Overall, I was very pleased with this project, and highly recommend the use of collaborative software to any teacher looking for something new to try. I have divided some of my thoughts and feedback I've received into subsections below.

Why the Wiki?

This was a fantastic project for me and my students, but it is not a panacea. Your students must have the access to this technology, either at home or at school (preferably both), for this to be an effective project, and their teacher must also have an investment in the process as well (this is not synonymous with technical know-how, though that does help). This will not be an ideal fit for every class or lesson idea, so if you are reading this trying to figure out how to incorporate this technology into your curriculum, look for natural fits (research and literary discussion come immediately to my mind, but there are certainly others; your mileage may vary by discipline).

Benefits (Beyond Content Knowledge)

  • Service Learning: This project not only allowed for my students to conduct research and teach each other about the Romantic era, it also continues to serve as a resource for people from around the world - as of July 1, 2007, we have had 842 visitors from 43 different countries on 6 continents - that's an average of a little over 20 visitors per day.
  • Collaboration: In order to maintain some sense of continuity in each section, students needed to work in a truly collaborative fashion as they prepared for publication. This also feeds into team building and time management skills.
  • Internet Literacy/Awareness: Exposing my students to a global audience brings new issues into play, most notably security/privacy and copyright awareness. I had a plan for dealing with these all along, but I also tried to get them to think critically in discussions about how we might deal with these issues (e.g., maintaining online communication with no personally identifiable information). Believe it or not, many students don't quite "get" that the Internet reaches far beyond MySpace, and ANYONE can see what you put up there. I tried to drive this home by using StatCounter to track site traffic - they have a great (free) service that, among other things, shows visiting users on a Google map. I think this visual reinforcement really drove the point of the global audience home for my students.
  • Greater Student Investment/Ownership: Once my kids realized who would be utilizing their resource, many of them felt obligated to go way past the minimum requirements to put together a site that clearly defines terms and links to external sources that visitors may find helpful. As more than one of my students put it, the project became "organic - it sort of took on a life of its own after a while!"
  • Critical Approaches to Sources: While I did require "offline" research sources, naturally, much research took place online. In addition to using databases, students also had to think very critically when deciding whether or not to use a website as a source - was this written by someone reputable? Does this source cite its sources?

What Did the Students Think?

While some of my students posted their thoughts on the Student Feedback page, I also asked them to write a 1-2 page reflection on their experiences in which they covered the following topics:
  • What role did you play in the group? What did you contribute to the overall product?
  • Was there an equitable distribution of work in your group? Explain how the work was delegated among the group members.
  • In your opinion, what was the most difficult part of working together as a group on this project? Did this project pose any unique challenges that past group projects have not?
  • Make two or three detailed suggestions for future groups who will undertake similar projects in this class.

The feedback I received was overwhelmingly positive. Students stated that they cared way more about this project than they thought they would, and that the idea of having an audience beyond their classmates was an excellent motivator for them. On a strictly technical level, many of them appreciated being "forced" to learn a new technology that they could potentially be using in college or the work force (as more and more universities require students to use software such as BlackBoard, LiveText, and Moodle, as well as wikis).

Many students also expressed interest at watching the hit counter rise and seeing the new hits on our StatCounter map. They also liked searching for various phrases in Google to see how our ranking changed from day to day. By the end of the school year, we were pretty well ensconced in the top 20 or 30 Google hits for most of the phrases the kids tried.

The only major objections to the project came from kids who "didn't like using computers." Can't win 'em all, I guess. While most kids were comfortable with the technology, most of them wished we could have spent more time going over the nuts and bolts of the Wikispaces interface; this is a definite to-do for next time.

Please see the Student Feedback page for some advice for wiki-writing students!

What did this Teacher Think?

If you couldn't already tell, I loved doing this project. I think it's fantastic for all the reasons I stated above, but I was able to reflect critically on my own process, and I came up with a list of things I will likely change for the next time I have my students create a Wiki:
  1. More in-class hands-on Wiki time:I definitely overestimated some of my kids' facility with this technology. I made an assumption that because they knew how to use Word, this would be a snap , but the skills did not transfer as seamlessly as I thought they should. Next time, I will spend at least a class period (84 minutes) guiding my kids through and having them play in a "sandbox" to get familiar with the interface and capabilities of Wikispace.
  2. More time to collaborate in class?: One of the benefits of this project is that it much class time was freed up to focus on other elements of our Romantic unit. Based on the feedback I got from my kids, I'm thinking I may allow a little more time for them to get together in class to discuss issues or go over information; perhaps 10-15 minutes at the end of one block every week or so. I still want them to utilize the message board features, but I can see how that could be imposing, especially for kids who aren't that Internet savvy. Frankly, I'm still torn on this, so if you have any thoughts, please drop a note on the Discussion tab.
  3. Require edits/comments on other groups' Wikis: I can't believe I overlooked this this time around. This is definitely on my "to do" list for next time.
  4. Require a minimum number of direct links to external sources: I toyed with this idea in developing my current assignment, but decided against it, as I wasn't sure if it would overwhelm the kids (clearly not, as many of them did it anyway). For an Honors or AP level course, I'm thinking maybe 15-20 links to high-quality sources (not just Wikipedia) - what do you think?
  5. Provide more specific assessment criteria: Since this was uncharted territory, I wasn't quite sure what to expect from my students. This group has helped me to set benchmarks in my own mind for what I can realistically expect from students of this ability level, and that will translate to more specific requirements in the next edition of this assignment

What Do YOU Think?

If you have any further suggestions for utilizing this technology, regardless of discipline, please feel free to share in the Discussion section. You need to sign up with Wikispaces, but it's free. Furthermore, Wikispaces is committed to providing FREE advertisement-free wikis (a $50/year value) to 100,000 K-12 teachers, so when you sign up, why not set up your own little corner of this site and see what you can do?

Thank you for your interest and your contributions!

Damian Bariexca
July 2007