I’ve been using wikis for years now, without really thinking too much about how they work and for what purposes they are best suited. Coming from a strong web development background, where so many things are quite complicated or at least time-consuming, the only real things that struck home about wikis were that they were so easy to use, and yet so conducive to collaborative writing.

For those who have not yet tripped across a wiki, you should run –not walk– to and see what these folks have been up to. Basically, a wiki is a large collaborative website where almost anybody can go in and add or modify pages. Yes, you see a page, you want to change the content, you hit “edit” and you can publish your changes without knowing HTML formatting, database functions or even who runs the joint. The Wikipedia is actually a giant, sprawling community-driven encyclopedia that grows by leaps and bounds every day. In fact, I’ve heard tell it’s already three times the size of the Encyclopedia Britannica (although the content is far more variable, as one would expect). Smaller and more specialised topic wikis can be used to discuss text editors, horticulture, pop stars, and every topic under the sun.

So, since I’m preparing an online version of a high school English course for the province, I’ve started examining the possibilities of using a wiki for more educational purposes. I have set them up in the past for other courses I’ve taught, mainly technical, and they were all very well received. But could a wiki work for an English course?

My thoughts on this so far:

  1. English, and all other liberal arts, are often best learned in a fully collaborative environment. “Listen, and repeat after me,” or “Read this page, then do this exercise on your own,” are not exactly conducive to the subject matter. After all, if the outcomes are best served through shared experience and the search for meaning from differing viewpoints, the students will not be able to reach these in isolation. A wiki allows students and teachers to work together on a “collective” series of documents with input from all involved. This can work especially well from a distance.
  2. The Internet is transitory, and if it is used as an integral resource for an English course (almost essential for online learning and distance education), there should be an easy way to update all of the resources to keep them current and relevant. With a wiki, not only can the teachers do this with a simple and non-technical tool, but the students can as well.
  3. A wiki can be used as a way of not only giving assignments, but collecting and presenting them as well. A teacher can assign work to students that involve adding to or improving the information contained within the wiki, thus furthering its relevance for all involved.
  4. Peer pressure is an amazing force that can be used for good or evil. In a wiki, the collective eyes of the group provide strong motivation to not only do the best job you can, but to screen out undesirable information. With a simple click, the teacher can see all recent changes to the wiki, and check their appropriateness. If necessary, the pages in question can be “rolled back” to a previous version. This is not to mention that changes can be logged to show which inviduals contributed what, enabling the teacher to contact them about their material if need be.
  5. The essence of Language Arts is the exploration of meaning. The native form and function of a wiki encourages cross-linking to relevant items, and thus exploration. Therefore, students do not necessarily receive a very narrow viewpoint of the material, but can “leap off” into alternate theories, related subjects, debatable issues, and external resources that can foster a somewhat-controlled environment of discovery.
  6. Many students, raised on high-tech and the Internet, will no doubt be able to push the wiki to its furthest. However, this also puts some pressure on the teacher to learn its techniques and benefits, and to encourage its use on a daily basis. (Any tool will degrade without proper usage and maintenance.) That being said, if a skilled administrator sets everything up beforehand (including user accounts and permissions), any person with a modicum of computer experience under his or her belt should be able to run matters very smoothly within just a few days of regular use.

A wiki can obviously be a highly effective and very advantageous tool for delivering Language Arts material online. While the benefits are many, and the strikes against it are few, the biggest challenge in fostering its use is the sudden shift in paradigm that many teachers will no doubt face. After all, if one is used to being in a classroom, dealing with students face-to-face, reading body language and often-subtle hints to determine the effectiveness of the current lesson, the whole notion of online teaching is difficult enough. Now, if you deviate even further from the norm, from the usual “progression of steps leading to an inevitable conclusion,” how can you feel comfortable in your role as educator? The ease of exploration and self-discovery inherent in a wiki provides so many possibilities that turn sequential education on its ear, that empower the students to more actively pursue meaning, it is difficult to predict how most traditional teachers will adapt to this new medium. Add to this recipe the advantages of other web-based and multimedia technologies, like blogging, software-driven presentations, A/V editing/distribution and Flash authoring, and the teachers of the new millenium face a world unlimited in both potential and complexity. Thankfully, a wiki is but a small step in this direction, one that most teachers should be able to make without great stress, trepidation or confusion. In this way, it is but a gentle and effective introduction to modern educational technology.

Boy, that ended up sounding like an essay. Must be the influence of all those textbooks I’ve been reading lately….

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