Wikis: One More Great Tool

Diana Booth explains how effective use of wikis creates an authentic context for communication and encourages student participation. See Chad Low's Out of the Box article, "Carnival Laughter as an Antidote for Students' Fear and Anxiety," Essential Teacher, October 2009.

Do you know of a tool that helps students do the following?

  • get more engaged and start taking more active roles in class
  • practice self-assessment
  • connect more with other students and the instructor
  • learn how to cooperate with others in a civil manner
  • treat assignments more seriously and put more thought into them
  • offer fewer excuses for incomplete assignments
  • have a chance to participate and express themselves no matter what their learning styles or intelligences are

I am sure you do, for there are plenty of them. We all have tricks up our sleeves—those wonderful activities that we have learned about either from a graduate professor, a peer, a book, a conference presenter, or our own experience. I do not know what tool(s) you thought of, but if you have not thought of wikis, then you have a chance to add something to your box of tricks.

A Little Bit of History

I learned about wikis at a technology conference in Utah in the summer of 2008. When I came home, I also attended a workshop on wikis. After that, it was easy to create my own wiki, which I started using right away. My students loved it, and I enjoyed seeing them more engaged and having fun while learning.

I also did a little research to learn how wikis started. According to Merriam-Webster (2009), a wiki is "a Web site that allows visitors to make changes, contributions, or corrections." And I found out on Wikipedia that the first wiki was created by Ward Cunningham in 1994 to help programmers exchange ideas easier and faster. Faster is a key word here becausewiki is Hawaiian for "fast" (WikiWikiWeb, 2009).

Why Bother?

To persuade you that wikis are worthy of your attention, I highlight here some of their possible uses:

Instructor Uses

  • explain main terms and concepts
  • post and explain assignments
  • post syllabus and class calendar
  • post handouts, presentations, rubrics, and other materials used in class
  • post links to related or useful Web sites
  • post questions, quotes, and problems for students to work with
  • display students' excellent work
  • post a "Question of the Day" to start or end class discussions
  • post extra assignments for more advanced students
  • post vocabulary lists or a "Word of the Day"
  • post answers to in-class tasks
  • cooperate with other instructors and staff

Student Uses

Class or Individual Activities

  • introduce themselves
  • post summaries or thoughts on reading assignments
  • discuss class topics
  • share Web sites and other information relevant to class topics
  • answer textbook or instructor’s questions
  • comment on other students’ posts
  • post classroom notes
  • correct mistakes in spelling lists
  • post word definitions
  • share audio/video responses and presentations
  • ask questions of classmates or the instructor
  • reflect on their own learning
  • post results of long-term projects
  • post individual portfolios

Group Activities

  • perform peer editing
  • post results of group work
  • assess other groups' work

Understanding the Nature of a Wiki

Before you create your own wiki, I'd like to help you understand the nature of a wiki, which is very easy to do—just remember Wikipedia, the classic example of a wiki. Wikipedia has the following functions:

  • Anyone can post text, images, and internal and external links.
  • There is a search function and a place for discussion.
  • Anyone can create a new page and edit existing pages.
  • Anyone can see the history of all changes to a page.
  • Anyone can create an account.
  • Administrators oversee the editing.

When you create your own wiki, it will have all of these same functions—except you are the administrator, which changes things slightly:

  • Anyone you choose can post text, images, and internal and external links.
  • There is a search function and a place for discussion.
  • Anyone you choose can create a new page and edit existing pages.
  • Anyone you choose can see the history of all changes.
  • Anyone you choose can create an account.
  • You oversee the editing.

Creating a Wiki

To create your own wiki, you need to go to a wiki farm, which is a Web site that allows you to do just that. The most popular wiki farms are PBworksSocialtextWetpaint, and Wikia.To see more, you can do an online search for "wiki farms." Or you can check out Wikipedia's basic comparison of the known wiki farms (Comparison of Wiki Farms, 2009).

I've been using PBworks (formally PBwiki), which is a commercial wiki farm that offers basic features for free and advanced features for a fee. I have been quite happy with PBworksbecause it makes it extremely easy to create and use your own wiki. Also, I use it for free, there is no advertising, and the company keeps improving its wikis and providing excellent customer service.

To create a wiki with PBworks, follow these steps:

1. Go to http://pbworks.com/.

2. Click on Get Started.

3. Choose Educational.

4. Click on Try it Now!

5. Select Basic.

6. Fill out the required fields.

What’s Next?

What you do next will depend on your class, goals, students, and imagination. You can have one page or different pages (or even folders) for several groups or individual students. You can display a calendar; upload presentations, handouts, video, and audio; post links to other Web sites; and so on and so forth. The choice is almost unlimited.

The first semester I used a wiki, I didn't do anything fancy. We had only one front page, and the students in my high-intermediate ESL class were simply using it to post sentences with vocabulary words (from the Academic Word List). This was an extra-credit activity, but it was very popular. The students agreed to make the page visible to the public, but only they had permission to edit it.

The day I introduced this wiki to the ESL students, a comment appeared in the discussion area: "This is great!" Though the activity was not mandatory, all 30 words that we had studied in class were posted on the wiki in the sentences that students obtained from native English speakers. When we already had most of the words posted, another student commented: "Wow!!! We have many!"

Through these comments as well as in-class discussions, I learned that students were really enjoying this activity. They felt that they were learning the words better, and they felt good about their learning because they clearly saw how much they were adding to their knowledge of English.

In another class (an advanced grammar class in an intensive English program), students were making presentations on a selected structure. As part of their assignment, they had to summarize their presentation or upload the Microsoft PowerPoint presentation they had used in class. The goal was to reinforce their knowledge and to provide their classmates with an easy reference. This time, every student/group had its own page or folder.

If you are still not sure that there is a place for wikis in your classroom, you can always look at how other educators have used them. A wealth of them are available for public view atPublic PBwikis.

Available Support

It is helpful to remember that if you start using wikis, you are never alone. There is a great deal of support available. The following are just a few sources of that support:

To Use or Not to Use

Of course, you do not need to start using wikis. There are other wonderful tools available. These days, many schools use such products as BlackboardDesire2Learn, and Moodle. Also, blogs, Facebook, and Twitter have found their way into classrooms. The advantage of wikis is that they offer most of the functions of this technology, but also much more. For example, if you want students to practice peer review, Twitter would not be your first choice because every message must be no more than 140 characters in length. Platforms such as Blackboard and Desire2Learn require students to download their papers as attachments in the Discussion area, download their peers' papers onto their computers, know how to use the Track Changes function in Microsoft Word, and then download the marked-up versions of papers. The process can be quite cumbersome, time-consuming, and frustrating. And blogs do not allow for making changes to the text posted by others. All you can do is write your comment in a thread. In contrast, peer editing on a wiki is fast, easy, fun, and flexible in the face of various educational needs and contexts.

Wikis can make your classes more effective, engaging, and enjoyable for you and your students. Students will learn how to effectively collaborate with you and their classmates, spend more time on their assignments polishing their work before sharing it with others, and reach new depths in their knowledge. These are some of the reasons why hundreds of districts and universities, and hundreds of thousands of educators, have decided to begin using wikis.

References

Comparison of wiki farms. (2009). Retrieved September 21, 2009, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_wiki_farms

Merriam-Webster. (2009). Wiki. Retrieved September 21, 2009, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/wiki

WikiWikiWeb. (2009). Retrieved September 21, 2009, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikiwikiweb

Diana Booth (diana_booth@yahoo.com) is assistant director of ESL in the Adult Education Department at Triton College, in River Grove, Illinois, in the United States.