Wikis in Education: Teaching Students to Share Knowledge

Teaching and learning have always had a collaborative element, but wiki technology has in recent years made collaboration central to the method of many educators.

Since they can be edited by anyone with access to them, education wikis are ever-changing and evolving documents that ideally represent the wisdom of the student crowd.

Teachers are constantly finding new and creative ways to use wikis. One college new media class is writing its own textbook, for instance. Science classes are using wikis to develop research proposals. Writing classes use them to complete collaborative writing projects.

The possibilities for wikis in the classroom, in other words, are as limitless and never-ending as wikis themselves.

Scientific Method

Back in 1999, wiki expert and consultant Stewart Mader, who publishes Grow Your Wiki, wanted to start a Web site to help students at the University of Connecticut understand chemical applications related to spectroscopy. At first he started with a static site with information for students to use. He soon realized, however, that he wanted something more than a regular Web site.

“We needed something that was a better community site,” Mader told LinuxInsider. “So I started exploring the idea of a wiki.”

By 2003, the site, The Science of Spectroscopy, had become completely wikified. Students and researchers could post and edit all of the content on the site, and over the last few years, several dozen users have contributed information.

“We did away with the static HTML site and said, here’s the wiki,” Mader said. “It’s gotten pretty good.”

Mader attributes the success of this site and other educational wikis to their specialized content, aimed at a specific audience. Rather than thinking of wikis just as online encyclopedias, Mader encourages educators and students to think of them as a focused method of sharing knowledge within a defined community.

“The success of that site is the narrow topic focus,” Mader added. “Trying to build a big, all-purpose wiki site is hard to make successful.”

The Education Market

Wiki hosting sites have seen the writing on the screen and have been offering up a range of free and premium wiki products aimed specifically at teachers.

Wetpaint, for instance, offers various site templates for educational settings, such as classroom templates, teacher collaboration templates, and group project templates.

“All of our templates were created with the help of teachers from around the world,” Wetpaint’s community marketing manager, Michael Bolognino, told LinuxInsider.

Wetpaint also has an Education Wiki moderated by an Education Ambassador. This education wiki has more than 600 educators and other members who use the site to collaborate and solve problems. Overall, Wetpaint hosts more than 85,000 educational wikis, with new ones being created all the time.

“Wikis encourage collaborative learning and information sharing,” Bolognino said. “They increase student engagement and participation, [and they] facilitate communication between teachers and parents and guardians.”

Wise Wiki Use

With all of the positive features and possibilities of wikis in education, there are some drawbacks. Most teachers, for instance, discourage students from using wikis as a sole source of information in research projects. It might be a place to begin researching a topic, but anything found in a wiki usually needs to be verified via other sources.

Another problem is that with some programs, only one user can edit a page at a time. Bolognino recommends that teachers divide their classes up into small groups, with each group getting their own wiki page.

“Within each group tasks can be divided up — one person can edit, one person can hunt for information, one person can draft copy, etc.,” Bolognino explained. “This tends to help reduce the overlap.”

Creating a Lasting Impression

One thing that happens with a wiki is that eventually, a many-authored document gets created. The process of creating this document is a large part of the educational value of a wiki, but the document itself can be valuable — something that can be published online, printed out, or used in future classes.

“It turns the online course into something that has a permanent component,” Chris Yeh, vice president of enterprise marketing for PBwiki, told LinuxInsider. “Students can return to it even when the class is over.”

“We have this concept of a class as ephemeral,” Yeh said. “But in the online collaboration model, you have something that lives on.”

Yeh emphasizes that wikis help to facilitate and record conversations. Unlike e-mail, which can be difficult to collect and organize, wikis keep all the responses, edits, thoughts, changes and ideas in one place. They help to document, in other words, the thinking of a group.

“If you’re going to be communicating in a group and you want a record, wikis are great for that,” Yeh added. “With group projects, it’s a much easier way to collaborate.”

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