Wikis for Educators

I gave a presentation at the annual GISA conference that I duplicated (with some tweaking) for the faculty at my school on using blogs and wikis in the classroom. I’m not an expert when compared to the likes of Will Richardson or David Warlick, et. al., but I have tried a few things, and for what my opinion is worth, I’ll offer it.

One thing my colleagues have asked me is which wiki software or service to use. This question is difficult to answer because 1) I don’t have enough expertise regarding the different options available, and 2) it depends on the personal preferences and expertise of the teacher.

The first question a teacher should ask when trying to decide which wiki service or software to use is whether the teacher wants the wiki to be hosted on his/her own website or a school’s website or does not care if the wiki is hosted offsite. If you want to host the wiki yourself, you will probably want to find wiki software and upload it to your own site. Note: this will not work if you don’t have your own domain. If you have a teacher site hosted by Blogger, Typepad, or WordPress.com, you will not want to choose this option (unless, that is, you also have your own domain or want to use the school’s website).

Wikipedia runs off software called MediaWiki, which was originally written expressly for Wikipedia. I downloaded and installed MediaWiki for personal use, and I have to say that I found it cumbersome to work with and difficult to learn how to use. I didn’t find their help files or FAQ’s were much help, either. While I am not an expert, I’m not a newbie, either, and I imagine the average person would be frustrated by the learning curve and give up. On the other hand, it does have some nice features, and if you are considering putting a wiki on your own or a school website and want to talk to someone who has been successful with MediaWiki, you might try Bud Hunt (view his wiki).

Another good software application for wikis is DokuWiki. I’ve played with it a little, and it seems easier to use than MediaWiki. Educators at Woodward Academy have had success with it. You might want to check out their students’ work and see what you think. I e-mailed them to tell them how much I enjoyed their wiki, and they were very approachable and nice, so they might be willing to answer a few questions about their experience with DokuWiki.

Plenty more wiki software programs exist, but I have to ask commenters who are more familiar with those programs to share their expertise, as mine is somewhat limited. I am more familiar with wiki services, and if you are new to creating and using wikis, I would strongly recommend you start with a wiki service rather than download the software and put it on your own site unless you have a compelling reason for not doing so.

First of all, I think it is imperative that the service you select is free. Teachers have to pay for enough materials out of pocket, and I don’t think it’s right. Thankfully, plenty of free wiki services, also know as “wiki farms,” exist.

My friend the Reflective Teacher selected a Wikispaces wiki for our Never Forget Project. I like Wikispaces. If you register for an Edublog, a free Wikispaces wiki comes bundled with your account. Wikispaces has an easy WYSIWYG editor, but I have to admit that a few of the features are not intuitive. Case in point, when I wanted to add a piece of HTML code to our wiki so we could have a ClustrMap and see where our visitors were coming from, I had to poke around for a bit before figuring out how to do it. In my opinion, it should be as simple as pressing the edit button and pasting the HTML. A point in favor of Wikispaces is that it is really customizable. You can choose from a variety of themes or even create your own theme with colors of your choice. The video tutorials are excellent. Wikispaces has Google ads along the side of the wiki, which I suppose helps Wikispaces keep our wikis free, but I have to say that at times, I didn’t think the ads were appropriate. For instance, when I looked at the site just now, the first ad was aimed at teachers who have “disruptive students” and want to “eliminate misbehavior in [their] classroom[s].” How encouraging is that for a student user? Please understand, I’m not picking on TRT’s choice of wiki. I think it’s a good one. And I should add that another teacher pointed out that if I simply e-mail Adam at help@wikispaces.com, he will remove the ads, given that our site is for educational purposes. I assume this is true, as Wikispaces is currently offering 100,000 free wikis to K-12 teachers. These wikis have no ads and no usage limits. I think you should grab one of these while you can. You get 2 GB of storage with Wikispaces wikis. I had to grab one, just because the deal was way too good. I’m not sure what I’ll do with it, as I’m pretty happy with my own current wiki host, PBwiki.

Many other educators, including myself, use PBwiki. PBwiki is also free. Users can choose from one of four themes. All of them are nice (well, I’m not crazy about “Bamboo,” but I like all the others), but this is a limitation if you want to go with a certain color scheme for any reason. One of the reasons I really like PBwiki is that my experience with their customer service has been great. Once when I was having trouble with my wiki, Ramit Sethi, the Vice President for Marketing actually fielded my e-mail personally and asked if he could call me to help me figure out a solution. He did, and we discovered that the problem was likely due to spyware on my computer. I don’t have a premium wiki, either. He did that for a non-paying customer, and that kind of service spoke volumes to me about their commitment to their customers. I have also found their tutorials and forum helpful. When I had a problem getting my students’ ClustrMap (I love those things) to show up properly on my site, it was another customer in the forum who showed me how to fix it. By the way, this is slightly off-topic, but when I told the folks at ClustrMap the solution I found, they upgraded me to ClustrMaps+ and listed me as a User of the Month for last January 2007. Educational wikis on PBwiki do not have ads! At one time, educational wikis did have ads, but they were fairly unobtrusive, and I never found them to be inappropriate. A small ad encouraging the user to upgrade to a premium wiki can still be found in the bottom right corner of of the wiki. PBwiki gives you 12.5 MB of storage, which is not as much as an educator wiki with Wikispaces. This could be an issue if you want to host a lot of files.

If you are a happy customer using another wiki software product or service, please share in the comments.

Coming soon: What about blogging software or services? Stay tuned…

[tags]education, wikis, Wikispaces, PBwiki, MediaWiki, DokuWiki[/tags]

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6 thoughts on “Wikis for Educators

  1. I'm using a Wikispaces wiki this semester for my topics class:

    http://enigma.wikispaces.com

    I'd never used my own wiki before, and I've been pretty happy with Wikispaces. It's certainly very easy to use for newbies, and the technology doesn't get in the way of creating the content — and I guess that's the ultimate litmus test for tech like this.

    Now, if I can just get my students to post to it like they are supposed to.

  2. Ramit, you guys were awesome!

    Robert, I have had that problem, too. For the majority of the kids, it's a novelty to use a wiki, and they really like it. For others, it's like pulling teeth to get them to post. And you are correct on this: technology should not get in the way of creating content. You would find that is also true of PBwiki now that they have WYSIWYG editors.

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