Collaboration | Feature

Wiki-Centric Learning

High school teachers use wikis to manage their classrooms and create online collaboration opportunities. With wikis, their students can complete assignments, learn from each other, and communicate with their peers from around the world.

Vicki Davis has a technology-centric classroom where pretty much everything revolves around the multiple wikis that she's set up over the last five years. A computer science teacher at Westwood Schools in Camilla, GA., Davis said her own "wiki fever" has since spread to other classrooms throughout the school, where she teaches technology to students in grades 8 through 12.

"It all started in my classroom," said Davis. "Today, we have wiki-centric projects going on all over campus."

A wiki is a Web site that allows for simple creation and editing of multiple, interlinked Web pages. Using simplified markup language or a rich text editor and a browser, teachers can get set up online and start interacting with their online communities quickly. Powered by wiki software, these sites are used frequently in educational settings, where teachers can exercise editorial rights by removing inappropriate or off-topic material.

Davis uses the online collaborative tools in multiple ways. One wiki, for example, is at the epicenter of her computer science class and houses a Google Calendar that's packed with lesson plans, assignments and other pertinent information. Students use the wiki to embed their work and/or hyperlink to completed assignments that are located elsewhere. "When I'm giving assignments or assessments, I go to the wiki," said Davis, who's recently been clearing out last year's wiki and getting it prepped for the current school year.

None of the old information is deleted; it's simply archived by year for future reference. Davis likes this feature, which allows students to build upon what others before them have done. "There's much less of a learning curve for students," said Davis," who can see how others have handled specific assignments and projects and then come up with their own ideas."

Davis also uses wikis to help tear down geographical barriers and introduce students to children from foreign countries and unfamiliar cultures. She said the wiki's editing model--which allows for contributions and alterations by all users--makes such collaboration extremely simple. "I have students who are working together with other children all over the world," said Davis, who typically introduces the wiki concept to students in ninth grades and higher.

One challenge Davis has run into when using wikis involves simultaneous editing and the fact that the tools aren't made to accommodate multiple users all at once. "This isn't the technology you want to be using if you have 20 students trying to edit one page," said Davis, who suggested Google Docs for that type of work (but not for building individual Web sites quickly, which is exactly what wikis work well for). "There are pros and cons to each option. Teachers really have to weigh out the selections before making a choice."

Valerie Burton, a ninth-grade English teacher at West Jefferson High School in Harvey, LA, made the choice to integrate wikis into her classroom two years ago. She has since set up several wikis, including those that serve as online filing cabinets for student assignments and projects.

"Using these wikis, I can quickly access handouts, PowerPoint presentations and other materials that I need for class," said Burton, who also uses wikis as online, collaborative workspaces for her students. Recently, students participated in a scavenger hunt assignment that found them searching through online newspapers and other sources for material to post on the wiki.

Like Davis, Burton also uses wikis to help students reach outside of their own country and connect with students overseas. The online collaboration tool recently served as a catalyst between Burton's students, and a classroom in Germany. "My kids posted information about themselves, and the German students did the same," said Burton. "Then, they used the collaborative nature of the wiki to comment and give feedback on each other's pages."

Wikis also help Burton teach on subjects that are closer to home, like Hurricane Katrina and the impact that the storm had on West Jefferson students and their families. One project involved reading Hurricane Song, a book by Paul Volponi, and then creating a wiki page that compared the characters' experiences with the students' own storm stories. One student was interviewed in a Q&A format that was posted on the wiki, said Burton, and another created a movie from his own personal collection of Katrina photos.

When working with wikis in the educational setting, Burton said, "The initial setup is the hardest part." When the layout and templates are well thought-out in advance, she added, the wiki is that much easier to use and manage. Other considerations include file management (where and how the current and archived data will be stored and accessed) and the registration of individual students and/or users.

Giving students the freedom to edit as they see fit can present its own set of challenges for educators like Burton, who said the task of monitoring gets easier as each school year progresses. "Over time, the students come to realize that I catch things pretty quickly," said Burton, who said she sees wikis as a viable option for high school teachers looking to add more Web 2.0 technology into the classroom. "The time put in on the front end is definitely worth it."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at [email protected].