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Wikis (part 1): getting started

Image by flickr user cambodia4kidsorg / CC licensed

Yesterday, while talking with a former student who’s now enrolled in a ‘technology for [high school] teachers’ class, he pointed out that, while the syllabus said they’d cover wikis in the last week, the teacher said they probably wouldn’t bother.

I wasn’t surprised to hear this, because I talk about wikis a lot (mostly because of this assignment, which I’ll discuss more extensively in a follow-up next week).  Faculty and students alike often either glaze over or develop this slightly panicked look, as if I’m asking them to code an API request or something.

The irony is that wikis are now among the easiest online technologies to use: many have What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG)-style editing, so users don’t have to remember any codes; pretty much all wikis include automagical versioning and restoration, so it’s  hard for users to permanently break things (unless you do something crazy, George, and give them all administrative rights!) The name wiki comes from the Hawaiian for “quick”–and it really is a super painless way to get students collaborating.  After the jump, a roundup of resources and tips to get you started, and then next week I’ll delve into the pedagogy and use a bit more.

Wikis are easy to use, and they really do make possible new ways of thinking about classroom interactions.

There are at least two good reasons to use a wiki: 1) the creation of dead-simple web pages (students can create and share multimedia pages without knowing any code), and 2) meaningful, easy collaboration.  What’s nice about wikis and group work: They allow better coordination within groups; can let groups collaborate outside of class without actually meeting; can allow faculty to calibrate “who did what” grading adjustments very precisely.  (Just look at the page history!)  They also, potentially, allow students to re-organize information in ways that are more useful for them.

Another big selling point for wiki use in the classroom is the concept of “wiki gardening,” which is the routine maintenance and sprucing up of wiki pages.  In the context of group work, this means that there’s almost always something you can contribute that would be meaningful.

Some people argue that the wiki way is inherently more democratic than other formats.  (For an example of how this sort of talk has entered the mainstream, see this recent NY Times article on Obama as the wiki candidate: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/08/weekinreview/08cohen.html )  One needn’t believe this to reap the benefits of wikis!

The CommonCraft “Wikis in Plain English” video is a good place to start, although Jon Udell’s screencast about rockdots (i.e., the heavy-metal umlaut) really gets at the heart of what makes wikis–and Wikipedia in particular–so powerful.  (UPDATE: Corrected link to Udell’s screencast, which is genuinely one of my favorite little things on the internet, even after several years.)

The WikiMatrix compares the various platforms out there that you might use.

That’s enough for now; come back this time next week for a detailed look at how I use wikis in the class.

[Image by flickr user cambodia4kidsorg / CC licensed]

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