Over the past couple of few months, I’ve caught up my favorite ed tech experts through their podcasts, guest lectured at a university using Skype, a peer-to-peer telephony product, created two blogs, and I’ve built a major project with my graduate school classmates using a wiki,  The world is exploding with new easy tools for communicating and learning.  I can’t help but wonder how we might use these emergent tools– tools authentically used in business and academia–effectively in our K12 classrooms.  

I chatted with Bernie Dodge, best known as the father of the WebQuest, who shared, “this is the most exciting time in my career. We have the tools to make a profound difference in teaching and learning and we’re only at the beginning of that process.”

Derived from the Hawaiian for “quick,” wikis are used across the Web as collaborative tools. Invented by Ward Cunningham, they’ve been around since 1995.  As finished products wikis are not flashy presentations. Users focus on creating, adding to, and editing text content using web browsers. Because they are browser-based editing tools, the technology barrier is low.  Wikis can be created and edited with little or no knowledge of HTML. Team-based by nature, they are logistically suited for group projects. Wikis are increasingly used by businesses and organizations as knowledge management solutions. They have also become staples of university courses to encourage academic collaboration and discourse.

David Warlick, educational technology consultant, author, and director of the Landmark Project, notes “wikis are just breaking out as vehicles for student projects.” Warlick sees wikis best used “by groups of people collaborating to accomplish a common goal, which may not necessarily be the end product.”

Wikis are frequently used as tools for collaborative authoring.  Their major advantage over the traditional notebook is that they prepare students to write collaboratively in a networked environment. Because they are Web-based, no one student hogs the project disk.  Everyone can easily contribute and edit. Teachers can easily pop in to comment or to monitor progress and see the variety and level of student contributions.

Wikis can be used to draft collaborative documents—classroom policies, simulated peace treaties or legislation, poetry anthologies, or recipe collections. Wikis are good vehicles for classes engaged in peer reviewed projects, and function as archived portfolios for classes serious about the writing process.  They can be used as focal points for class discussion.

Warlick suggests that elementary teachers might ask their classes to create wikidictionaries.  When students learn new words they add those words in alphabetical order to the class wiki. Throughout the school year the students involve themselves in building a truly relevant classroom resource.  Warlick suggested an idea that came up at one of his recent workshops. “If I were teaching high school, I would collaboratively produce a study guide for each unit in my class. I’d have students load their own notes and useful external content onto the wiki and ask them to continue to build and refine it as a real study tool.  What you would have in the end is a personal wiki textbook. Students would leave the class with a digital library of what they have learned.”

There are some downsides to wiki use.  They are by nature a bit chaotic, they are vulnerable to hacking, and they have the potential to inspire editing quarrels as groups negotiate content.  But wiki users note that the group itself tends to keep the content stable.

Wikis are geographically agnostic.  They can be collaboratively built by classes across the country or the world.  Or they can involve cross-age collaborations across a school district. 
Beyond student projects, in schools wikis can support meeting or inservice planning, with individuals contributing agenda items and linked resources prior to an event, as note taking devices during the meeting, and as planning tools following a meeting. 

Though he is truly excited about new communication tools, Dodge warns teachers to use them thoughtfully.  “What we’re doing when we rush to embrace blogs and wikis, seems to be self-sustaining,” said Dodge, who has seen teachers “forcing these tools into being curricularly useful. Blogs and wikis suffer from the same fate as most new technologies. Early adopters rush to embrace them without thinking through their pedagogical purpose. It is important to figure out what it is about the format that makes it better than what it is you were doing before.  Insert these strategies where they make sense rather than just adopting them because they are new.”

For a linked list of web resources visit: http://joycevalenza.com/podblogwiki.html

Adapted from my Philadelphia Inquirer techlife@school column

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