Friday, November 21, 2008

Wiki is Not a Dirty Word

Use the word wiki in a faculty room and you can count the dirty looks. For most of us our only exposure to the world of wiki's is that most famous of wiki's - wikipedia. All too many teachers have had students turn in an essay chalk full of those little blue hyperlinks that they were not savvy enough to remove. For most teachers a wiki is a place where students go to plagiarize or a short cut to research that may or may not be accurate. Don't let this experience with the wiki jade you and turn you off to this powerful educational tool.

The word wiki comes from the Hawaiian word wikiwiki which means quick quick. Its primary use is for collaborating on a group project (hence wikipedia is a collaborative encyclopedia). In brief what a wiki allows users to do is to collaboratively plan and create. There's a great video called Wiki's in Plain English that does far better job of explaining this than I ever could. The applications of this in a classroom are endless once you begin to see some of the possibilities. (Especially if you teach in a student-centered project-oriented classroom - obligatory eduspeak buzzwords).

My 10th grade regents level Global History students just completed a wiki writing assignment. The students used a wiki to collectively write and edit an essay from home. The benefit of this project was that the students got the opportunity to see how their peers approached the writing process. All too often students work in their own little bubbles missing golden opportunities to learn from the kid that sits at the desk next to them. The benefit of using the wiki was that there was no need to coordinate meeting times for the groups. Students could be paired with the kid at the desk next to them, a kid from a different period or even with a kid from a different school in a different country. These collaborative groups never met face to face, instead they logged onto the wiki site at their own convenience and read what their peers had done, made their own changes and then logged off. It was an interesting experience to watch the essays take shape over the course of the week. Students would regularly check in, see what had been added or changed and then make their own additions.

For this project they were divided into groups based on the frequency with which they turned in written assignments. By dividing the students this way they were working in groups with a shared work ethic, this way no one got a "free ride" as often happens with heterogeneous groupings. The groups started out with a poorly written essay that would've received a score of 2 out of 5 according to NYS Regents Standards. Each student was assigned a color to add their text in so that users could easily identify who had contributed what piece of writing.

The groups were required to complete an outline before they could make changes to the essay. Now this is a requirement that many teachers include on a written assignment, but it is a requirement that is all too often impossible to enforce. For years I've had students submit their outline along with their essay and for years I've received hastily drawn up outlines that were completed AFTER the student wrote the essay. The nice thing about the wiki is that I can lock the essay writing page until the outline has been completed to my satisfaction. The students were also given a notes page where they could plan out their approach without making changes to the actual essay. For this project I gave the students one week to complete the outline and the essay. By the end of the assignment each group was writing above the level at which they started. Some of the groups had great success while others were not as successful. An additional benefit for me was that instead of having 80+ essays to grade I only had to read 22! I made myself a member of each group and placed my comments at the bottom of each essay allowing all members of the class to benefit by reading the comments for all of the groups. I found this to be a great use of the wiki and a great way to expose students to writing styles outside their own.

For this project I used the wiki site Wetpaint. I chose Wetpaint for a number of reasons. Primarily I found it easy to use. There are a number of other wiki sites (pbwiki, Wikidot
etc.) to choose from and they all come with the same basic features. The key features that appealed to me was that anyone could join the wiki site to read it (other students, parents, administrators, etc.) but only the people I gave permission could make edits. Second, the history feature (located at the bottom of each page) allowed me to track the changes on each individual page. This is especially useful if you're worried about vandalism or negative comments being posted. The ability to lock pages is a really nice feature located under the "More Tools" tab. Using this feature allowed me to keep students from editing their essays before they had completed their outlines and it allowed me to lock the pages at the end of the week to prevent students from making alterations after the fact. Finally the "What's New" tab at the top of the page gave me a very quick look at recent changes without having to search each page.

There was a considerable amount of pre-planning that took place.
#1 Select a site and sign up for a wiki account.
#2 Create your own wiki site and assignment page.
#3 I created 22 unique group pages with 3 pages each (1 essay, 1, outline and 1 notes) and then I locked each of them until the day before the assignment (this was the most time consuming portion of the project).
#4 I wrote 6 unique poorly worded essays that answered the task question and then randomly placed them on the essay pages (I did this randomly to discourage students from simply copying another groups essay).
#5 I e-mailed out invitations from Wetpaint to all the members of my classes asking them to create an account and join Wetpaint.
#6 I divided the groups based upon frequency of completing assignments and then by mixing the ability levels.
#7 I assigned the project in class and monitored the changes made to the wikis.
#8 At the end of the week I locked all the pages, read the essays, and made my comments.

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