One of several posts on my old blog, From the Trenches, about the craft of teaching.


 

Okay, I admit: I rushed into the Wiki business perhaps a little late for the rush of –pedia followers and a little early for my technical skills. Nevertheless, techno-literacy aside, I’ve learned a few things about my classroom forays into Wiki-work, and I thought I would post them here for the unwary.

Why Wiki?

To me, that question was easy.  After moving most of my worksheets and quizzes to online discussion forums in the late 1990s, I recognized that the last decade of teaching has been wholly different from anything before it. Critical class minutes of interactions with students—class discussions, working with special needs students, peer reviews, group collaboration, one-on-one intervention and tutorial, grade reviews, etc.—could now be fit into 57 minute class periods that were free of the infernal “quiet work.”  Why, I asked myself, were we working quietly alone when we had so little time together? Online forums cleared my teaching space for . . . teaching.

So as 2.0 tech began to sweep the web, I upgraded (I now work on Microsoft’s Sharepoint ASP programming) and started exploring other ways to enhance—not replace—my practice. Wikis were an obvious choice.

In essence, I reasoned, I could make study collaborative while students were apart.  I could compel the best of group work (peer teaching/mentoring, editorial review, checks for understanding, and enhanced discovery/solution-making) to happen outside of the classroom, as well.  What’s more it would free the classroom space for even more of the interactions which might only be accomplished when we were together.

Wiki What?

For myself, a teacher of composition and literature, content is relatively unobtrusive in contrast to skills instruction.  Nevertheless, why couldn’t students collaborate to build a Study Notes Wiki for my classroom? They could add our notes and discussions on novels, on writing techniques, etc. If a student missed class, they could always find what we had done on our wiki. More, once one semester had compiled notes, later semesters might add and enhance—I might accomplish far more in my curriculum when students were building a massive “cheat sheet” library of my classroom.

This is quite a different pedagogy from the infamous days when teachers would root out rogue notebooks sold on student black markets of “AP World History” or “Advanced Biology.” Rather than attempt to quash information about our classrooms, we do better to expose it all, for parents, students, and the broader community. After all, if my tests were merely factual recall, didn’t I want the students to know what they had to learn? If they were process or skills tests, then the factual background hurt nothing.

And so I began three key StudyWiki projects at first, with more planned:

  • A Literary Theory Wiki for my AP Literature students:  They would compile notes on the various literary theories (Neo-Marxism, feminism, New Criticism, etc.) and then write short interpretations of poems they chose using each theory.  Eventually, we would have an extensive library of complex ideas with student-authored applications.
  • An Argumentation Strategy Wiki for my Argumentation students: They would compile strategies from our class notes (keeping control, establishing criteria, forming defenses against dilemmas, etc.) and then follow up with examples from their own lives or the media where these worked or failed. They would add hyperlinks or videos of the examples to view.
  • A GroupProject Wiki for my Language Arts classroom where students would work on ideas across different class hours to design a media project. Each group would have a wiki page to add notes and reflections, plan, and implement their project. Once completed, each student could present their work in their respective classes.

            There are many more uses for classroom wikis, of course (see below), but this is where I began.

Successes

The first two wikis are currently active in my classrooms. The GroupProject Wiki was a short-term project last spring. The literary theory wiki works well because students in multiple sections/class periods are working together, and they can revise or comment on each other’s theory applications.  The argumentation wiki continue to compile notes as we move through our current semester.

First, participating students learn more than from my traditional classroom presentation of ideas alone. We all know students whose motivations to study outside of the classroom (truly study) are low, and we all know students who scarcely give the class a second thought after 3:00.  By assigning the online wiki (as opposed to any assignment which would be brought to school the next day but more likely thoughtlessly copied the last minute), students take notes in my classroom and then transfer these notes online, re-encapsulating them in a new format.  More, since they must work with and around their peers (I tell them they may not repeat an old idea), they are more attentive to capture details that others did not. In adding examples (their own or around the web), they apply the lessons or research more around what we discuss in class.

Second, they receive some validation for their learning which isn’t from me. If their entries stand and grow, students become co-authors of ideas of which they are proud. When their entries are challenged or edited, they go back to re-examine where the conflicts occurred.

Also, they produce a genuinely valuable product, for themselves and for the class as a whole.  The class has a built-in study guide, and I get to see what ideas need reinforcing when I recognize that the ten minutes we spent talking about Greek ethos still hasn’t appeared on the website—a sure sign that the class did not value it!  

An unexpected bonus is that I can design later assessments around the wiki they have produced, especially where their own examples and applications go in other directions. I may not have expected arguments around babysitting wages or college choices to appear as applications for negotiations, but they become pools for potential exam questions or later applications.

