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Wikis in the Classroom


“I enjoy working on our classroom's wiki the most because you can edit it anywhere. I also enjoy when we are assigned to work on the wiki because it makes me challenge myself to find creative and informational ways to make our wiki look professional…I am very proud that we use these tools class.  It not only challenges me academically but it also widens my knowledge of computers and technology.”   ----Kathleen, Age 12


“I personally think that a lot more people contribute to our wiki page than to podcasts. Wikis catch students’ attention and teach people writing skills and facts we may never have known. They are good for learning and sharing and I think they are important to our classroom.”  ---Brooke, Age 11



Why Wikis?


Over the past few years, teachers have embraced wikis---easily editable websites---as tools for supporting peer-production in their classrooms.  Peer-production---an increasingly common characteristic of the 21st Century workplace---pairs groups of people together to complete shared assignments or tasks.  While peer-production has always been a characteristic of traditional classrooms, wikis make peer-production more approachable because they allow groups of students to create shared content from any computer that has an Internet connection, regardless of time or place.  Partners can work on projects at times that fit with their personal schedules---and the location of materials is no longer a limiting factor for participation. 


What's more, wikis allow working groups to follow the ongoing revision history of an individual document.  If content is accidently lost or deleted, it can be easily and immediately restored.  The revision history of wiki pages can also be used by teachers to track the contributions being made by each member of a student work group---making assessment of collaborative assignments easier. 


Finally, each wiki page has its own digital discussion board that can be used by teachers or students to provide feedback or to plan ongoing efforts.  When these comment pages are used properly, they enhance the work process of student groups by creating a continuing conversation about the quality of a final product. 


Wikis are often a natural starting point for teachers interested in digital learning experiences because they are the least intimidating tool to use!  Anyone who can use a word processor can be an active contributor to a wiki project.  Furthermore, traditional classroom assignments often translate easily to wikis---which means teachers don't have to do extensive planning to prepare for wiki-work.  Essentially any written task already being created by a group can be made easier with a wiki!


It is important to note that wikis are generally less motivating to students than other digital tools because they are primarily designed as nothing more than digital tools to facilitate ongoing classroom projects.  Most wikis are "no frills" products that are less visually impressive or interesting than other Web 2.0 services.  Wikis are also not intentionally designed for ongoing communication between users----and anyone in a classroom for any length of time knows that communication is the feature of digital learning experiences that most motivates kids!


Wikis should be celebrated for what they are:  Easy and approachable tools that make collaboration on group assignments a thousand times easier than ever before!



What are we doing?


In my classroom, wikis fill several different purposes.  First, one wiki has become a forum where students can reflect on the content that they are learning in class while developing language arts skills like drafting, revising, proofreading, and publishing.  Together, our students have collaborated on the creation of over 240 different pages of web content covering topics across the curriculum ranging from genre to geology.  Nearly 1,500 individual, ungraded edits had been added during the course of the 2007-2008 school year.


We have also begun to use jointly developed wiki pages as the final product for specific classroom projects.  These wiki pages have replaced the more traditional paper projects that students had handed in over the course of my career.  We've used wikis to create shared essays, to develop scripts for classroom plays, and to generate lab reports after science experiments. 



How do we do it?


  • A free wiki service called PB Wiki (http://pbwiki.com) hosts our work.  This service is only one of many wiki services being used by educators, but it is highly regarded as the most “kid-friendly” product available.  Perhaps most importantly, PB Wiki does not provide public discussion forums—which often become havens for inappropriate conversations between anonymous users.


  • Most of my wiki work is currently private and password protected, creating a safe and controlled environment.  In the future, we may open our wiki to outsiders for viewing.  To ensure that inappropriate content is not posted, however, we will never open it for editing to outsiders. 


  • Whenever we study a new topic in class, we create a new page with titles and subtitles for students to add content to.  Students then “fill” new pages with content additions and edits.  The vast majority of this work is ungraded.  Students interested in making contributions join the effort, but no one is required to participate. 


  • On the suggestion of Canadian teacher Darren Kuropatwa, I've taught students to make two kinds of contributions to our wikis:  significant contributions and constructive modifications.  Significant contributions are new additions of content not yet included in our wiki.  Constructive modifications are edits to existing content.  Constructive modifications can include correcting inaccurate information or grammatical errors, adding links to external information, inserting pictures or polishing page layout.


    • Our wiki often becomes a perfect place for remediation and enrichment activities.  As students finish assignments early, they can be sent to the wiki to add information about topics of personal interest.  They can also be asked to proofread pages for content accuracy.  The act of reading material and reflecting on its "correct-ness" is deeply reflective and challenging. 



    • Wikis can also be used as extension or make-up assignments for students who are absent from class or travelling.  Wikis become online notebooks that students can use to study content covered over the course of a quarter or a semester.  While there are no immediate guarantees that the content on a wiki will be accurate, reviewing information with a critical eye is often a better review practice than traditional studying behaviors. 
    • I will sometimes assign our students wiki pages as the final product for group studies of classroom content.  Students collaborating together on a wiki page have the opportunity to work with one another asynchronously.  What’s more, students can use the commenting section of each wiki page to plan their ongoing efforts.   


