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Exploring Wikis

Another Web 2.0 Tool

This week I have once again had to learn about, and interact with, a technology that I knew nothing about.  But through the process, I have been introduced to a tool that could be immediately incorporated into the library or a classroom with little extra work for the teacher.

My Reflections on the Process of Learning about Wikis

Setting up my Wikispaces account was a pleasure.  As Richardson puts it, it is “an easy authoring tool that might spur people to author.” (2009, p.55)  Everything is clearly laid out and anything you have a question about is readily answered in the comprehensive and easy to use help menu.  For those of us who are more visual learners they even have various screencasts that walk the new user through the process of creating an account, personalizing a space, adding text, creating links to pages, adding pictures and video, and setting up groups of users.  Through Wikispaces, KG – 12 educators can also sign up for free education plus plan which allows the teacher to create student accounts in bulk, rather than one at a time, and it allows for up to 100 accounts at once.

Upon setup I was given a number of choices on how I could set up my wiki.  The first was fully interactive.  With this setting anyone could read and edit on my wiki.  The second was partially interactive.  Anyone could read my wiki but only those invited few could add and edit.  The third option was fully restricted where only those I invite can read and write.  These settings can easily be changed at any time should ones needs change.

It all went so fast and smoothly that it was only after setting up my account that I started considering what I would use my wiki for.  I was intrigued by the class described in book, Web 2.0 for Schools that used a wiki to create a story.  The class was divided into groups and each took turns writing a chapter building on the work of the previous group. (Davies &Merchant, 2009)  With this example in mind, I approached our middle school language arts teacher who is keen to be involved in my Web 2.0 projects, but the timing wasn’t right as we are in the middle of parent-teacher conferences and have five days of early dismissal.  We agreed, however, to try this idea out at a later date.  I also thought about creating a library wiki with a page where students could write reviews of books they had read and a page where students could make recommendations of books that the library might purchase.  After talking with our district tech advisor about this wiki, I have had to put the brakes on this idea for now as well as with some of the other interactive web tools we have been exploring.  I ran into the same issue with setting up a library blog: we work under a high level of security.  The security concern is not for the students but rather for the protection of company secrets.  We live in a country of secrecy, and our employer is not a school, but the world’s largest and wealthiest oil company.  To say that industrial security is one of their top priorities is an understatement.  Nevertheless, because the wiki function is part of our company approved NESA blackboard program, I believe I will be able to use it, however, that will take longer to set up than the week that I have for this assignment. For now I have created a page about the Amys.

Wikis as a Tool for my Own Personal Learning

Although I didn’t fully recognize it, I have been benefiting from wikis for some time now through the use of Wikipedia.  As I have searched the internet for information more often than not a Wikipedia option is high on the search list.  I have found their entries to be informative and useful.  Due to the buzz about their questionable reliability, I have most often used them as one of several sources I consult.  As much as I have used Wikipedia it has never crossed my mind to contribute to it.  In fact I don’t think I even know anyone who has.  This caused me to wonder who all these people are who are contributing to the millions of entries in Wikipedia.  This also caused me to more deeply understand that collaborating in this fashion is a mindset that can be taught and learned; a mindset which I don’t seem to have. 

Beyond Wikipedia it seems that I have not yet had a use for wikis in my life.  However I am starting to recognize their potential benefits, particularly as I start to move further into my masters program.  Although my experience with online education has, so far, not felt overly isolated it could become so.  Granted, it’s not quite the same as being face to face in a classroom but it does involve interaction.  We have discussed questions and ideas and have read and seen each other’s work.  With the use of wikis interaction could easily turn to collaboration.  Two or more people contributing to and modifying each other’s work could add up to a project that is greater than one individual could accomplish.  But more than the product would be the process of evaluating and negotiating to come up with that end result.  As beneficial as this would be it is also the scariest because there would be some loss of control.  My due dates and marks would be somewhat at the mercy of another person.  Although the idea of collaboration in this way sounds great it would certainly push me out of my comfort zone. 

