Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Websites, Wikis and Blogs in the Classroom

My Juniors are beginning research papers this month, so last week, I broke the news to them, as I do every year: For their papers, they'll have to get up from their computers, go to an actual library building, and do some of their research with old-fashioned paper sources: newspapers, magazines, books. The horror in their eyes grows stronger every year, for each subsequent class I encounter lives more and more enmeshed in the online world. Yet, like my fellow teachers, I persevere with my insistence, for we know that research is a skill best learned in a library.

The next day, I attended a district-wide convocation, full of presentations that were more well-meant than illuminating (Breaking news: Teachers do good work!). I mention this event because I sat directly behind a slightly younger colleague, and watched her use her iTouch to check the weather, read a few blogs, and generally entertain herself in the midst of desultory surroundings. I had my knitting, so I wasn't bored, but I couldn't help but think about how she validated my inkling from the day before: We do live online, more and more.

While I think I'm right to insist that there's more to the English classroom than left-clicking, it also behooves me - and all of us - to use all of the tools available to students, especially when they're already such a part of their lives -- and skill sets! One of the greatest gifts the Internet can give us is the ability to share huge amounts of information in a way that's accessible to many.

With this in mind, I began to consider how to bring the very core of the Internet -- websites themselves, and all of the information that they can contain -- into my classroom. Thus, this month, we'll focus on web-based tools, specifically creating websites, blogs and wikis for your classes.

How to Get Caught in the Web (In a Good Way!)

It's worth a minute to consider the differences between incorporating the three into your classroom. A website contains the most possibilities: your class can post work, create an informational site, maintain a database of links, create a place for in-depth exploration of a work of literature, display projects (the girls in my school have a site to display their PowerPoint presentations. Because I like you, I will not post a link to it, but they're really proud of it!), and more. A weblog, a kind of website that has skyrocketed in popularity recently, is generally considered to be an online journal. Use this for, well, journal-keeping, classroom updates, or round-robin, student-lead class discussions. A wiki is not just the sound featured on opening of many early Beastie Boys tracks, but a collaborative website that can be edited by anyone who's been given access (including, if desired, the general public).

Another way to understand the differences is through example. In other words, I'd create a website if I wanted to show off the amazing trip I took to France with the girls, including the research we did into chocolate macaroons ("Click here for a timeline of macaroon history."). I'd use a weblog if I wanted to daily update readers on my class's ongoing research into macaroons ("Today, we found a bakery on the Left Bank?"). I'd use a wiki if I wanted to have a place to manage a project with my class, perhaps as we sought to write a recipe booklet on macaroons ("Does anyone want to get and post a price quote from the printer?"). [Note: For those wondering if I recently went to France and discovered macaroons: Yes. I still miss them.]

First Things First: Put the Hammer Down.

Now, how do you actually make these things? Let's look at websites first. There's a great guide to how to set up a classroom site from Virginia DeBolt. I also like her Ten Tips for New Web Designers. It's good to know she's doing her part to conquer my arch nemesis: amateur websites that feature multiple fonts. (People! I beg you... Promise me you'll only use two fonts! Tops!).The simplest way to build a webpage is to use a site like web.com, which provides several thousand templates to choose from. Or you could accept the increasing likelihood that Google does actually control everything and everyone, and use their intuitive website-creation area.

If you're really serious about maintaining a website, or you want the site to live on for many years, you'll want to purchase your own domain name. You can do this at domain.com or Go Daddy. I used Go Daddy when I set up mine. You might also want to learn some HTML and other programming languages. That's getting in-depth, though, so I'm just going to point you to Creating Web Sites: The Missing Manual by Matthew MacDonald, or Create Your First Web Page In a Weekend by Steve Callihan and let you go to it, if you like. Why a book? Well, I just think it's asking for trouble to use an online source to create an online site, you know?

Martha Stewart Has a Blog. So Can Your Class.

On to blogging. Read this helpful source for all aspects of beginning a classroom blog. It was through this site that I discovered Weblogg-ed, an engrossing blog about using blogs in education. Will Richardson, has been running this site since 2002, and it's a real gold mine of ideas, information and theory.

I know about as much HMTL as I do German ("Farvenugen!") but my site still looks pretty decent. That's because, even though I own the domain name, I didn't build a webpage from scratch. I used a blogging service, Typepad, to which I pay a small monthly fee of about $9. However, if I was running a classroom blog, I could do so for free at several other sites. The first I'm impressed by is 21 Classes, a blog portal and classroom site hosting service. Their interface is extremely easy to use and understand. There are some impressive real blogs highlighted at the site, such as this one, which should inspire you.

Easy Journal is another site I like. As you know by now, I prefer a very clean, legible look for blogs, as well as simple usage instructions, such as you'll find here (and if you'd have seen my students' swooshing and blinking Power Points, you'd understand why sometimes it's better to give them few options from the get-go!). They, too, feature example sites, as well as lots of templates. Edublogs also offers free hosting for educational blogs.

A larger site is Blogger, also for free. I mention this host because it's extremely popular and boasts a wide array of options in design. A big caveat here, though: Blogger uses ads. Much as I understand that these free sites have to stay solvent somehow, for a classroom site, I'd just as soon keep it advertisement-free. After all, my students get enough subliminal messages from Channel 1 TV news. Bottom line is that if you want your site to be widely read by the public, you might want to go with Typepad or Blogger; otherwise, the other sites should do.

