement it, observe it in action, and eventually build tools to automate it.

      1. I do also want to say, though, that I genuinely don’t understand a great deal of FW, and this in itself interests me. I read apparently straightforward sentences in English that say things about “hovering over twins”, for example, and for whole paragraphs at a time I realise I’m learning to read as a second-language reader must, by carefully translating each word and then trying to decode the sentence as a whole.

        Example: after ignoring mentions of it all over FW, your “those of us who grok Github” finally made me go look it up. In Wikipedia I found this: “Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science—and it means as little to us (because of our Earthling assumptions) as color means to a blind man.”

        The thing is, I didn’t know this. I don’t use this word. I’ve never heard of it, nor have I read Heinlein.

        So I’ve been watching a whole other group of us drawn to FW from elsewhere on the map of disciplines, all trying to figure out how to communicate in this world where so much domestic language is repurposed (at the weirdest possible combination of metaphoric scales).

        I’m used to these arguments about exclusionary language being levelled against my discipline; and I fully understand the need to respect and care for professionally useful vocabulary. So for these reasons I’m willing to do the work of looking stuff up.

        But in a practical sense I think the interface for new users either needs to take this steep language learning curve into account, or provide more support, if this is to be a space where people from different backgrounds come to meet.

      2. It’s really helpful to see your reaction to the terminology. At one time I wrote mainly for audiences with whom I shared a lot of technical vocabulary, I’ve since tried to broaden my reach, but I hadn’t ever considered that ‘grok’ addresses the intersection of scifi and infotech and isn’t really mainstream.

        As for ‘hovering over twins’: that’s very narrow, really just an SFW-ism that wouldn’t make sense to anybody else.

        “But in a practical sense I think the interface for new users either needs to take this steep language learning curve into account, or provide more support, if this is to be a space where people from different backgrounds come to meet.”

        Both are necessary. Also sanding off rough edges in the user experience. To that end the Happening was really helpful. Already today we can see how Ward is processing some of the user interface issues that surfaced: http://forage.ward.fed.wiki.org/view/wiki-in-the-new-year

  3. Backing carefully into this, first of all I’d be really interested in helping to figure out the puzzle of using SFW-in-the-small as a writers’ tool. Its value seems to me to lie not in helping students become more template-driven in their writing, but in understanding the tempo of their own voices as things are. What I learned from looking at how you reacted to the way that I write is something like a painterly signature. Where education leaps with this is towards formulaic composition; and handily that formulaic compositional grammar becomes the basis for current developments in automated essay grading. Ka-ching.

    I think this is why we end up with so much writing (truly, so much writing) that is correct and yet strangely awful to read, in the same way that we end up with municipal paths in the world that are models of safety and efficiency, and sometimes even of approved forms of aesthetics, that nonetheless generate resistant vernacular adjustments, that become social paths of their own. All this has helped me see why I’m really interested in desire paths in the physical world as a model for what we’re seeing in so many online environments that are characterised by repeated use.

    So the second thing is that I’m really drawn to this larger process, which I suspect is both complementary and sequential: “Our ability to understand and work effectively within that dynamic system can improve in two complementary ways: by users evolving patterns and practices that become well-trodden paths, and by the system evolving affordances that codify and support those patterns and practices.”

    Practical SFW question, as well as the question behind every human footfall on the surface of the world we share: what now?

    1. “Where education leaps with this is towards formulaic composition; and handily that formulaic compositional grammar becomes the basis for current developments in automated essay grading. Ka-ching.”

      Ouch. That saddens me but now that you bring it up I can clearly envision that trajectory.

      “What now?”

      Well, the Happening is over but the servers are still running. I’m in career reboot mode at the moment so I have time to explore things, and I’m not done exploring SFW yet, so I’ll be poking around some more, and will appreciate doing that in a collaborative way with some goals in mind.

      1. Yes, me too. I feel I’m not done exploring. I’m learning slowly, including learning slowly how to use the language (small goal 1). So I will also appreciate collaborative company in the maze. Would it help if we had some shared goals?

      2. Absolutely. If the ‘writing studio’ is of interest I’d love to try working out some more examples of what that might be, and maybe prototyping some automation of workflow.

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