For personal endeavors I could also see the benefits of using wikis.  With the ability to imbed photos, videos, and audio into a wiki we could, in a similar way to a blog, use it as a place to share our lives overseas, with family and friends back home.  With a wiki, however, family and friends could add to the wiki thus sharing their lives with us.  Unlike a blog, where the sharing is one-way, they could add their life experiences to the same space turning the space into a family and friends site where everyone contributes their lives.

Richardson gives a variety of examples where wikis could be applied to a person’s life (2009, p.58).  Wikitravel.org particularly caught my attention.  Hobbies, sports, politics, and other special interests could also be further served through the use of wikis.  However for me at this point, my attraction to most of the sports and hobby activities I enjoy is the shared experience that goes with them and by shared experience I mean being physically together in time and space with others. For example I enjoy trail running and mountain biking but I would much rather be on the trails with people than be talking about it in a wiki.

Wikis as a Tool for Teaching and Learning

Wikis as a tool to teach students to learn.

This 2.0 stuff is not part of some educational bandwagon that will be replaced by another bandwagon next year.  These improvements in the information and communication landscapes reach way beyond our little K12 worlds and change the way the world does business.  We cannot ignore them.  Our world is driven by the transfer and sharing of information.” (Valenza, 2009, 8th paragraph from the end)

Already in this course we have talked about huge, permanent, and ongoing social changes the information age has brought about.  No longer is it possible for students to take in and store factual knowledge; there is just too much information out there.  Knowing how to find, access, and organize information is the new intelligence.  “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”  (Alvin Toffler Thursday, 19 March 2009 as quoted at http://www.slideshare.net/heyjudeonline/21c-school-libraries-leading-learning?src=related_normal&rel=1940022)  Even economies are no longer founded largely on producing “things.”  Outsourcing has taken care of that.  The new wealth is in ideas and information.  Lyndsay Grant (2006) calls it a “knowledge economy” (P. 1).  She writes:

Therefore, knowing how to learn and how to participate in creating new knowledge are increasingly essential life skills.  The focus on skills of ‘learning to learn’ and knowledge creation in a knowledge economy mean that the use of wikis in education is starting to be recognized as having significant potential. (Grant, 2006, p.1)

We are teaching students who are facing a work world that is considerably different than that of previous generations.  It is the school’s job to prepare them for this world.  Although wikis are not the complete answer, they are one tool, a powerful one that can be easily used.

1. The wiki in Wikipedia

Up until two or three years ago I was under the impression that Wikipedia was not a very reliable source of information.  I have since come to recognize that this is not necessarily true.

Wikipedia embodies the idea of synergy; the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  When it comes to wikis, one cannot talk about personal learning or learning as a teacher, without discussing Wikipedia.  When I need to find out information, Wikipedia is usually one of the sites I check.  I find that it provides clear concise definitions or explanations and I have certainly had many students use it as a reference.  In general Wikipedia entries are clearly written and include a plethora of links to help with additional explanation.  The biggest danger here is wasting time surfing link after link until you realize you are far from the shore of your topic.

Teaching students about Wikipedia and how to use it is an important piece to include, as I help students with research.    In addition to walking students through practical things such as productively using the hyperlinks provided, it is another opportunity to discuss issues of rigor, reliability, and the authenticity of sources and not just as it relates to Wikipedia.  Teaching and encouraging students to read and evaluate critically; to view sources with curiosity and to use them creatively, is an ongoing part of our job.  Although it seems to be dying down there is still some debate regarding how accurate Wikipedia entries might be. Richardson lays out some very strong arguments supporting the reliability of Wikipedia.  “…thankfully, there are vastly more editors that want to make it right than those who want to make it wrong.” (p. 56, 2009)  Through the discussion and use of Wikipedia the opportunity arises to plant in students’ minds the idea that anyone can be a contributor.  As Richardson puts it, “…people just like you and me, take on the job of collecting the sum of all human knowledge.”  (p. 56, 2009)  What a powerful idea for students to take away not just for the purpose of contributing to Wikipedia but as a concept that they are able, or will become able, to contribute something worthwhile in multiple settings.  In this way passive participants (users) become active participants (contributors).

