What lessons can we learn from teaching with a wiki?

Experimenting with on-line worksheets

I know some people who always teach their classes the same way, semester after semester, year after year.. Not me. I always want to experiment and try new things.

This fall, I'm experimenting with using a wiki in the classroom, in addition to my blog. This wont be my first wiki experience. We've long used wikis where I work, and I've used them to collaborate with people in different locations, but this is the first time that I'll try one in a teaching situation.

The wikis in my past
My earlier experiences with wikis had convinced me that they would be too much trouble to use with a class. At work, we used to use something called Kwiki, and now we use Mediawiki. Both were okay as far as wikis go; groups of people could post text, edit pages, make links, and upload files. But neither of these systems are very user friendly. A new user must learn a strange language and lots of normal text things-like spaces between words-are forbidden. You can't even use semi-familiar languages like html, no, that would be too easy. So, while I've used our work wikis, I've never liked them much. I never thought that they would be useful for anyone other than programmers.

Pbwiki has changed all that. At least it has so far. It's way easier to use than Mediawiki or Kwiki, and I think some of the things that I've normally done with Blackboard are going to be much easier to do with my Pbwiki site.

The first thing I like is the way Pbwiki handles text. I can type normally and quickly create new pages, and organize pages in folders. I can also link pages to each other quite easily.

I also like the ability to use custom security.

Show them what you want and hide the rest
One of the things that I want to do with my class is to give them the ability to record information in on-line worksheets. But, I want each student to have their own worksheet and not have access to worksheets from other students.

First, I set up the worksheet page the way I wanted it. Then, I added the word "template" to the tag section at the bottom of the page. Now, I made an individual page for each student by adding new wiki pages, and choosing the "worksheet" template.

Now, I wanted to set user security so that individual students would see only their worksheet. I had Pbwiki create a certain number of student accounts with log-in names and passwords for me.

I chose "page level security" for the worksheets. Then I went through and for each page, added a student for that page.

I should point out that I used one of the student accounts and pages myself so that I could check it. I used two different web browsers (Firefox and Safari) and logged in to my wiki account as myself- the administrator- in one account, and as a student with the other, this would let me see what a student could see and change the access levels appropriately.

Now, each student will be able to save their answers in their worksheet and I'll be able to log in and see what they did.

I'll write again and report how this works. I'm also interesting in knowing if any of you have tried this sort of things.

Dear readers, what experiences have you had in teaching with wikis?

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I've been using PBWiki for about a year---but mainly as a tool for professional development (the school district I taught in blocked all wikis just in case someone logged in and chose to wrote something inappropriate). They have been great tools for me to set up resources ahead of time---and then for adult learners to be able to share their expertise with one another during and after the workshops. I'm definitely sold on them.

I have been using wikis for four years now. I used PBwiki in the past, but am trying out GoogleSites (through GoogleApps) this year.

The wiki is set up for the small-group collaborative projects that the microbiology students do in my laboratory course. The groups must create a group page that they use to post their hypothesis, document their progress, list the supplies that they need, anything else pertinent to the project.

I use it to post announcements, links to protocols, journal articles, anything else that might be pertinent.

The group pages are available for all the students in the class to see; this encourages all students to keep their pages current and on topic.

The wiki is superior to CourseWeb in that CourseWeb is not friendly for student posting, collaborating and editing.

You may want to look into the CourseWeb assignment tool that lets you upload worksheets (e.g. from Excel) which the students (individually) can download, work on, save to their own content collection (within CourseWeb), upload and submit to you when finished.

My students in a seminar on the history of the controversies surrounding the theory of biological evolution are creating a wiki of relevant student (and professor!) authored articles which we will make world-accessible as a resource when it's done and edited sometime next semester. The prospect that it will be world-accessible with student authors' names attached has concentrated their attention admirably. :)

Zinjanthropus: Wow! the foragers site is impressive!

RBH: can you post your link here when the controversy site is finished? I'd be interested in seeing it, both from the technology side and from the content.

Melanie: I'll look into Google Apps - and CourseWeb.

SG- I don't know why Washington schools are so opposed to letting students use the internet. Sigh.

At Atlassian we've notice that a lot of graduate students using our hosted Confluence wiki for writing their theses and dissertations. The versioning features are really important to them. Plus a wiki just makes it easy to share your work with an academic adviser.


Delighted to read about how you're using PBwiki in the classroom. We work hard to make the product as easy to use as possible. Feel free to drop me a line with any feedback or suggestions.

In the year 2008 it's never too early to teach collaboration skills. Thankfully, pbwiki is so easy to use that the middle school kids in my CIT summer program loved using it. If it wasn't easy, I couldn't use it. I run about 25 pbwiki wikis for everything from swim team to soccer to girl scouts.

By Alex Green (not verified) on 27 Oct 2008 #permalink

Sandar asked

RBH: can you post your link here when the controversy site is finished? I'd be interested in seeing it, both from the technology side and from the content.

Sure. That's the plan. The technology side is plain vanilla Mediawiki, since that's what the IT people at my college support. The novel contribution is (we hope) on the content side, the coverage of the last two centuries of the controversies.

We're talking not just about the science, but about religious and and socio-cultural interactions as well. For example, the the growing salience of higher Biblical criticism in the late 19th century was a direct contributor to the rise of fundamentalism, and the early 20th century fundamentalist apologists adopted then-current scientific critiques of evolutionary theory as part of their defense against the liberal apologetics of the higher criticism. That in turn (along with the growing incidence of secondary school education using biology texts teaching evolution: "Hey ma! Teacher says you're a monkey!") led to the widespread support for legislative actions like the Butler Act in Tennessee that was the focus of the Scopes trial. One can then trace those early pre-modern synthesis 'scientific' arguments used by fundamentalists in the 1910s and 1920s right on up into modern creationism.

Sorting through the various strands is fun, and we hope to get the core of them into the wiki. It'll be second semester before it's edited for wide-spread consumption.

Thanks RBH!

Your class wiki sounds really interesting.

One thing struck me in your reply, was your statement that MediaWiki is the only wiki your IT dept. supports. Where I work, we have the same problem.

But it doesn't matter. With Pbwiki, it doesn't matter what your IT dept. likes or doesn't like, Pbwiki doesn't require any IT support.

It frees instructors from IT tyranny.

What the heck is a "wiki"?

Have you used Wikipedia? That's a really good example.

A wiki is a kind of web service where multiple people can log in and edit the same page.

The software tracks who makes which edits and what they do. In some ways, wikis are like blogs.

I think the best way to see how wikis work is to watch this YouTube video from CommonCraft.