SCISConnections

Wikis and blogs in the classroom

Joyce Kasman Valenza explores wikis and blogs and how these communication tools can be used both in the classroom and as a professional tool for teachers.

 

Over the past couple of months, I've caught up with my favorite ed tech experts through their podcasts, guest lectured at a university using Skype (a peer-to-peer telephony product), built a major project with my graduate school classmates using a wiki and began both a professional and a school blog. The 21st century technology landscape is exploding with new tools for communicating and learning. I can't help but wonder how we might use these emergent tools - tools authentically used in business and academia - effectively and engagingly in our K-12 classrooms.

I chatted with Bernie Dodge, best known as the father of the WebQuest, who shares my enthusiasm: 'This is the most exciting time in my career. We have the tools to make a profound difference in teaching and learning and we're only at the beginning of that process.'

Two of the new tools, blogs and wikis, offer the advantage of providing a personal website for those who have little or no knowledge of html, or those without the time to learn it. Both these new tools further enable Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee's 1997 vision for an interactive worldwide medium of 'communication through shared knowledge'.

Wikis

Derived from the Hawaiian for 'quick,' wikis are used across the Web as collaborative authoring tools. As finished products wikis are not flashy presentations. Users focus on creating, adding to and editing text content using Web browsers. Because wikis are browser-based editing tools, the technology barrier is low. Team-based by nature, they are logistically suited for group projects. Wikis are increasingly used by businesses and organisations as knowledge management solutions. They have also become staples of university courses encouraging academic collaboration and discourse.

As writing tools, wikis offer advantages over the traditional print notebook. They prepare students to write collaboratively in networked environments. Because they are Web-based no one student hogs the project disk. All students in a group can easily contribute and edit. Teachers can easily pop in to comment or to monitor progress and see the variety and level of student contributions.

Wikis can be used to draft collaborative documents, classroom policies, simulated peace treaties or legislation, poetry anthologies or recipe collections. Wikis are good vehicles for classes engaged in peer-reviewed projects and function as archived portfolios for classes serious about the writing process. They can also be used as focal points for class discussions.

David Warlick, educational technology consultant, author and director of the Landmark Project, notes: 'wikis are just breaking out as vehicles for student projects'. Warlick sees wikis best used 'by groups of people collaborating to accomplish a common goal which may not necessarily be the end product'.

Warlick suggests that elementary teachers might ask their classes to create wikidictionaries. When students learn new words they could add those new words in alphabetical order to a class wiki.

Throughout the school year the students would involve themselves in building a truly relevant classroom resource. 'If I were teaching high school,' said Warlick, 'I would collaboratively produce a study guide for each unit in my class. I'd have students load their notes and useful external content onto a wiki and ask them to continue to build and refine it through the semester as a real study tool. What you would have in the end is a personal wild textbook. Students would leave the class with a digital library of what they have learned.'

However, there are some downsides to wiki use. They are by nature a bit chaotic, vulnerable to hacking and have the potential to inspire editing quarrels as groups negotiate content. But wiki users note that the group itself tends to keep the content stable.

Wikis are geographically agnostic and need not be limited to the enrolment of a particular class. They can be built collaboratively by classes across the country or the world. Or they can involve cross-age collaborations across a school district.

Beyond student projects in schools wikis can support professional development. Faculty study groups can share collected knowledge. Teachers and administrators might use them as planning tools for drafting new policies or for planning upcoming meetings or in-services. Individuals could comment on and contribute to agenda items prior to an event and offer feedback on those items following the event.

Blogs

A Pew Internet & American Life Project reported in February 2004 that at least 3 million Americans have created blogs. Sites that monitor the growth of the blogosphere estimate that a new blog is built every second and that there are more than 50 million blogs worldwide. What are blogs and how are they used in the classroom?

While wikis are collaborative writing tools, blogs or Web logs are chronologically arranged online journals. They function primarily as a medium for personal publishing. Blogs commonly include personal commentaries and observations, enhanced by relevant links and the opportunity for asynchronous response. Blogs tend to communicate their writers' personalities and points of view. We already teach students writing in a variety of forms. We teach research and exposition. So where does blogging fit? David Warlick sees blogs as strategies for encouraging writing. When blogs are effective, students write for an audience and receive authentic audience response. Teachers tell Warlick that their students beg to write.

Blogs facilitate an emerging free-form genre of public journalling or journalism. They work well as sustained conversations when students write and reflect about a particular reading or topic or issue over time and when that writing inspires response from an audience. And this conversation might enjoy the freedom of being multidisciplinary: incorporating the works of others, or breaking news in the form of newsfeeds. Students might link to and respond to these external resources. When blogs work well as educational tools they involve students in engaging with content, critical reading and thoughtful and reflective writing.