Of course, too, I find myself reviewing and repeating notes far less.  Combined with the idea that their own learning grows, this makes for a more effective classroom.

But Some Cautions

If I had stopped with the above, doubtless the intrepid educator might leap to begin wikis, but I admit that all was not utopia in my classroom. Because of several aborted starts, technological snafus, and additional instruction I had not anticipated, I have here a short list of strong recommendations for implementing these.  Save yourself a headache large enough to drive you back to slate and chalk by considering them!

  1.      Plan to spend time teaching the wiki.  Tech is a skill and learning how to create and navigate pages, format consistently, and write content absent of “rofl” or terms from urban dictionary requires time and lesson-planning. While I teach other content, I usually have a week of just getting students situated with passwords, another week of free experimentation, and another week of format/presentation discussion before I actually begin calling for weekly or bi-weekly contributions that I assess.
  2.      Plan to spend time teaching presentation. Many students have almost no sense of the aesthetics of web design (a failing which should have been obvious to me considering that most of their digital life is spent merely texting).  I spend a day or two showing images of websites with poor and good design and we assemble criteria from these for our own wikis (and classroom blogs).  Even then, I am amazed at the carelessness—it’s almost as if these students would turn in sloppy essays on paper or without names, if given the chance.
  3.      Assign one or two wiki editors. Whether as extra credit, volunteer hours, or as a round-robin responsibility within the classroom, having a couple of students whose sole job is cleaning up the wiki for font, color, and tab consistency, grammar and spelling, etc. will be worth it!  Have them build templates for new pages so students can spend more time with content creation than worrying about building a page.
  4.      Talk about the wiki in class, often. This is critical. Otherwise, students begin to separate their online work from the physical class and the online work inevitably begins to sour. There is nothing worse than onerous or futile online work, but if students see that their examples are used in class lessons, that clarifications of poorly-authored entries, and the like are becoming part of the daily discussion, they know that the classroom (and the teacher) are really part of a community. I often begin my Mondays with a review of ideas written that are laudable and touch-up on those which miss critical points.  By mid-week, I will have used a few examples/applications in class, and I end Fridays with a small parade of “favorite tweets” from that class week (I’ll discuss those another time).
  5.      Build simple policies for the techno-barbarians and students without tech. Many students are faster than we older adults, but I occasionally find students without any access to computers (build class-time for them to work on school equipment, partner with another student, work with the local public library, or even set up coffee shop meetings between groups) or students who never go online (my after school tutorials and interventions have taken on a new character).  What’s important here is not merely that they learn how to work a wiki page, but that they begin to engage digital literacy as an imperative to success.  (This has been written about so often that I need not re-emphasize it here.)
  6.      Assess clearly. This is always a challenge, but assessment of student work is necessary, both to motivate students to shift their online thinking to classroom approaches and to maintain the momentum of online work. (I evaluate based upon a review of the page histories, changed by each user.) I spend a fair amount of time helping students understand that this assignment is open 24/7, a flexibility no other school assignment can boast, but that I will check their weekly work on a Sunday afternoon to see that they are being consistent.  Assessment rubrics are a must: items like accuracy of content; coherence; depth of detail; researched hyperlinks; use of image; format and consistency; mechanics; or revision improvements are all valid for points/scores. I have emailed students their scores or delivered them from an Excel sheet I have open while I read. My rubrics often add up to more than 100 percent: not every contribution requires all of these elements, but motivated students can enhance the wiki’s quality by adding images and hyperlinks and the like. (I haven’t put percentages for each category here, because this changes periodically depending on what I’m teaching or what the blog does.)   
  7.      Expect slow progress. It takes weeks, sometimes, before a wiki begins to “live” on its own and students master the style of writing to it. This means that my class time and assessment time are spent differently from how they might be if my students were writing class notes and I was moving through the room checking them or collecting notebooks.  

The idea of a successful wiki is to move the onus of authority off of the teacher and onto the students. Let them wrestle with the ideas of authority, of fact-checking, or verifying the reliability of sites they find, of co-authorship, because these are all issues of digital literacy which we must engage in our classrooms.  With my students online doing the work, I have the class time to do so.

Undoubtedly I have omitted a few other essential ideas or points, but here is where I start.  (I didn’t, for instance, write about the student who folded her arms and refused to participate in the GroupProject Wiki, but what I remind myself is that this kind of behavior is typical for all teachers and not particular to the technology.)   I will revise or update as more occurs.  I am also happy to respond to questions and comments!

In the meantime, a few additional resources:

Free Classroom and Teacher Wiki Sites:
Other Ways to Use Wikis in the Classroom:

 

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