Back to school with wikis

Wikis won't be displacing Blackboard anytime soon, but they provide an interesting platform for learning, teaching, and collaboration.

Regular readers know that I'm a big fan of Google Apps in all of its collaborative glory. Especially with its newly revealed user group permissions, Google Apps represents one heck of a free solution for schools.  However, I've recently begun working for a client who relies heavily on wikis for internal documentation and content creation. While the term "wiki" carries with it, for many teachers, the stigma of Wikipedia (whether deserved or not), really seeing wikis in action has rekindled my interest in them as a platform for learning and teaching.

One reader actually emailed me with an idea not long ago that, at first, sounded inefficient in the land of CMS/LMS/Google Apps. Closer examination suggested that he just might be on to something:

The idea is really quite simple: "The most simple thing that could possibly work" (Ward Cunningham) for personal/social learning environments in schools would rather be based on wikis than on an LMS like Moodle...One would have a wiki farm (one wiki for each class and year, and probably an over-all school wiki) with some simple routines and templates. (To do this right would be crucial.)...For the Wiki itself, it would be best to use an Open Source wiki platform (DokuWiki) running on own server, or on a community-driven server specialized in offering wiki-platforms for schools. Possible would be also Wikispaces (as white label service), Google Sites (as part of Google Apps Edu), or even Confluence (because it has all the features of a full & stable enterprise wiki system and is still not expensive).

To create a flow around the wiki and to create a real learner-centered ecosystem, I think one would need few complemenary lightweight web 2.0 services...

He went on to detail how the wikis could interact with layers of social bookmarking, blogging, and microblogging to encourage interaction and a truly engaging learning experience. Clearly, there would be some hurdles to jump to impose standardization and to tie the systems together, but some planning would allow the creation of a fully on-premise (if you wished), rich, modern, open source learning environment.

Next: But you don't have to get all fancy about it »

Even much simpler wiki implementations, however, could have incredible value in schools. Many teachers have already discovered this and have embraced wikis wholeheartedly. For too many others, though, it's simply a poorly understood bit of web technology that isn't worth the time to learn. That's too bad, because wikis tend to be fairly intuitive and are easy for administrators to install and configure (check out DocuWiki's documentation, for example).

For those of you who already use wikis in your school, share how you use them in the talkbacks. For those not quite sure how they'd fit, here are some straightforward use cases:

  • Ongoing notes and documentation for a course with daily student contributions and editing that becomes the textbook, review materials, test prep, and study guide for a course
  • Curriculum documents that can be easily accessed, modified, and commented on by all members of a department
  • School committee meeting minutes
  • A central repository for a teacher's course materials
  • A strategic plan document for a school or district
  • A heck of a lot better and more relevant way to document research and draw conclusions and inferences than a standard term paper

Get the idea? As with both content and learning management systems, users don't need to know HTML or scripting of any sort to develop highly readable documents that can be edited, reviewed, or commented upon by whichever peers they designate. Wikis have the advantage of change tracking and administrative simplicity. DocuWiki, as well, maintains files such that they can easily be read outside the wiki, making them ideal long-term repositories for a variety of documents.
If you've invested heavily in Moodle (it's free, but the training for staff and development time may be extensive) or another learning management system, I'm certainly not saying to leave it behind and jump on the wiki bandwagon. However, wikis should be part of the toolkit available to teachers and students who should be increasingly focused on creating living documents together that support learning and authentic, relevant classroom experiences.