Saturday, July 18, 2009

Free Collaborative Platforms for Teachers Part 4 - the Wikis

Wikis have become the tool of choice for many teachers, it provides an easy way to create web pages and to link them up, and allows one to do all this using a wysiwyg editor. And with the number of free wiki products available on the web, many of which now integrate social or widget elements to entice users and add to the collaborative experience, wikis have also built platforms that are geared directly at teacher and education communities.

But one thing to keep in mind when considering a wiki for classroom learning and activities, is that the web and web tools / apps for many students is not a "special" activity, it just is: their relationship to the digital realm, being their desktop or mobile, is nothing short of a new way of learning, thinking, playing, and socializing. In fact, the results of a three-year collaborative project out of Berkeley, USC (Digital Youth Research - Final Report) clearly indicate that the ways young people use the internet everyday are transforming learning in ways that adults often fail to understand, but which represent major new opportunities that need to be taken advantage of by supportive educators. (Read
Information Literacy, Educators, and the Digital Classroom).

The following is a review of a few wiki platforms, but by no means a full reflection of all the wiki tools out-there.

PBWorks, formerly PBWiki, is a wiki platform with some very powerful collaboration features. PBWorks has everything from document management and file sharing, to collaborative editing, to thorough version control and auditing, with options to implement various levels of security and permissions, and contol of look and feel via customizable templates or css editing for the more advanced. But what really makes PBWorks enticing are its enterprise features: a classroom or school can create a robust and fulsome intranet / extranet or public-facing web site using this tool. As regards specific platforms for education, PBWorks has a workspace they call Classroom which can meet the needs of K-12, colleges, and libraries with the ability to support 100 user accounts (and this number is a flexible one).

User Level: PBWorks can be used right across the board, to get the most out of it you would need to have someone with very good technical skills (or an IT person) to take the time to develop it properly. However, if you want to just use a template and create a simple freebie site it will more than do the job.

Product Features: All around great tool. Some wonderful features, and we really like the flexibility to pursue some more advanced customization.

Our Complaints: Can be overwhelming for the beginner, and to get the most out of it requires a more advanced comfort level with these types of tools: best developed by a person dedicated to working with Web 2.0 applications.

WetPaint has developed an entire platform for Wikis in Education, and with over 2400 members and teacher communities to share resource development ideas regarding the integration of wikis into the classroom, it provides a solid foundation for growth. Contains useful classroom focused templates (e.g. Syllabus, Assignments, Study Guides) and some strong social features (e.g. discussion board, photos, news, videos) to build culture and buy-in...what does buy-in mean at the elementary level?! Proactive use, socializing, and learning, not just a go-to for online projects class web-space.

User Level: This is a tool you can try and introduce at the elementary level (of course, depending on comfort level of students / teacher), but, depending on customization, would be too basic to fully capture the attention of more advanced high school students.

Product Features: Well templated wiki, features and design which have the social in mind, a platform specifically geared at education, and a solid community of teachers / educators participating.

Our Complaints: Too templated, not enough wiggle-room to comfortably customize and extend.

WikiSpaces is quite flexible, and a nice "meeting of the minds" between the overly templated WetPaint and the very robust but development rich PBWorks. In the freebie WikiSpaces for educators version, wiki owners have some very nice user and development features: you can create content templates; access the CSS file to change the design of the page, such as the location and feel of the rather boring right navigation bar; import web blogs; and embed widgets like IM / Chat.

User Level: WikiSpaces is a good tool for the K-12 range, but probably best geared toward elementary and middle-school: unless really customized the basic look and feel will work against capturing the interest of a more sophisticated user. We would recommend it as a good starting tool for the teacher who is relatively new to collaborative tools, or to those who do not want to invest too much time developing and / or are not that interested in integrating a social element.

Product Features: A solid wiki tool with all the standard options, and a good tool to use to migrate classroom projects and activities online.

Our Complaints: Despite its many social features, it's clumsy and and that type of response to a UI instantly eliminates it as a social tool for learning.

Luminotes is a truly simple and refreshing wiki to work with: it's simply a collection of linked "notes" pages you link together. This wiki is dead easy to use, in fact, it makes working with your regular desktop application an IT chore. And it offers a very basic share process for online collaboration. In other words, this is the perfect tool for the beginner, be it teacher or student: you can use this for a number of class writing assignments, and this is really as basic as straight typing, with a very clear toolbar and uncluttered interface.

With Luminotes, think writing's not a class site.

User Level: Beginners and up, regardless of grade and age. For the many teachers who feel nervous about wading into web 2.0, or suspicious of the push to integrate technology and online activities into the classroom, a tool like Luminotes will allow them use and discover the possibilities at a more meaningful pace. We think this tool would be great for the elementary grades.

Product Features: Very basic, link single wiki pages and share pages, with a few formatting goodies like the ability to import / export data, and change the colour of your perfectly simple we've started using it.

Our Complaints: Really...none. We could say it would be nice to have a few extra features but it would then kill the beautiful simplicity of this tool.