  • I visit our wiki weekly in class, highlighting high-quality contributions or modifications.  Occasionally we’ll assign wiki-work and take a grade on contributions made by students.   



Why it Matters?


·         Wikis encourage students to use the web for two-way communication:  Few people would argue that the Internet is increasingly becoming an important vehicle for personal and professional communication.  To prepare students for this new digital reality, educators must take time to introduce students to tools and skills for digital collaboration.  Wikis do just that.   As Hannah--a former student---writes, “The wiki is also written by the kids who were there listening to the teacher. And another cool thing about the Wiki is that the students help each other out. If someone made a mistake, we can easily go to the Wiki website and fix it or add to it.  It’s fun to watch the pages change.”


·         Wikis generate increased interest in classroom content:  In our digital world, it has become increasingly difficult to engage children in meaningful studies of content.  Wikis, however, has made that possible for us.  100% of our students report enjoying wiki work and feeling a sense of pride in what we are creating.  78% of our students report using our wiki as a study guide for tests and 91% agree that our wiki has made them more interested in current events and classroom content.  As Andrew writes, “I like the wiki the best because everyone can participate in it at home and no one is left out…Wikis provide instant access to great information--- and the info you are looking for is always there!” 


·         Wikis reinforce skills across the curriculum:  Students working with wikis utilize skills from across the curriculum.  Of particular interest, wikis give students opportunities to practice revising and editing.  By “polishing” information that has been posted by others, students learn to identify and correct common writing errors.  They also learn the importance of verifying online information before accepting it as fact.  As Abbey---another former student---wrote, “I like the fact that we get to edit things via the computer. This improves our typing skills and we get better at editing… I am proud of the fact that I edit other people's work and I fix their errors. This makes me feel smart.”



Wiki Requirements

While working to set up our wiki project, I stumbled across a blog post written by Canadian math teacher and Web 2.0 expert Darren Kuropatwa outlining two specific types of wiki contributions that students could make while working together to create content for classroom projects.  Liking the categories and understanding that structure would be essential to making wiki work practical for our middle grades students, I have begun to use the Darren's handout with my students to detail the expectations that I have for productive contributions to our classroom wiki:

Student Name:  ____________________ 



Over the next two weeks, every student is required to make a contribution to our classroom wiki.  Your contributions can be one of the following two types:



Significant Contribution:


A significant contribution is a new content addition to any wiki page.  To qualify as a significant contribution, your entry must be at least 4-5 sentences long, include accurate information and reflect a deep level of understanding about the topic that you are writing about.  



Constructive Modification:


A constructive modification is when you edit someone else’s work—not your own.  You might correct a significant error or several small errors. Maybe you want to reorganize a page or the navigation from the home page. Maybe you want to edit someone else's entry, not for content, but for the way it's written such as by adding some meaningful details, interesting language or graphics. The main idea here is to move this section of the wiki forward in some constructive way.






Significant Contributions:


Is the contribution related to current content?  Is it accurate?  Does it include an extensive amount of detailing?  Is the language accurate enough to be understood easily? 



Constructive Modifications:


Were the modifications done correctly?  Did the corrected information need correction?  Did the modifications clarify language that was confusing?  Did the modifications make the language more interesting to read or more fluent?  Did the modifications add to the piece in a meaningful way?  Is the entry noticeably improved after the modifications?





Scoring categories and language created by Darren Kuropatwa:





Student Roles for Wiki Projects 



One of the lessons that I've learned about wiki projects with kids is that the organic creation that defines Wikipedia doesn't always work with middle schoolers!  You see, Wikipedia is completely fine with the inevitably unbalanced participation of those who are creating pages with one another.  While some members will edit pages thousands of times and make significant changes in both content and structure, most will only make a few contributions every now and then.




If left to chance, that same unbalanced participation pattern becomes evident in classroom wiki projects as well.  While that pattern is worth embracing for informal wiki efforts, I've found that when using wikis as a group project to assess learning, middle schoolers need a set of specific tasks.  Sometimes, shared participation is more important to me than individual exploration.


This blog post will introduce you to a collection of student roles that I've created to encourage equal participation in our classroom wiki projects.


Sometimes, however, assigning students roles for wiki projects just doesn't feel right.  After all, wikis ARE supposed to be organic documents that live and breathe and change as participants interact with one another and build collaborative knowledge together.  That's why Brad Ovenell-Carter's "Wiki Attitudes for Student Projects" are so interesting to me.  Defining the kinds of behaviors that one must demonstrate to be an effective contributor to any group project, Brad's Attitudes could form a meaningful cornerstone for any classroom working with wikis in less structured ways. 


