Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Collaborating on the 'net. Or, the "Wiki."

If you scroll down to the end of this article you can enter a comment on what you just read. It's a small deal that hints to a bigger deal: The evolution of the Internet into a collaborative universe. Educators have lately grasped the power of this in the classroom -- and are beginning to use collaboration tools to enhance learning. To find out more, we called up two education technology experts, Cristina Lopez and Kurtis Scaletta, both Instructional Multimedia Consultants at the Digital Media Center of the University of Minnesota. They've been studying the potential of a collaboration technology called "wikis" and run a website called Teaching With Wikis. We asked them how wikis can improve learning -- and the challenges teachers face using them.

VT: What in the world is a "wiki?"

Cristina: It's a kind of website where you can both look at it and contribute to it. You can create new entries, edit existing pages or even completely re-write existing pages. A wiki gives you an active role in shaping content. What really sets it apart is it allows for truly collaborative writing. What you get with a wiki aren't just singular voices of different, individual authors, but the blended voice that results from people writing collaboratively. With wikis, writers can not only comment on the work of others, but edit and even write over completely what others have written. It's the nature of the wiki not to just make comments on it, but to edit what other people have written. The most famous example is the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, which has thousands and thousands of collaborators.

VT: What's the potential for wikis in the classroom?

Kurtis: There is no better tool for collaborative writing, not just because students can work together asynchronously. What's revolutionary is that a teacher can see a wiki's history, how it evolves, and how students participate and edit each other.

Cristina: A wiki enables teachers to organize well-structured group projects. For example, Tim Gustafson, associate director of the English Department's composition program, assigned his students to create a website about the University of Minnesota using a wiki. An official site about the University exists already, of course. But the instructor wanted students to think of the content from their point of view -- what would students find most useful?

It was the kind of project that lent itself to group work. You needed many people to do the research and writing and thinking. And you wanted the blended voices and multiple points of view. Since these pages were editable by anybody, students could get in there and see what other people wrote and make adjustments and introduce multiple points of view.

VT: How did the project work out?

Cristina: Surprisingly, the project wasn't as successful as the instructor had hoped.

VT: How come?

Cristina: According to Gustafson, students tended to add content in an additive fashion rather than writing and editing collaboratively. This wasn't their fault. The way we teach writing in schools is to really encourage individual expression. This is ingrained in both teachers and students. In making the transition to a collaborative tool like a wiki, students have to re-think how they approach writing, and instructors have to re-think how they teach writing.

VT: In what ways?

Cristina: Students have to let go a little bit of their egos when they write. Part of it is a socialization process. You have to impress upon students that collaboration is a worthy undertaking and it will result in good work. They need to build up trust to edit each other's work and to make those kinds of adjustments.

Kurtis: We end up having to collaborate in our professional lives, of course, so it's good to teach it in school.

VT: What other challenges do teachers face with wikis?

Kurtis: It's important for teachers to use wikis for their own work, so students can see how collaborative writing is done. They have to challenge students to just jump in. The dogma is kids are good with computers, but there are other skills beyond technology that go into wikis. Even if they're comfortable with computers, students might not be comfortable in a collaborative writing space or editing one another.

VT: What's an example of a classroom wiki that's particularly successful?

Kurtis: One good, publicly available example is the Social Justice Wiki, developed by students at Columbia and Barnard Universities for a course called "Black Movements in the U.S." What's interesting about it is that it's longitudinally collaborative, that is, each semester a new class comes in and develops it more. So the wiki grows over time.

VT: What resources can you point to for teachers interested in learning more about wikis?

Cristina: Teaching With Wikis is a wiki Kurtis and I maintain. Because it's a wiki, we encourage visitors to contribute by adding and editing content.

The website for the Digital Media Center has a section entitled "Investigate Learning Technologies" that includes an overview of UMWiki, a centrally supported wiki tool at the University of Minnesota. This page provides an overview of educational uses of wikis and a list of resources that are of interest to any educator who is thinking about using wikis in the classroom.

For more information on Tim Gustafson's class, see Blogs and Wikis: Welcome Disruptions in the Classroom

Wikipedia is more than a collaboratively created encyclopedia. Sister projects include Wikisource, an online library of free content, and Wikibooks, a collection of open-content textbooks that anyone can edit.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday August 30th 2006, 1:44 PM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter
This is a site rich with good information. Does anyone have recommendations for good places to learn about using wikis in elementary school classrooms?
Wednesday January 24th 2007, 9:29 PM
Comment by: Teresa B.
I'm looking forward to trying this, or at least sharing some of the underlying ideas, with colleagues. I REALLY like the idea of collaborative editing. That's the major thing I feel is missing in our students' writing application: use of editing.

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