Collaboration | Feature

Wikis: Pulling It All Together Online

Elementary teachers are using wikis in and out of the classroom. The collaborative, teacher-moderated technology allows educators to set up sites quickly and at little or no cost, creating instant learning resources for students. But wikis aren't without their challenges.

David Lindsay discovered wikis in 2005, several years before collaborative Web 2.0 innovations would officially infiltrate the educational space. Armed with Web site design experience, this elementary school teacher started tooling around with the idea of wikis after seeking out a better way to manage an annual competition that paired students with a local business alliance.

"I was looking for an easier, free way to manage the competition," said Lindsay, a fourth grade teacher and technology coordinator at Rosedell Elementary in Saugus, CA. Through the event, students work closely with the business alliance to develop their own online businesses. Lindsay coaches students through the process, which finds children using the Web to experience hands-on entrepreneurship at a young age.

"At the time, there was software available for what I wanted to do, but it was cost-prohibitive," said Lindsay, who was also challenged by the fact that Web site design five years ago still required the developers (in this case, the students themselves) to write code. "Programming and HTML were still pretty complicated for a fourth grader to learn and use," said Lindsay. "While I was looking around for better options, I stumbled upon wikis."

By definition, a wiki is a Web site that allows for simple creation and editing of multiple, interlinked Web pages. Using simplified markup language WYSIWYG 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.

For the last five years Lindsay has used wikis both in and out of the classroom. One wiki Web site, for example, serves as a "window" into his fourth-grade classroom and a portal to curriculum resources. Using the free PBworks online collaboration service, Lindsay not only posts his own data, but also stores his students' portfolios and other pertinent information.

The student who creates a podcast, for example, will likely have her work showcased on Lindsay's wiki, which uses embedding technology to make such uploads simple and fast. "You can take the code from the podcast and embed a player right into your wiki," said Lindsay. "Then, parents can log on, click 'play' and listen to their students' work at their own convenience, online."

Lindsay also uses the wiki to display more traditional projects, such as works of art. A student's masterpiece can be scanned into a computer, and then uploaded to the wiki without much more than a few minutes of effort. The process not only helps preserve the original work of art, he said, but also allows a much larger audience to view it online.

The same process works for collaborative, group projects, which are often difficult to manage and share. A team of four students who are working on a volcano project, for example, can log onto the wiki and use it as a place to post and/or answer research questions among each other. Both teacher and parents can monitor the project's progress, see each student's contribution, and offer feedback and help where needed.

"The wiki makes it easy for everyone to see what's going on in the classroom," said Lindsay, "and helps me follow the progress on specific projects; even those that are taking place off campus."

Lindsay said he's run into a couple of challenges while using wikis, with the most prevalent being the fact that users can post "pretty much whatever they want to" in the online forums. Once the "submit" button is pressed, the content is viewable by the rest of the world. "One time, a student posted the wiki passwords online, just for fun," said Lindsay. "Luckily, I have the site set up to send me push notifications of any changes to the content, so I was able to take them down within five minutes."

Lorna Larson, an ESL teacher at Forest Lake Elementary in Forest Lake, MN, has also dealt with "monitoring" challenges when using wikis and said password distribution and management has been equally as onerous. "We had to print out user names and passwords for all of the students, and then keep all of that information straight," said Larson, referring to the first wiki she set up a few years ago. "We wound up having to redistribute the information every time the students used the wikis, until they had the passwords memorized."

Larson, who learned about wikis several years ago at a University of Minnesota workshop for elementary teachers, said she uses the collaborative spaces on several fronts. Recently, summer school students were encouraged to use the classroom wiki to give feedback and recommendations on the books they were reading, while other children used the online, collaborative space to participate in fact-and-opinion projects related to plays that they attended while on field trips.

Where those student contributions differ than those created in more traditional ways (in notebooks or on paper reports, for example), said Larson, lies in the fact that they are being developed with a larger audience in mind. "Students recognize that students, teachers and parents will be reading their work," said Larson. "That's pretty powerful, and it prompts them to be more conscientious about the quality and depth of their writing."

To teachers looking to infuse their own classrooms with some of those benefits, Larson said the best place to start is by talking to other educators about their experiences. "You can flounder around forever, trying to figure it all out," stated Larson, "or you can send an e-mail to someone who has already used wikis, and get help."

Lastly, Larson said teachers should be careful not to lose sight of the real reason they're using wikis: to enhance the learning experience for students. Don't get caught up in the technology, she said. Instead, focus on what type of enrichment would most help students, and figure out how wikis can help fill those gaps. "Technology can be a great facilitator," said Larson, "but knowing the learning objective is the first critical step."

About the Author

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