Sunday, 26 October 2008

Serious Talk About Wikis

Ok, I’m getting serious for this post. No goofy anecdotes about my dog (who just ate my daughter’s food wrapper in what I can only assume is a collaborative effort between my husband, my dog and my kids, to get my attention and make me clean up the basement that has completely gone to heck since I discovered wikis). No silly amusing side conversations with myself (Umm, I don’t think that’s going to go over very well, Christine). No funny business, just serious academic discussion about how TOTALLY AWESOME WIKIS ARE!

Oops, got a little excited there, sorry, back to being serious . . .

This week I did everything in the “correct” order (I know, totally out of character for me!). I read Chapter 4 of Will Richardson’s book, and then I followed the trailfire left by our illustrious instructor, Joanne. I could barely contain my excitement. It was like discovering the Lost City of Gold for me. Since the beginning of this class, no . . . since before the class even began. Since I knew I was enrolled in a technology related course, I have been trying to find something that I could use as a classroom “website”. I put quotations around the word website mostly because at the time I began my search, I really didn’t have a clue what I was doing, and so that’s what I thought I was looking for. Boy was I wrong.

Let’s back up a bit. I’m a share-er (I know this isn’t a word, just bare with me. Boy, I’m not good at curbing the crazy self-talk am I?). I share everything with colleagues (well no one knows my pin number or what size pants I wear, but I do share most of my professional self . . . yes I know: curb the crazy). I am constantly offering up ideas and resources to colleagues, parents, students, admin, friends and just about anyone I think can use it or benefit from it. Its not that I think all these people can’t live without my help. I just know that when I first started out, I was so thankful for all the help I got from my teaching partner. I figure, if I’ve already done it, why not pass it along so someone else can make use of it too? I mean we’re busy enough without having to always reinvent the modem. So naturally I also love to collaborate with fellow teachers on everything from single lessons to whole integrated units to running in-services or to facilitating committee meetings.

But when it came to my quest for the perfect Web 2.0 tool for me to use with my class, I just kept coming up disappointed. I thought maybe this blog would be a great thing to use, then I discovered that I can’t upload and post word documents (see my previous posts on this topic!) among other obstacles. Why oh why couldn’t I find a great web resource that would allow me to continue my sharing and collaborating ways? Then I discovered wikis. Yep wikis! Now that’s what I’m talking about!

In fact, I got so excited about the collaboration possibilities, I actually created two separate wikis (using two different wiki providers! I’ll get to that later, I promise. . . ) With maybe a third wiki a possibility (and maybe a fourth for a staff professional development I would love to do for my school on all this awesome tech stuff I’m learning!) Maybe a little over the top, you might say. But WAIT! Let me explain. Each of my wikis has a distinct purpose and use and very different audiences.

Firstly I decided to use PBWiki, because everything I looked at or read said it was super easy and I liked the idea of being able to control the privacy and security of each page. That way I could create non-editable pages to provide information and still have editable pages that my students could use. (At least that was originally my thinking. But as usual, the tool did not live up to my expectations, but I’m getting ahead of myself . . .)

Because of the collaborative nature of the tool and also because of the video Joanne provided in her trailfire (Wiki’s in Plain English) I was immediately inspired to use a wiki to help we with my “Big Project” in my other course (EDES 540). The project involves me working in collaboration with the Teacher-Librarian of a high school to create an advocacy plan of action, in which we aim to increase collaboration between the TL and the teachers of the school. There’s more to it, but that’s that course and this is this course, so let’s just stay on topic!

So here is my first wiki: All was going according to plan, until I began creating a page that I wanted to limit security on (specifically the “Services for Teachers” and “Services for Students” pages because I wanted those to be editable by me and the TL, but no one else, whereas, I wanted full access for two other pages). What I discovered is that the awesome feature that PBWiki advertised as being so great for educators is actually a feature that you have to pay for (if you’ve been reading my posts you know how much I hate the idea of paying for a tool that I can get for free from somewhere else, especially when its touted as “free” for educators). Unless you sign up for a “contest” to “win” a free upgrade (for only a year) by sucking other unsuspecting educators and friends into signing up for a PBWiki account. I just think that’s a little despicable. But I had done all that work, so I figured that wiki would be fine for the purpose of collaborating with my colleague on the action plan, and if she wanted me to set up the Library wiki (see my wiki if you’re confused), I could copy those pages into a new wiki somewhere else at a later date. Still, it’s quite frustrating (ARGGG!)

So then I went back to Wikispaces, where I had originally thought about going, but was enticed by the FALSE ADVERTISING of PBWiki to abandon. This is where I created my classroom wiki that I hope to use on a regular basis upon my return to work in January. Here it is:
This wiki will be a place for me to keep administrative type stuff (in pages only editable by me) like class policies and course outlines and class notes and assignments. The reason for using a wiki for this is simple, its simple. No really, its so easy to update my policies from year to year, change a due date if my class has successfully lobbied for a postponement, and upload class notes on a daily basis in literally seconds. It’s also a way for parents (and students) to stay in touch and find out more about me and my beliefs about teaching and learning. But . . . (here’s the BEST PART!) it will also be a place where my students can collaborate on all sorts of online projects (which I haven’t fully developed yet, but I have so many ideas . . .), link up to pathfinders and webquests I will create for them (which I would really like to learn how to do in the 2nd half of this course Joanne: HINT HINT), store links to their online projects for their parents to visit at student-led conference time, and even maybe help me in the creation of a respectable virtual library for our school! (After last week’s assignment I’m still reeling at how bad our school’s site is!)

