Using a Wiki in Your Classroom for Teaching, Learning, and Collaboration

Wikis are the workhorses of the web. If you have looked anything up on Wikipedia, you have used a wiki. Wikipedia is one of a group of education-related wikis. Wikimedia includes Wikipedia, a dictionary, a collection of textbooks, a collection of mostly copyright-free images and other media as well as other collections of shared information. The spirit of a wiki is to provide information openly and freely, which aligns well with using wikis in the classroom.

The word “wiki” comes from Hawaiian, where it means “fast.”
This is a bus in Honolulu that offers a quick shuttle service at the airport.

Bus with "Wiki-Wiki" sign

You can edit wikis quickly, in a WYSIWIG environment. Using wikis, teachers can co-construct websites with their students. Many learning management systems have wikis embedded. Yet there is an advantage to using a public wiki (with privacy properly managed). Students will be able to access their work beyond a single school term. Their parents and friends may also be able to see it.

This article will discuss the wikispaces.com platform because Wikispaces provides free wikis for education and it is easy to use. This is the also the platform I am most familiar with. There are other platforms as well that are free to educators and that offer similar functions.

Safety

There are two aspects to safety in relation to wikis. The first is who is going to edit content. You can set privacy such that only members of the wiki can see the page and/or edit it. You can also protect the wiki so the pages are visible on the web but only members can edit. There may also be reason to set the wiki to “public,” allowing anyone to edit. This will open you up to potential spam. Wikispaces is, however, responsive to reports of problems and they will block people. For students up through high school you should probably set it to “private” or “protected.”

The second aspect of wikis has to do with what gets posted. Students should never post information such as their full names, location or other confidential information. Be thoughtful about the pictures you post, as well. Be sure to follow the policies and procedures of your school in relation to creating and using your wiki.

Wiki Functions

There are many functions wikis can take in the classroom. Here are just a few:

1. Portfolio

My students in an arts in education class placed their productions in a portfolio. If you are a teacher who sees students for more than one year (art, music, physical education), you might especially want to establish a portfolio wiki. You and they will see their growth across years. Portfolios (and wikis in general) don’t have to be just static images and words. You can add sound files, YouTube videos and much more, which are discussed below.

2. Co-authoring

Another function of wikis is to become a co-authored space between teachers and students. In 2009 I started a wiki here with my colleague, Tobie Sanders. We used it in a number of courses we co-taught. It became a place where our students added ideas and materials. It also was a place where we could put course materials and our ideas about various topics. This meant our students could connect with a wide array of information any time they needed.

This wiki is set to “public” and we have had only a minor amount of spam. At the same time, someone not connected with our teaching made a major and valuable contribution to the wiki. It has become large through eight years of contributions. Visitors from all over the world have looked at it.

3. Collaboration, News and Problem-solving

Wikis can be a collaborative space for parents, students and teachers. You could develop your wikis as places for news about happenings in the classroom. Have the students write news articles. Wikis solve problems, as this video shows. Finally, wikis can be used as learning management systems. This makes course materials available to students even beyond the end of the term.

Using a Wiki

When you first look at it, a wiki is like a word processor. Each page you establish has both an edit and a save function. You only see the “save” button when you are in the “edit” function. I wrote extensive instructions here, which will help you to learn the basics. If you are using the wikispaces platform, they also have an excellent set of help topics. There is also a wiki devoted to amazing things you can do on a wiki.

Purpose

When developing a wiki, you first have to think about your purpose, which will influence the structure of the wiki. Create a page for each student if you want to use a wiki as a portfolio. If you are making a collection of information, then you might want a page for each topic. Wikispaces even offers a classroom wiki that allows you to manage projects.

Interactions

You will also need to decide how students (and/or others, such as parents) will interact with the wiki. Will they engage with the materials or will they also add to it? This leads to the question of what to do when a someone makes a mistake. I had a student who accidentally erased the information in the navigation bar, which rendered the wiki unusable… for the moment it took for me to back off her changes.

Advanced Features

Wikis are easy to get started using and they are also capable of advanced management and development. For example, you can use either the standard or the wikitext editor. Wikitext is the special set of codes that control how text looks and behaves on a page. You also can have more advanced control over the look and feel of the wiki under the settings.

You don’t have to use this function in order to develop a great wiki page. Still, it is nice to know you have this option.

Widgets and Multimedia

You can add “widgets” to wikis, which are little snippets of pre-existing HTML code, easily creating interactive pages. For instance, you can embed a YouTube video so students can stay on your page—otherwise, they may wander off into cyberspace. You can also embed a Wolfram Alpha widget that allows students to explore mathematics. There are many collections of widgets available and this article will point you to some of the best.

Educational Wikis

There are many educators who have found the power of wikis and use them to share information with other teachers. Here are just a few:

Wikis not only build collaborations in classrooms, but they build connections between educators from all over the world. When educators share information through a wiki, they benefit students and teachers everywhere.

 

Feature image courtesy of Flickr, Cea.

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