Ed-Tech Policy

Educators Experiment With Student-Written ‘Wikis’

By Rhea R. Borja — April 04, 2006 6 min read
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At the Neighborhood School, a public elementary school in New York City’s East Village, students are creating and editing an online encyclopedia on pop-culture topics such as anime and X-Men.

Students at East Side Community High School a few miles away have written and shared their own versions of “Macbeth” and discussed them online.

And at Lewis Elementary School in Portland, Ore., teachers can brainstorm and post their meeting notes on a Web site that allows instant access to revision and feedback.

All three schools are using “wikis”—do-it-yourself Web sites that foster collaboration and communication. A wiki, short for wiki-wiki, or “quick” in Hawaiian, is a new technology tool of the Read/Write Web or Web 2.0—the second generation of Web applications that includes podcasts and blogs.

Wikis are still flying under most schools’ radar screens. And educators who use them must also deal with some privacy and security concerns. Still, education technology experts say wikis show promise for K-12 educators.

“It’s a really easy way to organize stuff,” said Will Richardson, the supervisor of instructional technology and communications at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, N.J., and the author of the just-published book, Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms.

“It’s more collaborative than a blog”—a Web log, or online journal—“and can be a pretty effective tool,” he said.

Accessible Technology

A wiki, simply put, is a Web site that allows anyone to add or change content, anytime. Wikis are increasingly being used in the business world for tasks such as tracking projects, brainstorming, and writing and editing documents online, negating the need for back-and-forth e-mails and meetings.

Like other wikis, K-12 wikis let users add, edit, and delete content created by themselves or others. Users can also see a history of changes made to the original material. The only difference is that with many—but not all—school wikis, users must register before they can make changes.

Wanna Wiki?

A variety of print and online resources exist to learn about and start wikis, collaborative Web sites that allow anyone to add or change content. They include Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms, by Will Richardson, published by Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Selected School Wikis




Information About Wikis in Schools





Wiki Software






SOURCE: Education Week

“It’s a free-form, open-ended sort of tool,” said Timothy Stahmer, an instructional technology specialist in the 163,500-student Fairfax County, Va., school system, where some teachers are experimenting with wikis. “It’s just a matter of teaching people what that power is for.”

The wiki concept was developed in 1995 by computer programmer and software consultant Howard G. “Ward” Cunningham, and popularized by Jimmy D. Wales, the president of the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Wikimedia Foundation.

In 2001, Mr. Wales created the most famous wiki, the mammoth online encyclopedia, wikipedia.org. At last count, that Web site boasted 2.7 million entries in 10 languages.

Now, wiki open-source online textbooks are being produced, such as through the California Open Source Textbook Project. And the Cape Town, South Africa-based Shuttleworth Foundation has created a wiki to house K-12 curriculum and lesson plans created for and by South African teachers.

The popularity of wiki and other Web 2.0 tools speak to their accessibility to everyday people. No longer do you have to be an uber-geek with a mastery of HTML or other computer language to compose on the Web. Now all it takes is a few clicks of a computer mouse.

In South Dakota, for example, 12 middle schools participated last year in a monthlong history and geography project on the Missouri River basin. The 400 students—some separated by hundreds of miles of open prairie—communicated with one another via the wiki, titled Under Control, as well as through videoconferencing.

The inherent transparency and mutability of wikis were unfamiliar to the dozen or so wiki-project teachers, said Mary E. Engstrom, the Under Control project director and an assistant professor in the University of South Dakota’s school of education in Vermillion.

They received 3½ days of training, but the most successful teachers were the ones who “embraced a more constructivist approach to teaching and learning, a more student-centered approach,” Ms. Engstrom said.

Tricky to Use Well

Using wikis is not technically difficult, but they can be conceptually hard to use, says Paul R. Allison, the technology teacher at the 500-student East Side Community High School. He created the High School Online Collaborative Writing wiki, which is used by four public schools in Manhattan.

Some of the questions he says his colleagues ask are: How do you grade students on a collaborative writing project? Can you use the same project in consecutive years, and, if so, how do you do so without erasing the work of the previous students?

“You can’t do the cookie-cutter essay anymore, because it won’t make sense,” Mr. Allison said.

Many students have taken to using his collaborative-writing wiki, which can be used for expository writing as well more-creative compositions. For instance, on the “discussion” page of the school’s wiki on “Macbeth,” students wrote 20 adaptations of the play’s opening scene, in which three witches in a forest conspire on a coming battle.

In Shakespeare’s version, the first witch says, “When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain?” The second witch replies: “When the hurlyburly’s done/When the battle’s lost and won.”

One student rewrote that exchange this way: “Yo, where we gonna meet at?/In the [sic] Japan, Tokyo, or Mega world?” The second character replies: “When the grasshopper is finished/And the battle is lost or won.”

Security and Privacy

The democratic nature of wikis can make them prone to abuse by both students and outsiders. Technology directors should look for secure wiki software that can run with their districts’ technology systems, experts advise, and educators can protect their school wikis with passwords and emphasize fair-use policies to students.

The Neighborhood School, a 250-student school in Manhattan serving prekindergarten through 5th grade, started its wiki in February. Within a couple of days, said Thomas E.B. “Teb” Locke, the school’s technology teacher, students had posted entries on subjects they were interested in, such as cats and alligators. But one jokester also posted an article on—and picture of—“poop.”

Mr. Locke didn’t hit the delete button, reasoning that it’s important for students to feel a sense of ownership of the wiki. But he did discuss the issue with the student.

“In one sense, it’s pretty inventive for a 4th grader,” Mr. Locke said. “I talked to him about it, and said, ‘This is a community thing. Is it necessary for the [picture] to be there?’ So he took it down.”

The wiki for Lewis Elementary School in Portland, which is used by teachers to post notes and work together, as well as by students on class projects, is on the school’s internal, secure wireless network. That way, teachers and students don’t have to deal with outsiders looking in, said Timothy C. Lauer, the school principal, who also blogs about education technology.

But when it comes to fair use, he said, he stresses to students that posting inappropriate content is similar to writing on a school wall.

“We express to kids that the expectation we have [online] is the same for the physical world. We don’t expect you to go to Jason’s desk and scribble on it,” Mr. Lauer said. “There will be consequences if you do.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 05, 2006 edition of Education Week as Educators Experiment With Student-Written ‘Wikis’


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