Warlick notes that blog writing might occasionally warrant a more casual style. Traditional writing assignments are 'for teacher's eyes only. We are teaching rules and syntax and students have to follow rules. Blogging is much more about communication and kids are all about communication.' Warlick suggests that for some assignments teachers might allow students to use IM speak, especially when the audience is other students. 'We have to respect kids for the incredible feat of inventing a new grammar.' Other assignments would, of course, require students to use formal language. 'It's always about the audience and the goals, but when they are blogging it's about the excitement of responses from the class and beyond.'

Beyond students' own personal reflections and experiences, imagine a simulated blog for a historical figure or a fictional character. Students might engage in group discussions playing the roles of a variety of characters and, assuming their opinions, they might pose as philosophers engaged in the great dialog or the characters in Julius Caesar.

Students might express their particular points of view surrounding a controversial issue and respond to its portrayal in the media over the course of the semester, inspiring comments and argument from classmates and beyond.

Warlick also sees blogging as a classroom management tool. 'All assignments might be delivered through the blog. You could easily integrate peer review and the teacher could manage it all through an RSS aggregator.' Teachers could use their own blogs to organise general class dialog or literature circle discussions. In Portland, Oregon, Lewis Elementary School, http://lewiselementary.org/, uses a blog to transmit information to its school community. Middle school teacher George Mayo, publishes M & M Online, http://mrmayo.typepad.com/magazine/, to collect the blogs and podcasts of his 6th grade students at Brandon Middle School in Virginia Beach.

Thomas McHale, an English teacher at Hunterdon Central Regional (NJ) High School maintains three educational blogs. In his Open Classroom: Using Technology, Transparency and Discussion to Transform Education, http://tmchale.blogspot.com/, McHale invites parents and fellow teachers to join a thoughtful conversation that revolves around 'weblogs, interdisciplinary teaching, writing, journalism, high school newspapers and the culture of high school'. Last year as an experiment McHale began a blog for his year-long interdisciplinary American studies class: http://central.hcrhs.k12.nj.us/americanstudies/. McHale's journalism class: http://central.hcrhs.k12.nj.us/mcjournalism/, is blog-based and entirely paperless. He links to his students' individual writing blogs as well as the blogs of several writers' groups. For McHale, blogs have 'opened new possibilities. Students are now involved in the lesson planning. They have more choice.'

'Weblogs are powerful tools to use in the classroom,' says McHale. 'They engage students in the processes of reading and reflecting and they can improve writing.' But McHale notes 'having a blog in itself doesn't do it'. Blogs require audience and interaction. 'You have to recruit people in.' Over the past year McHale has invited journalists, parents and others into the conversation. McHale feels that blogs can 'expand the classroom beyond its traditional walls to involve parents, other teachers and other schools. The possibilities are great if teachers are willing to take the risk.'

Some argue that teacher-assigned blogging is not really blogging because the true audience for a classroom blog is really the audience of one, the teacher. Conversations are best when they are authentic and not limited by the restrictions of a classroom. True bloggers are compelled to blog by something internal that moves them to write.

School library blogging

School librarians are blogging too. The Hunterdon Central (NJ) IMC Blog, http://central.hcrhs.k12.nj.us/imc/, offers library news, but also functions as the IMC's main site, with major links running down the right column. Whippany Park High School Library's blog, http://whippanylibrarynews.blogspot.com/, functions similarly and incorporates images and media. My own fledgling blogs offer me an opportunity to discuss books and new library resources with our learning community and professional ideas with my colleagues.

For Frances Jacobson Harris, at the University High School Library in Urbana, IL, 'blogging is all about voice. Some of the best blogs out there, even professional group blogs, stand out because they reflect the perspectives and personalities of their creators. So my library blog, http://www.uni.uiuc.edu/library/blog/, is just that, an extension of my library-as-a-place, a library that is staffed by real people who have opinions (sometimes strong ones!) and who care about kids. Yes, I use the blog to make announcements and to keep the website fresh, but it's also a forum for expression. I also believe the tone of the blog reflects the personality of our school, which is small, only 300 students, and places a high value on quirkiness and individuality.'

And though he is truly excited about new communication tools, Bernie Dodge warns teachers to use them thoughtfully. 'What we're doing when we rush to embrace blogs and wikis may be self-sustaining,' said Dodge, who has seen teachers 'forcing these tools into being curricularly useful. Blogs and wikis could suffer from the same fate as other new technologies. Early adopters rush to embrace them without thinking through their pedagogical purpose. It is important to figure out what it is about the format that makes it better than what it is you were doing before. Insert these strategies where they make sense rather than just adopting them because they are new.'

Joyce Kasman Valenza
Teacher librarian
Springfield Township HS Library
techlife@school columnist
Philadelphia Inquirer

This article first appeared on page 1 of Information Searcher, vol 16, no 1.
Reprinted with permission of the author and Editor-in-Chief, Information Searcher.
http://www.infosearcher.com
A list of Blog and Wiki resources is available at http://joycevalenza.com/podblogwiki.html