Wikipedia states that “Belief is the psychological state in which an individual holds a proposition or premise to be true.” As young children, we carry unquestionable belief in the existence of Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy. Parents work to maintain those childish beliefs and hold on to that innocence. (Unfortunately, my son learned far too early that Santa did not exist, because at 5 years old he observed that Santa could not spell at his dad’s house!)
As a child, I believed. We had our own tickle trunk just like Mr. Dressup’s filled with costumes, and chairs just like the Friendly Giant had in which my siblings and I would curl up to watch Rusty the Rooster and Jerome the Giraffe. We believed that there were cars like Herbie the Love Bug and beds that could fly as in Bednobs and Broomsticks. Every Halloween we watched Linus wait patiently for the Great Pumpkin to arrive, and at Christmas for the Grinch’s heart to grow three sizes.
My first experience with school in grade 1 was with an innovative and sensitive teacher who could see that I was beyond learning the alphabet, and she provided me with opportunities to work collaboratively with another advanced student to inquire and explore, and then bring these findings back to share with our classmates. She cared enough to believe in me and provide me with extended learning, and knew how to keep me connected with my classmates.
Because of her, I could not get enough of learning, and in grade 2 my parents purchased The New Book of Knowledge encyclopedias to quench my thirst as I no longer had teachers who allowed me to collaborate, to inquire, and to share. In school, I worked in isolation to fill in boxes in my phonics workbooks or answer questions based on my DRA cards. I learned that knowledge was power, so that I could have the right answers for the teacher. At home, I would work my way through the information contained in those volumes, reading from A to Z, and then starting over again. On my own.
Fast forward to today. The power of connectedness that we as Canadians all felt during the Winter Olympics in Vancouver – standing on roadsides to cheer on the torch relay, wearing the Canadian flag on mittens and toques, water cooler conversations about the previous day’s events. There was a sense of pride, of togetherness, and we could not get enough. Information was immediate and plentiful, and we wanted to know more. Who didn’t shed a tear over Joannie Rochette completing her short-program skate days after her mother suddenly passed away?
This sense of community is reflective of the world our students are participating in – they share, collaborate, edit, and discuss content online. So how do we ensure that students are educated to use wiki tools effectively, as a tool where the power is in collaboration and creation?
My personal learning process with wikis
As a classroom teacher, my students have collaborated to create monthly newspapers that share information about what we have been learning in class. Each student had responsibility for one topic, and would create their article in Word, save it in our P: drive, and then I would comment on the article using highlighting and sticky notes, save it, the student would open it, make revisions. Finally, they would submit the article for publication, and I would paste it into a formatted newspaper in Microsoft Publisher, print it, and then distribute to families. Students were always so excited to see this collaborative product in print, although in reality, they had not seen the work of their peers until the final product was published.
As I looked at the idea of a wiki, I saw how activities such as the newspaper could become more collaborative. I started with going back to explore two wiki tools that I had seen when researching for my own professional learning: pbworks, and wikispaces.
I decided to create wikis in each using similar content – in this case, a site exploring the teaching of writing and how to adapt this to collaborative Web 2.0 tools such as wikis and blogs. Both sites provide a free account to sign up for, and I quickly found how to start a new wiki, create pages, and add content. Both were very user-friendly in terms of adding content, requiring one click of a button to add a page which I then named. I could then select Edit to add content to the page, and edit the text on each page using the menu items.
I found myself at one point wanting to reorder the pages, in order to make reading the wiki as a linear document. In wikispaces, I needed to go into the widgets and delete the table of contents widget, and then manually place each item in order to get the sequence I wanted. With pbworks, I needed to create folders which could then be changed around. What I came to realize is that a wiki is not a linear document, and that the tagging and titles serve the purpose of communicating to the reader, who can then make choices as to how they move through the pages. As someone raised in a print world, this is somewhat uncomfortable for me.
I found that for professional learning purposes, I preferred the simple appeal of pbworks, with the navigation bars showing all the pages and uploaded documents along the side. I felt that it would support participants using the wiki to easily see everything contained, as I found this quite useful myself with the wikis I’ve been exploring in my own learning network. With wikispaces, I have the pages in the side navigation, but not the documents that are uploaded and that required a couple of extra clicks to find them.
For student learning, wikispaces allowed for a more visually appealing page, which I felt would work better. I also liked the simple creation of student accounts, and the ability to set permissions and privacy levels to create a protected area for students to work. Although there was limited visual customization included with the free account, I liked the ease with which I could set up RSS feeds on my wikispaces account to be notified of all changes made to the page.
I then began to wonder about the use of a wiki in my schools that are using the student portal and Google Docs … would it be confusing for students and teachers who are just learning how to use Google Docs to introduce wikis as another method for collaboration? During a collaborative planning session with two teachers, I mentioned using Web 2.0 tools such as wikis or Diigo to help students manage information and work collaboratively, and was met with fear and reluctance as they are only just starting to use Google Docs and are not ready for something new.