"Wiki": Hawaiian for "Your students will love organization for a change."

Finally, we wiki. I'll be honest. I'm a bit ambivalent about wikis. They can be very helpful for groups (including classes) who spent a great deal of time online and/or have easy computer access. However, because they are shaped by the people who access them the most, thus making the most changes to the content, they have the potential to leave some students, like those without home computer access, completely out of the loop. Bear that in mind. You might also want to consider the tenor of your class, as you don't want to lose control of your wiki to a tug-of-war over posted information between antagonistic students, since it's easy to take out someone else's writing and insert your own -- over and over.

That stated, the positives still make them worthwhile. Wikis are an enjoyable technology, and I find that students like the editing process online much more than on paper. Further, wikis are a great way to help students learn to collaborate, and most wikis will allow you to monitor who's making changes, to what, when.

And here's some incentive to try out a wiki. One of the biggest wiki farms, WikiSpaces, is giving away 100,000 wikis to classrooms. Sign up on their homepage. They're at about 65,000 at the time I wrote this, so I guess you don't have to hurry, but don't put it off until next year!

WikiSpaces is a nice site, but all of the wikis I've created or used have been at PBWiki. This is because I first discovered wikis through a friend who used this site to set one up for a project. They're free, easy to use and have that clean interface I covet. With wikis, we're not trying to create something that is deeply visually compelling, but rather the equivalent of a spiral bound notebook: it just needs to hold the information in a legible, accessible way. I arrived at pbwikis after a couple of disasters at other free wiki sites. I shan't name them here, but I found several of the most popular ones to be extremely difficult to navigate (as in: I couldn't. Navigate. And I did not just fall off of the Internet turnip truck.).

If you do not trust my taste in wikis (humph), here are two sites that might help you decide which to explore. Blogger Pascal Vanhecke lists the pluses and minuses of a bunch of wiki farms here. And Wikipedia, the world's largest collection of wikis, compares wikis here.

The Sky's the Limit (Unless the Sky is Larger Than Your Server's Capacity)

What to put on these sites, once you've made them? Well, you do want to have a plan, but I can't tell you what that plan is, as it's based on the age, skill level and interests of your class. Maybe you want to provide historical background for a novel. Maybe you want to post students' creative writing. Maybe you want to help them work together to plan a newspaper. Here are some questions to ponder: What is it that you would like to have your students learn from this project? What information do you want to have accessible to them? What is the longevity of your project? How much time do you personally wish to spend on the project? What resources do you have at your disposal? How often can your students go online? You will draw your students' attention and interest with web work (and probably become aware of how much more they know than you about this world!), so choose carefully.

As for me, I'm going to encourage my juniors to use a wiki I'll create for them. As they find helpful sources for their research papers, whether online or in the library stacks, they can post links or directions. I hope that, out of this, they'll learn more about the vast world of research resources, as well as how to use a wiki -- but also how to work together to pool knowledge for the greater good (and grade) of all.

And before the next convocation, I'm buying an iTouch.

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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday April 9th 2008, 11:04 AM
Comment by: Cynthia
You're on the money with incorporating technology in the classroom, but I would be cautious about the wiki-world. Since ANYONE can edit the content, you cannot always be sure the information is factual. This could potentially be doing a disservice to those students who are looking to this as an educational source.
Wednesday April 9th 2008, 4:13 PM
Comment by: Magda Pecsenye
Cynthia, wikis aren't going away, so by not using wikis, teachers are missing a huge opportunity to teach students what wikis can and can't be used for. Starting place? Yes. Citable source? No. Latest info on a breaking scandal? Yes. Information that's happening faster than academia picks up on it? Yes. Final arbiter of facts and theory? No.

Deciding not to use wikis means you're turning your students out into the world without the skills to navigate wikis and their proper place in research. What happens to a kid who's never been taught about Wikipedia when they get to college and think it's an acceptable source? I'm imagining scores of kids getting wiki-drunk at their first frat research party...
Thursday April 10th 2008, 3:12 PM
Comment by: Vernon H.
Magda, you're absolutely right, although the "wiki-drunk" scenario is pretty hard to imagine.

(Hi, Magda...haven't spoken to you in ages.)
Thursday April 10th 2008, 10:37 PM
Comment by: Glen R.
If your school provides it's own network & someone capable of installing a private Wiki, just to your network. A great idea.

Good way to create an environment, for newsrooms - writers - editors - and reporters to imagine the real thing.

Just my two cents.
Friday April 11th 2008, 12:38 PM
Comment by: Helen H.
I'm not a teacher....but a "wiki" is NOT the same as Wikipedia...the wiki is a collaborative website/enterprise. It is simply a way to, online (and not necessarily public), interactively create content. What this means is that a private wiki, limited to just one history class, for example, could create an online resource for information about any topic they choose. The content is of course created by the students in the same way they might write a report (gathering info from a variety of books, magazines and websites) The difference is collaboration and the dynamic nature of the wiki. No one from the outside would be accessing the material, so no sabotage is theoretically possible (aside from hackers or mischievous students).

Thanks for an interesting article!

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