2. Wikis Beyond Wikipedia – using wikis in the classroom

As I have read about and played with wikis this week the common threads of community, collaboration, conversation, and an easy interchange of ideas has continued to be evident in  this Web 2.0 tool.

Richardson outlines so many ways to apply wikis in the classroom that the possibilities seem endless.  “Whatever topic might lend itself to the collaborative collection of content relating to its study, a wiki is a great choice.” (p. 66)  As I read through his many examples, what struck me most was the breadth of skills students would be developing through the use of a wiki.  Whether they are creating book through Wikijunior, or editing someone else’s book, they are learning to collaborate and negotiate and to think critically and creatively.  In addition, students are also learning about intellectual property, open source software, and public domain. (Richardson, 2009)  “Further involvement in wikis can help learners become more aware, critical readers, understanding that texts are constructions with particular viewpoints.  Teaching learners how to check and evaluate sources within a wiki can of course also lead them to become more skeptical readers of paper-based texts.” (Davies & Merchant, 2009)

The wiki is one that is intended to support other learning activities that the children are involved in – and in involving them in a wiki, the pupils act as researchers supporting their own learning.  This is enquiry-based learning that places the children in control. (Davies & Merchant, 2009)

I was amazed at the power of the use of a wiki in vignette 12 in Web 2.0 for Schools, page 100.  In addition to all the critical thinking and collaboration there were so many areas of learning involved: technology, reading, writing, vocabulary, economics, environmentalism, photography, geography, community involvement and I’m sure many more were there.

Wikis have provided yet another dimension to the research students will be doing with me as a teacher-librarian and it has given me something new to offer when collaborating with my teachers.  Collaborating through wikis will also be a great way to motivate and inspire students in their projects. 

3. Wikis beyond the classroom.

One of the schools in our district was recently closed down due to an outbreak of the flu.  Although teachers were able to deliver lessons through our NESA blackboard, this did not allow for student-to-student interaction.  Student-to-teacher and teacher back to student were the only directions information could flow.  With a class wiki, collaboration and discussion among students could have continued with the teacher monitoring and prompting from the sidelines.

Wikis offer the opportunity for students to participate no matter where they are and no matter what time is most convenient.  This opens up many intercultural possibilities such as the one illustrated in Web 2.0 for Schools, page 98 (Davies & Merchant, 2009).  Students in the Netherlands joined students in Macedonia through a wiki space.  Written in English, students were able to practice language and communications skills.  By extension they developed a new intercultural understanding.  The “Flat Classroom” wiki is another example of students reaching out globally.  It is a project created by Vicki Davis and Julie Lindsay and mentioned in Richardson’s book, is a great example of providing students with an experience beyond their classroom.  One of the founding classrooms is in the U.S.A. and the other is in Qatar.  In their ‘About Us” page of their wiki they write: “One of the main goals of the project is to ‘flatten’ or lower the classroom walls so that instead of each class working isolated and alone, 2 or more classes are joined virtually to become one large classroom. This will be done through the Internet through Wikispaces and Ning.” (http://flatclassroomproject.wikispaces.com/About+Us) How might global politics change if the new generation of politicians had this kind of intercultural experience as their norm?  The biggest barrier to reaching out around the world is the language barrier.

