This page explains about the conception, birth, and evolution of EnglishWiki.
I simply wanted to have some web space to put up html files. Previously I had access to a bite of server space on Swarthmore College Computing Society  server, but lost the ability to connect after server-side upgrades. I thought it might be high time for me to finally register my own domain name and throw up some of my own stuff into the interstitial mix. I chose WorldWebHosters  as my host after seeing mention of their lifetime hosting services on Slashdot , because I thought it would be nice to have some space I didn't have to worry about making continual payments on. I started putting content for the English classes I was teaching long before the ttwhy.org even got its own design.
ttwhy has several meanings. Of course, ttwhy is reminiscent of /tty, or teletype, a terminal to log on to a Unix machine. I don't claim to understand more about the /tty *nix subsystem other than that different /tty's are indeed attached to different display outputs, but I liked the reference. In Chinese, there is a certain expression that means "100,000 questions". The Chinese counting method differs from the English after one thousand. Units of ten thousand are called wan, and units of one hundred million are called yi. The population of China as of 2005 is approximately shi san yi ("thirteen hundred-millions"). To express the value 100,000 we would say shi wan, or "ten ten-thousands". The tt of ttwhy could be taken to refer to "ten ten-thousands". And of course the why of ttwhy refers to "questions". Maybe not so clever in your opinion, but I like it!
I had always wondered what the heck cgi-bin meant in the address line of dynamic websites I visited. Now, having access to a cgi-bin of my very own, and meanwhile picking up a little Perl and coming to admire the language along with the power of regular expressions in text processing, I began my discovery of server-side applications. I decided sometime during the Spring 2004 semester that I would deploy and use a Wiki for use by myself and students outside of the classroom, and spent the first few weeks of teaching silently setting up, testing, and teaching myself the basics of cgi. I finally chose UseModWiki  as the engine, because of reports of simplicity of setup and maintenance. It seemed to be one of the original Wiki implementations, and I believe was the basis of several original outstanding Wiki-based sites such as Wikipedia  before they changed to more scalable Wiki flavours. I'll explain about my changes to UseModWiki to adapt it for my teaching purposes later. First, an irritating interlude:
I was working in the International Education Program of the Hunan Institute of Engineering  in Hunan province, central China. The IT infrastructure was vastly inferior to anything you might see in an university or college in the United States; however this is hardly surprising. The retrogressive attitudes held by the administration and in particular the ones who held decision making power over both IT investment and usage of existing resources were more shocking. With no countervailing opinion, the dominant view by the administration of computers and related technology was as a kind of "bonus" to the academic experience for students, something which students should be thankful for if working, and completely understanding of if underutilized or defunct. After the start of the fall semester we (the foreign teachers collectively) were provided with two desktop computers for the foreign teachers office, which were adequate for browsing the web and word processing. It wasn't until the end of the semester that we discovered upstairs on the third floor, totally unbeknownst to us, a computer lab filled with approximately 40 desktop computers, a server, a teaching terminal with projector, and fully connected network, laying unused, gathering dust.
The momentous task that lay ahead us was to convince the leaders that the computer room should be opened up to students for use in their leisure, non-class hours. Their objections can be simplified to the following three: 1) There was no precedent for opening such a room full of shiny new (and soon-to-be-obsolete) tech for casual student use. In China, no precedent usually means no go. 2) They were convinced that if the room were to be opened to students, a per-hour access charge should be levied. They could not get their tit for tat minds around the money generation fallacy to see that what might not benefit the pocket would benefit the student experience. 3) They were afraid of theft and vandalism of the computer room's expensive hardware. In other words, they did not an iota of faith in the morals of the students. I should elaborate on each of these points, basically give some background, which the reader may find informative.
The paradigm of computer labs and public terminals that I found in college does not exist in most Chinese schools (although I do not speak for the IT-related departments, who probably have a better record). Instead, any computers available are locked away from prying student fingers as soon as class is over with. The bitter irony of the situation is that students taking a class on computing simply sit through lectures while never being able to actually use a computer practically. Students do have access to computers in numerous internet cafes which exist very near the school gates, but they must pay for use by the hour (usually about ¥2-3 per hour). Additionally, these machines are inevitably either poorly maintained or utterly inflexible in use, or both. Oftentimes in internet cafes files cannot be downloaded and saved (a floppy disk can't even be mounted), productivity applications (such as pdf viewers and office software) are missing and cannot be installed, and virus infestations abound. Counter-Strike and heavy cigarette smoke are the name of of the game in most of these establishments.
