Sunday, March 9, 2008


Wikis were my very first foray into web2.0 tools. I learned a bit about them in my inquiry-based learning class last semester, and immediately bought in! It seemed like the perfect tool for educators: easy to use, collaborative, free, secure... I couldn't wait to give it a try!

I showed my husband the video Wikis in Plain English, and he was quickly convinced that this technology should have a place in his school. We decided a good place to start was the school calendar. This was early November, and already the Tribal Council had sent out 3 amended copies of activity calendars, each a different colour, each several pages, and enough copies for every teacher in the Council. What a waste of paper and time! Plus, teachers had to make sure they were checking the right copy for upcoming events: "which colour are we on now?" they'd ask Jim. Also, some teachers rarely checked their mailboxes, and were missing important information about sudden calendar changes... a fact of life here.

We got to work. I showed the admin assistant and the technology coordinator Wikis in plain English, and together we set up a wiki at wikispaces. I showed them how to edit and save pages and how easy to was to put up new information. The admin assistant loved the idea of having the calendar on a web page, saving her the trouble of printing it off and filing it into mailboxes each time an update was made. The trouble began when I suggested we allow all staff to edit the wiki. I thought this would allow staff to keep each other up-to-date on activities that might not warrant inclusion on an official calendar, but would nevertheless effect other staff. After all, the plan was to already include things like scheduled staff absences, so why not?

Wikis need trust. According to the Educause Learning Initiative's Seven things you should know about wikis, "because users can modify the content of a wiki (add to, edit, delete materials), allowing such manipulation of the sites information carries some risks." If an organization has a low tolerance for that risk, a wiki won't work. The lack of trust among the staff at the school here means that only a few people are allowed to modify the wiki. Which is too bad for a couple of reasons: I think users that are allowed full privileges to the wiki are more likely to buy into the technology and adopt it for their own uses, and, well, when the admin assistant got tired of updating the wiki, someone else could have taken over.

Jennifer commented on my last post about how the really daunting part of Virtual Libraries isn't setting them up, but keeping them up to date. This is the same with a wiki. Someone has to be willing to take responsibility for keeping it up to date and checking for inappropriate manipulation of the site. When I asked the admin assistant what the trouble was, she expressed that she just didn't have the time to keep the wiki up to date. As I mentioned earlier, updating the wiki is quicker than typing up memos, printing them, and distributing them, so I suspect "not having the time" is code for "I don't have the time to learn the finer points of this new technology."

Educause states that "wikis permit asynchronous communication and group collaboration across the Internet." To me, that translates into a tremendously powerful tool for remote communities, but also for 'ordinary' communities as well. Students can now work together on projects without trying to coordinate meeting times, phone calls, or emails. High school students from Buffalo Narrows can collaborate with students from Loon Lake on research projects, or grade 1 students from Waterhen Lake can collaborate with grade 1 students in Clearwater River to build a Cree alphabet book. According to Del Siegel in his Winter 2008 Gifted Child Today article Working With Wikis "Innovative educators are drawn to wikis because wikis can facilitate and record students' collaborative work." Having a record of collaboration can assist educators in assessment, but also reveal insights in thinking that might have otherwise been missed by students and teachers. Later in that same article, Siegel lists a tremendous array of possible activities students could use a wiki for, ranging from creating simple pages that present personal information to the class, to allowing students to edit each other's writing.

So this is a perfect technology right? Well, if only. Many of the problems with wikis can be summed up by looking at the most famous wiki of them all: Wikipedia. I remember when I first heard about Wikipedia and immediately dismissing it. Anyone can add to it or edit it? So if I decide the holocaust never happened, I can go and change the holocaust page to reflect that view? Or if I'm feeling bored and mischievous I could go and delete every reference to dogs? Or if I really believed that snow would burn if you tried to melt it too quick, I could create an article to do with just that? Silliness. According to William Badke (online, Mar/Apr 2008), "Wikipedia marches on like a great beast, growing larger and more commanding every day." And yes, I consult it regularly.

