Why Use Wikis In The Classroom?

A coworker of mine recently asked me for feedback on some ideas she had for creating a wiki in her classroom.  Her platform of choice was Google Sites, a terrific resource for using create class wikis.  During past school years, I have used both Google Sites and PB Works to create class wikis. While both sites worked well, I now prefer using Google Sites because A) students can easily login with their Google student email account, and B) I appreciate how seamless Sites ties into the other Google Apps we use.

I'm partial to Google Sites for class wikis.

After hearing the great ideas my coworker wanted to try in the classroom, she asked if I thought that a wiki would really be appropriate for what she wanted to do. This led me to think about what the real purpose of a wiki actually is.

I’ve seen many different student created wikis online and know that many educators would swear their pensions on their effectiveness. I’ve seen amazing examples of wikis I’ve wanted to copy to use in my own class, and I’ve also seen wikis I’ve wanted to avoid like the bubonic plague.  The difference isn’t so much in their design or the aesthetics, it’s in what function the wiki serves (or does not serve).
In my mind, the point of a wiki is to share knowledge. If students are not sharing knowledge with other students but keeping it to themselves, is it really a true wiki? A true repository of shared information? And as the teacher, if I am not designing a lesson or an experience that encourages the students to actually use the information their classmates have obtained to further their own knowledge, have I achieved what the point of making a wiki is?  If all I want to do is to have students learn something by themselves and horde that information to themselves, then maybe a class wiki isn’t the tool I should be using.

Beware of horrible wikis with no direction, ye!

As with most tools in the classroom (technology related or not), its best to have a clear idea of what tool you’re using and why.  To simply use a tool because it’s trendy is a waste of your time and the student’s.  But, trends are trends for a reason.
(By the way: I thought a wiki was a perfect tool to use for a coworker of mine. Case you were wondering.)

Analysis: Google Teacher Academy

At the beginning of Dec. (’09) I attended the Google Teacher Academy in Washington D.C. My intent on going was to: A) learn more about the offerings of Google and gain a better understanding of how I could use Google apps in my 8th grade U.S. history class, and, B) pick the brains of fellow educators from around the country who are also doing great things with technology in their classrooms.

Worth it. Totally worth it.

The entire experience was the best professional workshop I’ve attended. Ever. Unlike a lot of workshop/conferences I’ve been to, GTADC equipped me with tools I can use in my classroom today, and it allowed me the creativity to think about how I could implement these skills into my curriculum.

Some of the highlights:

  • I teach 8th grade U.S. history, so the implementation of Google Maps AND Earth was phenomenal.  The point is not to just show students places on the earth, but to interact with them and expand them.  A presentation on Google Lit Trips sealed the deal for me.  Instead of just showing where battles of the Civil War were, I plan on having students add details into Earth about the surrounding areas and putting the battles in chronological order.
  • Speaking of the Civil War, how cool would it be to see a 3D modeling of Antietam, Gettysburg, or any other battle site of the Civil War?  SketchUp would allow me (or the students) to create one of these and bring the battlefield to them.
  • In past years I’ve set up a wiki from PBworks for a collaborative project where students research different events that followed the writing of the Constitution.  This year, I’m determined to use Google Sites.  My students already have Google Accounts, so there’s really no point in using a new service where they’d have to remember a brand new login and password they may use only once.  Plus, since their login will work with Google Maps, Docs, etc., there’s near limitless possibilities for embedding these existing tools into their own site page.
  • Since I don’t teach math, I’ve stayed away from using Google spreadsheets a lot because well, math is icky.  Really, it is….  After having a grand tour of it however, I’m ready to sing its praises.  While I’m not too interested in plotting and graphing points along an X and Y axis or managing different mathematical formulas (icky, like I said), I am interested in seeing different statistics from different countries over time.  Life expectancies, GDP, literacy rates, etc., are all different things one could graph into a Google Spreadsheet.  AND THEN, you can insert a gadget into that spreadsheet to make it look really cool and give it some animation over time.  AND THEN, you can insert that spreadsheet into a site or have multiple students collaborate on it.  Really cool stuff (and not icky at all).
  • Because of a generous grant in our district, I will soon be receiving a classroom set of iPod Touches.  In between guest speakers and breaks at GTADC, I spent a lot of timing picking the brains of teachers (like him and him) who know what they’re talking about and teachers who can help me make this leap.  Although it wasn’t sponsored  by Google, networking with so many fellow educators from other points on the map was really encouraging and inspiring.

I could go on and on about the awesome things I experienced, but sooner or later I’d run out of bullet-points.

The last thing I’ll say, is that before attending, I was skeptical.  And perhaps maybe even a little cynical, and I know I’m not the only educator out there who’s ever had this sentiment. Even though I wanted to go and applied to go, I was leery of drinking the Google Kool-Aid and having them use me as a conduit to hook my young and impressionable students into using their free products for life.  After I got there and went through the process, it became evident to me that I should really use these Google Apps for Education for what they are: products (FREE products mind you) to help students become engaged and learn.  What’s wrong with that?  Why is the outcry not as loud for text book publishers who have been price gouging school districts for decades?  Microsoft has been doing this for years, and even Apple fanboys have to admit that Apple’s expansive play into education is rooted in turning a profit first and providing an educational experience second (seriously, if nobody made any money in it, no company would ever bother with us plebes in the lowly public sector).  So, if Google is going to offer me and my students something for free to make their learning experience that much better, I’ll take it.

After all, when I was in high school we only had Coke machines, and now I prefer Pepsi.  Turns out I can make decisions for myself.  Who knew?