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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

The Way of the Wiki: Building Online Creativity and Cooperation

These tools are the ultimate enablers of collaboration -- in and out of class.
By Grace Rubenstein
Credit: Wesley Bedrosian

A simple, cheap technology with a funny name will become an even more powerful portal into creative teaching and learning this year. Educators, if you haven't already, meet the wiki.

Wikis are Web sites that can be instantly and easily edited by anyone the wiki owner chooses to allow (in the case of Wikipedia, everyone in the world). The teachers who first used them a few years ago started simply by posting assignments and information for their students. Now, the trailblazers use them to create living, breathing classrooms online.

"A wiki is the greatest project tool that's ever been created," says Vicki Davis, ed-tech blogger and classroom wiki pioneer.

What's so great about it? A wiki is the ultimate enabler of collaboration. Stewart Mader, maven of the GrowYourWiki blog and "wiki evangelist" for the San Francisco software company Atlassian, explains that, tangibly, a wiki is a place to organize group work where everyone can see and contribute to it. A wiki can hold any kind of media -- text, images, videos, or diagrams. The intangible part is that it allows for asynchronous cooperation, so one student can work on a group project in the afternoon, one in the evening, and one at night, and each will build on what the previous one did. Unbound from fixed meeting times, says Mader, each team member contributes when she's at her best.

How great is that? Check out the numbers. In the three years since wiki provider Wikispaces launched, nearly 400,000 K-12 teachers and students have registered as users (not all of them active). In early 2006, Wikispaces offered to give away to educators 100,000 "Plus" memberships -- a $50-per-year option that removes ads and allows the owner to restrict public viewing of the wiki. At last count, the company had given out more than 80,000. Other popular wiki providers include PBwiki and Wetpaint.

Davis, who blogs as Cool Cat Teacher, has witnessed some of the best uses and worst misunderstandings of wikis. One person emailed her and -- mistaking the Web tool for the Wicca religion -- said that wikis are evil. Another educator told her he couldn't use wikis with students because his district superintendent believes all wikis involve porn.

She knows, though, that the truth about wikis as teaching tools is far better than the fiction, and every day more and more educators are seeing that, too.

Louise Maine, a science teacher at Punxsutawney Area High School, in western Pennsylvania, essentially runs her entire class on a wiki. During class, students upload lab data and observations to their wiki pages in real time. Later, from home, they can write formal lab reports and engage in discussions in the same space. The wiki is a parallel classroom -- one where students can collaborate, ask questions, and find answers, and where Maine can engage them, from any computer anywhere, day or night. (Read our article about Maine's classroom wiki, and check out her tips on how to use one.)

The learning potential with wikis goes further than that. Davis, who teaches high school technology in Camilla, Georgia, has blown out the walls of that parallel classroom by orchestrating student collaboration across continents, between places as distant as the United States and Bangladesh.

Davis insists wikis are not the wild, untamable places that educators often fear they are. A teacher can restrict who may edit and view a wiki, or block certain pages from any editing. Best of all, says Davis, the wiki stores a record of every change made and who made it, so students know she can see exactly what they did, constructive or otherwise. Note to student slackers: That means she can see what you didn't do, too.

"It is not like some greased-pig contest," Davis says. "It's such a controllable environment that sometimes kids say, 'I can't get away with anything on a wiki.'"

The more educators see examples like Maine and Davis, the more of them look beyond the wiki myths and embrace the benefits. Wiki enthusiasts (we at Edutopia included) expect their numbers only to grow.

Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia.

Comments (11)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Nicole Naditz's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It was interesting to see Edutopia featuring wikis. I have been using wikis to increase collaboration among attendees of my seminars since I was introduced to them at a leadership institute in 2006. At the time, I was out of the classroom on a limited-term assingment as a full-time mentor for my district. I returned to the classroom last year, but didn't use wikis the way I hoped I would. This year, for the first time, I have significantly expanded my use of wikis.