I don't think we ever did convince the leaders that a pay-per-use approach to institutional resources is just plain wrong. They wanted to charge for students to use the computer room, and vigilantly referred us to the absurd library computer policy. Computer use in the library was granted at a charge of ¥1.5 an hour. Most students reported that the computers were aged and slow, and that the connection speed was horrendous. Having to pay for such a lame resource was outrageous in the first place; that the administrators we were dealing with used it as proof that our free model for the computer room was inferior was even more maddening. They could not get it in their heads that the resources which already existed would be better off used than unused, and moreover that they had already been paid for in full by the very high tutition levied on students of the International Education Program. Tuition was more than three times that of any other department in the university. We pushed and pushed for equity in technology access, that is free usage by all, but it felt like our arguments fell on deaf ears.
Computer room supervision was a big question. Nobody had such administrative experience, and although I was willing to do a significant bit of this work unpaid I was not only unqualified (yet at the same time best qualified, due to poor computer knowledge among local candidates, even among so-called experts), but busy with teaching classes. No prior documentation existed for the computer room networking or electrical wiring. Big windows opened onto the room which needed to be closed in the event of rain. Theft had occurred before and was an issue of migrane proportions. Several computers, at the time unidentified, lay in disrepair, and relations with the computer companies providing warranties had not been renewed in some time. When called, technicians came weeks late and could not solve problems. Who would watch the students once the room was fully operational? Who would be able to keep the room available at all hours? The leaders were completely unwilling to hire someone to fill the vacant position. Their position meant that the computer room would stay closed, despite student demand, because the department was unwilling to shell out a couple thousand RMB (about two hundred US dollars) per semester to hire someone with the minimal experience to keep it open and prevent abuse. The mentality was that of "don't touch it, and maybe it won't break", incongruously joined with obstinate refusal to invest in maintenance and problem resolution.
Meanwhile, I thought long and hard about just how I would integrate computer use, and specifically a Wiki, into English language teaching. I realized that I wanted students to have a bit of their own space on the internet to in which to write homework, experiment, and basically call their own. At the same time, I wanted to leverage reasonable content control as the teacher, enough to positively direct pedagogical activity.
I wrote a welcome page completely in English which directed the reader to the text formatting instructions for UseModWiki , the SandBox, and a few cleverly named pages which students would be using a lot (for example UsualUsers and TopicTree). The original welcome page has since been made obsolete by more recent changes. It was basically a short introduction followed by a table of contents for the most important Wiki pages students would access.
The Gotobar appears at the top and (by default) the bottom of every page, so it is a convenient place to display navigational elements. It normally contains links to the Wiki homepage, Preferences, and RecentChanges. To save clicks in navigating to the most viewed pages, I added abbreviated links to UsualUsers and TopicTree to the Gotobar as UU and TT, respectively.
I envisioned EnglishWiki as a real language learning environment, so I also wanted to add integrate a dictionary search tool to the Gotobar. This would save students from having to change to another browser window or take out their dictionaries every time they wanted to look up words. English to English, Chinese to English, and English to Chinese dictionaries should all be available. For English to English I chose to link to dict.org , a lightweight, no-nonsense database of public domain dictionary resources, copyright unencumbered. For the others I chose ***FILL IN DICT NAME DON'T REMEMBER*** , which I found much more linguistically comprehensive than any online solutions such as TigerNT . The dictionary data came with accompanying software, so I would have to write the search program. First, I separated the necessary data fields into Chinese to English and English to Chinese files, which I converted from the original encoding to UTF-8, a more portable character encoding and the one I prefer to use when dealing with multibyte content for the web. Then I wrote and tested a script that reads through these files as specified, sequentially, returning query results. Finally, I added form posting logic to the Gotobar. One of my goals was to maximize the usefulness of the bar while minimizing its visual footprint. While not perfect, I think the result I ran with achieved these goals satisfactorily.
// To Finish