We know our students are using it as a resource, so we need to help them judge what they read in Wikipedia articles for currency, accuracy, and bias, much like we help them judge other sources. As there is no official watch dog checking Wikipedia, this is especially important. Badke suggest "a professor or information literacy instructor assigns groups of students to evaluate and edit Wikipedia articles, using research from other sources as an evaluative tool."

When I was reading Penuel's article Implementation and effect of one-to-one computing initiatives: A research synthesis, from the Spring 2006 edition of Journal of Research on Technology in Education for assignment 2, I can across some interesting findings related to professional development. When implementing 1:1 laptop programs, "informal help form colleagues within the school... [was] especially important to ensuring implementation success." If informal help from colleagues is such a powerful mode of professional development, maybe wikis are just the way to facilitate that! What if a district set up a wiki for each grade or subject area, and teachers within that grade/subject area could post questions, thoughts, and ideas there for others to view and comment on?

I did some looking on the Internet and found a few professional development wikis out there:
a best practices for libraries sites
an arts education site for Saskatchewan teachers
David Jakes talks about PD
a high school posts tech support for teachers

Are there concerns? Sure. At the Library Success wiki, users now need to use email confirmation to edit the page because of vandals. Siegle suggests that some students may not feel comfortable putting there work in a forum for all to see. Educause reminds us that wikis represent "the collective perspective of the group that uses it," so again, we need to help our students carefully consider the validity of any information they find on a wiki. Still, I think this is a tool teachers and librarians should seriously consider adding to their arsenals.

I built my first wiki at wikispaces, and for assignment 2, used pbwiki. While both were easy to use, I prefer pbwiki. I found it to be easier to navigate in and a bit more intuitive overall. I also liked having templates within which to put my content, while still having the flexibility to do just about whatever I'd like! Both sites are free for educators, but pbwiki is ad-free... something I greatly appreciate. In the interests of curiosity, the next time I build a wiki, I will use wetpaint, just to see if I like it any better! And when will I build my next wiki? I am going to use a wiki as a class webpage next year, but hopefully I'll get a chance before then to keep experimenting in this exciting technology!


Arlene said...

pbwiki is also my wiki of choice right now. I like the default colors and font style and the fact that there isn't any advertising. However, I suspect that students would like the look and feel of wikispaces. I like that wikispaces text columns are narrower which makes it easier to read over the width of pbwiki. This could be remedied by putting all text in a narrow text box.

TroyJMorris said...

If you do go with Wetpaint, I would like to let you know of our service to educational sites to remove advertising.

The details can be found at the end of the link!

I hope you enjoy!

Val said...

Hi Jessica:
What a great idea using a wiki for the school calendar. Yes having others able to edit is difficult for many and will take some awhile to come around. One thing I like about pbwiki, which I'm sure is on the other wiki sites is that all edits get sent to the author/owner and can be traced and edited back. The thinking has to take a completed pedagogical shift to encourage collaboration instead of being scared of it. As you mentioned the need for trust is key.

Thanks for the link to Seven things you should know about wikis. Great!

Katie said...

Hi Jessica,
Your point about the maintaining of a wiki is a really good one. I never really thought about that aspect until I read your blog. I am working with students to design a VSL and I have told them that I need to be able to maintain it myself. They are quite funny when they are teaching me how to do it!


elizabeth said...

Jess, I think using a wiki for a school calendar is a great idea and I appreciate you sharing your experience, so we can learn from it. Having your principal buy in would be critical and like you said, everyone should be able to edit the calendar if they are going to use it. Someone who is willing to maintain it would be important to establish at the outset, as your experience has illustrated. Thanks for the insight.

Cindy said...

How proactive of you to head into work and introduce wikis using Wikis in Plain English! They must have been impressed! It is unfortunate but a reality that only 'certain' people would be allowed to edit the wiki. Perhaps if you are able to create a wiki with your students and demonstrate how all students go on and it is very manageable, the office will allow more access. Good Luck to you!

Ronda said...

Hi Jessica,

I have not yet tried some of the features, such as a calendar, but I intend to try it out. Thanks for sharing your insights!