Defining Wiki-Goodness


One of the greatest challenges that I've had to work through over the course of the past few years is defining exactly what good wikis look like.  For me, this has been a pretty critical task, primarily because I've started to use wikis more and more often as final products for classroom projects.  While I'm not sure that my definitions of wiki-goodness are perfect yet, this blog post defines the criteria that I look for when judging the collaborative work that my students do with one another on our classroom wiki projects. 




The Wild World of Wikis



One of the most common questions that I get asked when working with teachers and wikis is how I handle the risk of inappropriate content being posted on our classroom wiki, so it was no surprise when a similar question ended up in my inbox after a recent presentation.  This blog post includes my reply---and a bunch of specific strategies that teachers should consider when working with wikis in their classrooms.    

Sample Wikis

The following wikis are good examples of what is possible with classroom wiki projects:


Carbon Fighters



This wiki was created by a middle grades language arts class in North Carolina.  It was designed to give students opportunities to practice problem-solution essay writing while studying issues related to alternative energy and the use of fossil fuels. Be sure to explore the “For Teachers” page (http://snipurl.com/2af7f), which gives an extensive overview of the rationale behind this project. 




Stay Current 



This wiki was created in the 2007-2008 school year by two language arts and social studies teachers at Salem Middle School.  It is designed as a planning wiki for a daily current events lesson that incorporates reading skills aligned with a common reading assessment given in all Wake County middle schools known as Blue Diamond.  The teachers who use Stay Current work together to post current events that are connected to the social studies curriculum and to write questions modeled after the question stems that students must master to be prepared for the North Carolina End of Grade exams.  By collaborating on this work, the teachers involved save one another time.  They've also succeeded in making their work transparent for their parents and students. 



The New York City Lab School for Collaborative Education



The New York City Lab School for Collaborative Education—a school driven by academic rigor, compassion, diversity and collaboration—is constantly searching for ways to engage students in collective work as a part of its overall mission.  One of their most impressive efforts is a wiki being developed in conjunction with several other New York City high schools covering topics across the curriculum.  This particular link connects to pages created by teams of students as an exploration of the high school physics curriculum.



The Horizon Project



This wiki—recognized as a finalist in the 2007 Edublogs award competition—was a collaborative project between high school students in five different countries who were developing a vision of what classrooms of the future might look like after studying the 2007 Horizon Report released by the New Media Consortium and Educase. Be sure to explore the Project Review link, which provides extensive details about how this wiki was organized and developed.





Wiki Roles for Student Projects



This handout details a set of roles that students play in successful group wiki projects.  It also encourages students to reflect on the contributions that they are the best prepared to make to---and provides a table for tracking assignments for----group wiki projects 



Wiki Tasks for Student Groups



Designed as a partner handout to the Wiki Roles for Student Projects document listed above, this checklist can be used by student groups to organize their collective efforts and to assess their readiness to tackle shared wiki work. 




Exploring the Characteristics of Quality Wikis



One of the first steps to creating a quality wiki page is to spend time exploring other student wiki pages. Working with research partners, students can use this handout to evaluate the wiki pages designed by three groups of sixth grade students who were presenting potential solutions to Global Warming—one of the primary challenges facing our world today.



Wiki Scoring Checklist



This handout details a set of criteria for scoring wiki pages.  While it was originally designed for a project that asked students to craft potential solutions to global problems, many of the criteria are content-neutral and can be applied to any wiki assignment being completed by classes. 




Teacher Tips for Wiki Projects



Like any digital project, there are many factors that teachers must consider when tackling wikis in their classrooms.  This handout details many of the most common questions that teachers must address before successfully facilitating wiki projects with their students. 




Teacher Checklist for Wiki Projects



This checklist covers the common technical and pedagogical questions that teachers must answer before successfully implementing a classroom wiki project. 



Student Directions for PBworks 



This handout is designed to introduce student research groups to the steps involved in common PBworks editing and revision tasks:  Creating pages, reverting to earlier versions of pages, inserting links, uploading files.  (Accurate as of October, 2009).   



Teacher Directions for PBworks



One of the best tools for publishing the work of student research groups is PBworks (http://www.pbworks.com), a wiki service that allows users to create easy-to-edit websites that can be shared with the world. This set of directions introduces teachers to the basic steps involved in structuring classroom PBworks projects.  (Accurate as of October 2009)



Reflecting on Wiki Goodness



For teachers new to digital learning experiences, one of the challenges of structuring wiki projects in their classrooms is having a firm understanding of exactly what good wiki work is supposed to look like. This handout details four criteria that can be used to evaluate classroom wikis and asks teachers to reflect on the criteria that are the most important to structuring successful wiki projects. 



Exploring Wikis in Action



Often, the most challenging task for teachers interested in starting classroom wiki projects is imagining what’s possible. Without a clear vision of how wikis can be used to facilitate the work that they are doing with students, teachers can end up struggling to structure a successful wiki experiences. Use this handout to evaluate several examples of student wiki projects and to collect ideas about the kind of projects that you’d like to pursue.


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