The great thing about having set up two wikis, is that now I can compare them. For anyone wondering about the differences: they are virtually identical in their ease of use and interface. Both have limited options to customize the look of the page, but with the ability to change colour and theme, Wikispaces wins on this one. Both have great security features, and if PBWiki just gave these features to teachers without the games, they would definitely win out on the security issue. But again Wikispaces wins because they GIVE AWAY free educator accounts with no strings attached, and no having to suck friends in to get it either. They also offer a function that allows you to “lock” a page so no one but the organizer can change it (which is virtually the same as PBWiki’s security for each page feature). The editing on both is easy, but I’d say that PBWiki has a better format for editing (PBWiki has an undo button, which would definitely be an asset for Wikispaces to add). Both providers make it easy to upload all file types (even word doc, pdf, jpeg, just about anything you can think of), directly from your desktop. That’s right, no having to upload to the net first! (I knew it didn’t have to be that hard!) So you see, there really are not that many differences and if I wasn’t jaded by the false advertising, I’d say it really didn’t matter which site you used!

The best uses of wikis I’ve seen so far are all of Vicki Davis’. She has a class wiki (which is a great example for me follow), and special wikis for special projects (like Digiteen which I will use as a resource with my students, Horizon Project and Flat Classroom, which I will follow this year and may think about trying next year, maybe. Or maybe I’ll find my own great book for inspiration and start my own worldwide project!) There are obviously many many wikis on the web and I have only seen a few, but I am still really impressed by Ms. Davis and her use of online tools. Another example of wiki use is Joyce Valenza’s Links for Teachers which can be accessed off of her virtual library. This wiki is simply a list of good links under various topics. This is quite a useful site, even though its really rather simple. Another wiki I came across was teacher librarian wiki which is also run by Joyce Valenza and also has some very good links, but unfortunately it is unfinished (as most wikis usually are I suppose, but this one has pages that haven’t been updated for years!). I also came across these interesting wikis: Alice Yucht Wiki, Teach Library, Library Success: A Best Practices Wiki, and for something a little wierder: Obsolete Skills Wiki.

In my search for some “research” on the subject of wikis. I cam e across this article in The Cronicle from July 15, 2005. In it a Professor’s foray into wiki use is described. I mention this because one of the ideas presented was very interesting:

“On the wiki that Mr. Phillipson set up for the course, John Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" appears not as an old war horse, but as a hot topic of conversation. By clicking on an assortment of key phrases sprinkled throughout the poem's text, visitors can link to students' ruminations on the language's imagery and its import.”

I had never thought about posting a story or poem and having students respond to it by highlighting specific sections of text and creating a new page where they discuss their thoughts on that specific section. Really cool idea! This article also explains that the professor involved set some important guidelines for his students, mainly that they could not delete another student’s work and they had to post with usernames (no anonymous comments). The professor said that “those restrictions are necessary to keep a wiki focused on scholarship, not name-calling.” I complete agree and will definitely incorporate those rules into my classroom use of the wiki.

The article goes on to say:

“A key language of the wiki is the hyperlink: Sites expand when users select a piece of text from an existing page and create a new page about that term. As a wiki grows, these networks of links become more labyrinthine. And concepts like authorship and organization take a back seat to the exchange of ideas, at least in theory. The ideal wiki is "a group of serious people working out a way of looking at things," says M.C. Morgan”

I knew wikis were serious buisness.
(I think you can be serious and crazy at the same time, though!)


Joanie said...


Joanie here! I just have to tell you that you have an absolutely crazy yet terribly inviting style of blog writing. I find your comments both entertaining and interesting. I had to chuckle at your frustrations with PBWikis' features but the free Wikispaces sites for educators really is a great deal, isn't it. I have created 2 sites using their templates and they seem to work well. Glad that you are excited about finding your dream app because I feel this way too. I really found the idea of the project involving a poem a great teaching suggestion. I have just the teacher that I'd love to try this with - you've inspired me!


Christine :) said...

Hi Joanie, Glad to know I'm entertainging someone and not just making myself sound crazy! Well to be honest, I am a little bit crazy, but isn't that normal?

Thanks for the compliments
Christine :)

Joanne de Groot said...

Thanks, Christine. Like Joanie I really enjoy your 'crazy' blog posts--they are very engaging and easy to read!

I'm also glad that you have found the application you have been looking for! I think there is a lot of potential for using wikis in classrooms and libraries and I'm glad to see that you are experimenting with them already!

I got your hints about the next course--we won't be doing webquests or pathfinders per se...this second part will be much more of an issues course rather than an applications course. But there are lots of great sites available on webquests, including the site by Bernie Dodge who actually created webquests. Just google webquests and his name and it should come up. You might also want to check out Joyce Valenza's school library site--she has been doing some great things with electronic pathfinders. I also think you could use trailfire to create custom pathfinders of online information for students, much like I have done for this course.