Tech for Teachers
Wikis Let Students Actively Contribute to Their Learning
ASCD Express's Tech for Teachers column, by guest columnist Jason Bedell, uses both text and a tutorial video to encourage teachers to bring web technology into their practice in simple but meaningful ways that can contribute to student engagement and learning.
A little over 10 years ago, the dominant reference book was Encyclopedia Britannica. It was looked upon as the pinnacle of general knowledge, with a staff of full-time editors and several thousand carefully selected experts who wrote its articles. When Wikipedia debuted in 2001 as a free, online encyclopedia that anyone could both read and edit, people could have been forgiven for thinking that it didn't stand a chance against the trusted Britannica, which had a publication history dating back more than 200 years, or against others that had proven themselves in print and online.
The Rise of Wikipedia
Fast-forward to today: Encyclopedia Britannica cannot sustain its print edition whereas Wikipedia has millions of articles and is visited billions of times each month. Wikipedia is probably the most well-known example of a technology referred to as a wiki—basically a website that anyone can edit. Wikipedia, more than almost any other website, was able to harness the knowledge of its users to build something spectacular. Wikipedia does not hire anyone to write or check their articles; people do it to share their knowledge and benefit the community. As a library media specialist, I teach my students how to use Wikipedia because it has become, for the most part, a reliable and extremely comprehensive source. It is a common misconception that crowd-sourced knowledge is inherently unreliable. Instead, people see the benefits their contributions have and want to do their best possible work.
I have often used wikis with classes from 4th graders through high school seniors. There are a few reasons why I really like the technology. The technology relies on the ideas of social constructivism that suggest that students consistently learn from one another, hone their own understanding, and actively create new knowledge in a discussion format, instead of passively receiving it in a typical lecture format. Furthermore, students can use wiki technology to share, create, and access their content at any time, from anywhere.
The use of a wiki in the classroom fosters student collaboration around knowledge creation and learning.
There are several free sites that you can use to create wikis for your classes. Each has its own strengths, but I particularly like Wikispaces. Wikispaces gives educators free upgrades to premium accounts, and you can create student accounts without e-mail addresses. If you are worried about privacy, you can use aliases instead of real names. You can set your wiki's permissions at different restriction levels—for example, you can set it so only members can see it, so that it is publicly viewable but only your class members can edit it, or so it's completely public and anyone can see and
Wikis Foster Learning Collaboration
One technique that I like to use with wikis is to "jigsaw" research and learning activities so that students can both create knowledge themselves and learn from each other. For example, at the beginning of the year, I worked with a 4th grade language arts teacher and her class to create a wiki page with all the vocabulary words for a story. Each student clicked on a word, which made a connected page where they displayed their own understanding of it in context. Students wrote a definition in their own words, added a picture that illustrated the word, used it correctly in an original sentence, and provided an antonym.
Connections are at the heart of wikis. Consider the various connections between words, ideas, and pages on the wikis as analogous to the pathways and connections in the brain. The more connections made to prior knowledge and other ideas, the deeper the learning will be. So after students created their pages, they would use their classmates" pages to master the full vocabulary and complete the jigsaw activity.
When I taught English, my class would use wikis to help them learn about the context of different stories. Students would create a page for the story on the class wiki, then create individual branches for ideas such as historical context, vocabulary, theme, setting, and character analyses. Through this wiki, students would teach each other, as they would in a technology-free jigsaw activity. However, there are some ways that wikis can deepen that learning. First, the students had access to it throughout their study of the story, not just on the day that it was created. Second, the wiki's discussion tab let the students ask questions of each other that clarified misunderstandings and helped each to go back and look deeper at the content.
Wikis Used for Sharing Professional Knowledge
Lastly, in the technology department in a previous district where I worked, we used a wiki to create a kind of staff intranet. All the technology-related professional development materials in the district were provided on the wiki. Although the technology staff mostly maintained this wiki, any teacher could contribute by asking for editing access. I'm told that the wiki and the culture of sharing in that district is still thriving.
The knowledge and experience of "the crowd" can be amazing. When many people unite around a common goal, whether organizing the world's knowledge in the case of Wikipedia or helping each other grow in a classroom, great things can happen. Never underestimate what your students have to offer. Give them a chance to contribute and create new knowledge that can potentially have an influence far beyond the walls of the classroom.
Jason T. Bedell is an instructional technology consultant and library media specialist at Belmar Elementary School in New Jersey. He explores how effective technology integration can deepen student learning and make the school environment more student-centered.
ASCD Express, Vol. 7, No. 22. Copyright 2012 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.