This summer, Im exploring a variety of Web sites and tools that you can use in the classroom and/or for your own professional development. Each week, Ill talk about how it works, point out related sites, and discuss classroom connections. This week, I focus on using wikis for collaborative authorship in the classroom.
Most teachers with Internet access know at least one wiki: Wikipedia. Love it or hate it, most of us know that its out there. I like Wikipedia and what it brings to the classroom, but its not for everyone. Wikis can be however because they offer the opportunity for students to create collaborative texts in ways that pen and paper never have. Not even Microsoft Word can provide the collaborative authoring tools that a wiki can.
First, let me define wiki a bit. A wiki is a collection of extensively linked web pages, stored in a database, that is collaboratively written. Depending upon how the wiki is set up, anyone might be able to edit it, or changes may be limited to a specific group of writers. You can set up free wikis on sites like pbwiki, seedwiki, wetpaint, and wikispaces. For a more detailed explanation of wikis, see How Wikis Work from How Stuff Works or the Wikipedia definition of Wiki.
Back to the idea of collaboration. The Commoncraft Show (whose video on RSS I used a few weeks ago) explains how the collaborative authorship works in the context of a group of friends planning a camping trip in this video (a transcript is also available):
The benefits for collaborative writing should be obvious. Wikis allow multiple authors to edit a text easily. While the video doesnt discuss it, wikis include tracking information so anyone can look at who makes changes to the texts and compare the different versions at different points in its creation. Try to do that with a collaborative paper written in Word.
Wikis give teachers an easy way to look at how drafts evolve and to determine the participation of various group members on a document. Check out Wiki: Collaborative Editing in Education for additional explanations and suggestions for scaffolding student collaboration, such as assigning roles to group members just as you would for literature circles.
Collaborative authorship is just the beginning of what you can teach with wikis. You can learn more about how other teachers are using wikis across the content areas and curriculum by tapping these sites:
One more thing...
No discussion of wikis would be complete without at least a few words on Wikipedia. The open, collaborative authorship of Wikipedia leads many educators to avoid using it. Because the details on the site do not seem to have the same validation system used by sources like the Encyclopedia Britannica. Robert French outlines the arguments typically used against integrating Wikipedia with the classroom library.
I prefer to turn those arguments on their head. Why not talk about how what we know about the world change over time, depending on a variety of factors such as our perspectives, our access to details, and our ways of thinking? The Truth According To Wikipedia by Netherlands public television provides an in-depth exploration of how an evolving Wikipedia entry demonstrates first-hand that knowledge is socially constructed. You can explore this issue in the classroom simply by looking at the history of an entry and discussing how it has changed over time.
From discussions of how information is published on Wikipedia, you shift to 21st century research skills. As I mentioned in this weeks ideas, what matter to research today isnt that students must be given the most reliable sources. Its that they know how to evaluate any texts they encounter so that they can choose the most reliable sources themselves. In other words, students should be allowed to learn how to evaluate entries on Wikipedia and choose for themselves.