4. Wikis as a tool for teachers.

In her article A Wiki Gives a Worthy Book New Life, Amy Bowllan describes using a wiki to develop lesson plans for the novel The Mzungu Boy.  Despite the numerous lesson plans for novels on line, she could not find any for this novel.  Without a ready-made lesson plan to get her started she decided to create her own using a Wetpaint wiki.  She set up the wiki in such a way that students would be inspired to, participate actively in researching and responding to the many aspects of the book.  She included links to information, pictures, and video on Kenya to strengthen vocabulary and to deepen their understanding of the setting of the story.  She even hoped to partner with a Kenyan school. (Bowllan, 2008) 

There are 6 schools in our district.  My school and one other are small enough that we have only one class per grade level.  Driving distance between schools is between one and two hours so collaboration is difficult.  Presently we share ideas and resources during professional growth and development days as well as emailing resources to each other.  Having district grade level wikis for elementary or subject specific wikis for middle school could greatly help teachers in smaller schools feel part of a team and benefit from the collective wisdom.

Professional development also lends itself nicely to the use of Wikis.  Teachers supporting, sharing, and collaborating allows all of us to become better teachers.  Wikis facilitate this learning beyond the set professional development days given by a district.  A great motivator for this kind of professional development can be found in this Slidshare.   My experiences of sharing and collaboration within schools have been great.  Taking that beyond our school could benefit students and teachers even more.

What is holding us back?

There are certainly barriers to schools becoming involved in the use of wikis.  As with other Web 2.0 tools, there is certain level of skill required to implement the tool effectively.  However, most teachers in western schools could, with a little time and effort, overcome any deficiency.  Another barrier, related to the first, is the inclination for teachers to step out of their comfort zone and learn and implement something new in their practice. 

“This new media environment can be enormously disruptive to our current teaching methods and philosophies. Students need to move from being simply knowledgeable to being knowledge-able.” (http://www.academiccommons.org/commons/essay/knowledgable-knowledge-able – Michael Wesch, 2009 Thursday, 19 March 2009)

A third barrier to fully realizing the potential of wikis is easy access to computers.  Most western schools have one or two computers in the classrooms and often there are computer labs available on a limited basis.  In order for the full benefits of wikis (and other Web 2.0 tools) to be evidenced, greater access to computers would likely be required than many larger schools are able to accommodate.  Unequal availability of computers at home could be an additional barrier.  And finally, the language barrier mentioned earlier, could limit the intercultural collaboration through wikis. 

However, after my one-week preliminary experience with wikis, I feel that they indeed are a powerful tool for community, collaboration, conversation, and an easy interchange of ideas.



Bowllan, A. (2008, September 1). A wiki gives a worthy book new life. School Library Journal. Retrieved from http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/‌article/‌CA6590061.html?industryid=47065&q=a+wiki+gives+a+worthy+book+new+life

Davies, J., & Merchant, G. (2009). Wikis: the death of the author? In Web 2.0 for schools (pp. 89-102). New York: Peter Lang.

Grant, L. (2006, May). Using wikis in schools: A case study. Retrieved from Futurelab website: http://www.futurelab.org.uk/‌resources/‌publications-reports-articles/‌discussion-papers/‌Discussion-Paper258

Richardson, W. (2009). Wikis: Easy collaboration for all. In Blogs, wikis, podcasts, and other powerful web tools for classrooms (2nd ed., pp. 55-68). Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin Press.

Valenza, J., Ph.D. (2009, October 14). My 2.0 day and the response/‌rant about our cover argument [Letter to the editor]. School Library Journal Mobile, neverendingsearch. Retrieved from http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/‌blog/‌1340000334/‌post/‌1530049753.html

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Jackie
    November 14, 2009 at 6:46 am

    Hi Bruce,
    I agree that wikis are one of the most useful and powerful collaboration tools that we’ve learned about so far. I am curious to know if the students in your school are able to access Wikipedia? Is the security just for the school’s collaboration and formation of ideas or is this typical throughout the country?

  2. Kathy
    October 29, 2009 at 4:00 am

    I agree that wikis could become very useful tools in the classroom as we strive to teach students the skills of true collaboration. The only thing holding us back in our school district is time, money, security phobias and teachers desire to see the possibilities.

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