UI class uses ‘Wikis’ instead of books


With the advent of Wiki software at the UI, professors now have more options than just textbooks.

In fact, employees at Information Technology Services say the number of Wiki spaces in the university server nearly doubled this year, and views went up by 40 percent.

UI law Professor Lea VanderVelde found a unique way to utilize that technology in her Employment Law class last spring. Now, she and a team from ITS are working to make the project more accessible to the public.

Although many think “Wikipedia” when it comes to such troves of information, Wikis are, more generally, classified as a group of interlinked websites — though Wikipedia is undoubtedly the most popular kind.

Employment law can come into play after an individual is dismissed from work. Former employees decide whether they will file suit for reasons such as improper discharge or discrimination.

Because laws relating to this are decided on the state level, and the field is rapidly changing, VanderVelde decided a textbook wouldn’t be suitable. So she had her students research and compile an extensive collection of information relating to the field. Each student focused on two states.

“The form of the ‘Wiki’ really was perfect for the function of showing students that there’s no dominant way [to do employment law] and every one of the states have decided it [differently],” she said.

And her students didn’t seem to mind.

“Several people expressed the view that it was the most fun class to come to,” VanderVelde said. “It wasn’t just reading the textbook, being called upon, or having the professor lecture to them.”

The Wiki is a program that can be used in many different ways, which, ITS student employees said, makes it a popular tool on campus. And it’s simply easy to use, they said.

Wikis differ from typical HTML pages because instead of using technical codes, users look at a screen that resembles a word processor.

VanderVelde approached ITS in December 2008. She wanted to use Wiki to organize law students’ research on employment law in a way that would expand on available information.

She first spoke with Leighton Christiansen, who graduated in May with a degree in English and a minor in informatics. Along with three other student instructional technology assistants, he put VanderVelde’s ideas into action.

“Professor VanderVelde really pushed us to look at new ways to use the Wiki,” he said. “She began to realize the new opportunities that were there as well and sort of taught us.”

The UI Wiki service had just come out of the pilot phase in the last couple of years, he said. Last spring, it became a fully supported service. The server currently hosts 100 or more Wiki spaces, and users can tailor them to their needs.

Another student assistant who worked on this project, UI graduate student Nathan Culmer, said VanderVelde chose to use the software in a unique way.

“She turned [the roles] around and made the students into researchers,” he said.

VanderVelde said clients pay lawyers thousands of dollars to research the “old-fashioned way,” but here she has a website that has all of the information readily available. Although the comprehensive set of information is arguably beneficial for the larger legal community, the Wiki is only available to those who created it.

But a major concern was student privacy laws, Culmer said.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1975 states students’ work cannot be viewed by the public without the authors’ permission. Anything they create must also include proper attribution.

“In order to make this live, we’d need to eliminate students’ information or get waivers from the students,” Christiansen said.

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