Students in French 1-3 are doing paperless cultural research projects over the course of the semester on their wikis. Students in French 3 and 4/AP are corresponding with e-pals from Belgium using wikis. I hope to find enough epals to also connect my French 1 students to others around the world. My French 4/AP class is building a wiki in French and English to teach others about solar power and to blog on their experiences with our project to send solar lanterns to a village in Burkina Faso (we're connected to a school there through the Peace Corps). French teachers are uploading and sharing lessons and activities on a "swap shop" wiki I created for my colleagues.

I've been asked to share my use of wikis with my colleagues at my site, and I hope to see more teachers using them to enhance collaboration and forge connections beyond their classroom walls as well.

Nicole Naditz
NBCT, Bella Vista High School, Fair Oaks, CA

Andrew Boatman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Greetings,
My school district blocks access to Wiki sites. All three sites mentioned in the article are blocked by our filtering software. How can we use such wonderful tools when access is not granted to us by our schools?

Nicole Naditz's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

You probably already thought of this, but I wonder if it might help to show your district wikis as they are being used by other teachers and schools to increase collaboration among students and to provide authentic assessments and project-based learning experiences. I agree that it is a shame they are currently unavailable to you and your students, but I would hope that perhaps some specific examples of their use in educational settings would be helpful. It also may help to show how businesses are using wikis for project management among their employees. The technology is also similar to the that used by many college professors for their online assignments and required discussion boards. As a result, using wikis with our students is one way we are preparing them to be successful in college and in the workplace, regardless of their career.

Natosha West's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Speak with your system administrator. Most of the time they have the ability to unlock specific sites. They can check out the site for themselves before they open it for everyone. The web is highly restricted here at our school as well, but our tech people are very cooperative when we have a specific request. Good luck!

Carolyn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I look at all this wonderful technology and I just want to cry! Our school - which at one time prided itself on being on the cutting edge of technology - now has blocked one thing after another...we cannot use anything new. No wikis, no podcasting, no interactive text messaging, you name it - NO! To our tech people, PowerPoint is "new" :-(

Luv2Teach7's picture
Luv2Teach7
Seventh grade language arts teacher from the Eastern Shore of Maryland

I explored and created my own Wiki page earlier in the school year but haven't done much with it due to time constraints. Our district has in-services that constantly have us looking at curriculum, but we never delve into the area of technology development. It would be nice to have a day to review the great resources provided by this site, develop a functioning Wiki page for classroom use and develop curriculum integrations for my students. I'm currently taking an online course that directed me to this article, and reading the article has given me comfort regarding the ease of use. A Wiki will be making its way to my classroom environment before the year's out...Thanks!

Sarah Gunn's picture
Sarah Gunn
Middle School Learning Disabilities Teacher

Anyone interested in sharing their Wiki page? One of my classes created a wiki with our Olympics unit, but I'm curious how wikis are set up to post assignments, collaborate with parents, etc. Have there been any privacy issues? I work with students with disabilities so I can foresee some privacy issues withh parents. Any thoughts on this or is there a way to keep certain wiki pages private?

Kealy Duke's picture

Does anyone have suggestions for practical use of wikis beyond as a classroom website. I already have a class site including a discussion board, and kids can use our network to share documents. What is collaborative advantage of wikis exactly?

Beverly Mullen's picture

Take a look at this short video from Common Craft that gives a quick explantion of wikis:http://www.commoncraft.com/video-wikis-plain-english

One way we used a wiki was to create a survival guide based on the book Hatchet by Gary Paulsen.  Each student researched and created a page on a different survival topic.  Since these were English language learners, we also had them create a collaborative vocabulary page with definitions of new words they learned.  They used these words in their article, and linked to the vocab page.

Lisa Berkey's picture

Wikis are great tools for teachers as well as students. We created a wiki for teachers who participate in the High School of Business program. Each wiki page focuses on one of eight courses in the program. Teachers post ideas, examples of student work, questions for their peers, even lesson plans. In addition, the curriculum writers and I regularly post information we think might be helpful in the classroom. The wiki has become the first stop for teachers as they prepare to teach the courses.

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