As I pondered this issue of Google Docs vs. wikis, I found the following comments made on Blue Skunk Blog (September 19, 2007):
“The easiest distinction I can make is that Google Docs lends itself to document building. It’s content that is pretty much linear, starting at the top and ending at the bottom. While Wikispaces better facilitates non-linear content with multiple pieces that link to one another or even outside material.”
“If you were to create a mind map of the two, Docs would generally be just a single item, while WikiSpaces would include several items linking to one another in varying ways.”
In talking with a colleague who has worked with both, she expressed a preference for the visual appeal and linking of a wiki, and shared how easy it was for students to use. So now I am thinking about where each might fit in some of the collaborative projects that I am currently planning with teachers.
Wikis in my own personal life and learning
I love to collaborate with others, sharing ideas, building new understandings, and celebrating successes. These took the form of five minute hallway conversations, or a scheduled planning session. I will often research before or after these conversations, as a way of generating or consolidating thinking and making new connections. So it would make sense that wikis would combine my love of collaboration with my need for research and inquiry. How do wikis help in my own learning?
I often turn to wikis throughout the day to locate quick answers, which makes sense as wiki in Hawaiian means “quick”. I have discovered great recipes on Vegetarian Recipes Wiki, and a complete guide to the Muppets which has provided endless hours of task avoidance as I research and explore via Muppet Wiki. Wikipedia is a frequent starting point, as it provides information that is contextualized through hyperlinks within the entry and also at the end of the post that I can follow. While exploring Wikipedia for information on the game show To Tell the Truth, I was reminded of the premise of the show being the use of questioning by the panelists to determine which information was false and who was actually telling the truth out of the three guests. It made me think about our students and how to support them in asking their own questions about the information they find – to be somewhat skeptical rather than simply believing whatever they are told or what is printed in front of them.
As I look back on my role as a consultant, I can’t help but wonder about the handouts I provided and how many were discarded or parked in a file folder, never to be looked at again. As a consultant, I was conscious of making my work with teachers collaborative, and found that over time I relied less and less on the traditional handout filled with information and more on the constructing of understanding through activity and social constructivism. I made it a point of modelling and having teachers try out the activities that their students would be doing, and then having them discuss and reflect together. However, I found that teachers were still very reliant on the “magic” handout that provided all the activites or answers. What intrigues me now is how I could use wikis to continue supporting that learning by providing the information I would have put into a handout, and also providing opportunity for teachers to add, revise and collaborate as they implement what was learned. Cofino, of Always Learning, demonstrates this with a wiki created for a presentation she did:
Wikis have also become an important part of my professional learning network, as a new teacher-librarian. Sites such as teacherlibrarianwiki provide booklist recommendations for elementary, middle school and high school readers. Teacher-Librarian Virtual Cafe and Elementary Library Routines supported my thinking about routines and procedures to implement, and Gr8 Libraries of Learning and Information Fluency – You know you\’re a 21st century librarian when … helped me to think about the bigger picture of planning for collaboration. Wikis are also helping me to think about the online presence of my library, through School Library Websites – some models of effective practice.
These are all fantastic sources of information, but what I am realizing is that I am not personally harnessing the power of wikis as a tool for collaboration, critical thinking and writing. I am lurking as a member of the learning community, and not exchanging ideas. I have decided to get involved in at least one professional wiki or ning, in order to move towards a collaborative presence online like I have in real-life.
Wikis to support teaching and learning
With students turning more and more to Wikipedia as their primary source for research, and the access to information online increasing at a staggering rate, the need to teach them how to ask questions and verify the validity of information is more important than ever. As a collaborative encyclopedia where participants continually revise, edit, and challenge content to ensure accuracy and relevance, educators continually dispute the use of Wikipedia as a credible source for research. There is concern that students who are using Wikipedia will easily believe erroneous information contained, and that there must be more credible sources available.
Using Wikipedia in the classroom can provide students with the opportunity to practice questioning sources, due to the flagging of content and continuous revision that occurs regularly on the site. As Shareski (2006) stated, “Wikipedia at the least, encourages us to be critical thinkers. I know when I go there, it may be inaccurate. I’m okay with that. Let’s help our kids not to be brainwashed by the media into believing everything they read and see. More recently, Richardson (2009) has pointed out that Wikipedia is becoming a trusted source, and “last year, the Denver Post ‘graded’ Wikipedia by asking experts to review entries in their field of study,” in which “four out of five agreed their relevant Wikipedia entried are accurate, informative, comprehensive and a great resource for students” (p. 58)
Head and Eisenberg (2010) found in their study of college student’s use of Wikipedia, that“if a student uses Wikipedia, it is surgically and methodically applied; usually in the very beginning of the research process as a precursor to a more in–depth investigation of a topic. Wikipedia plays an important role when students are formulating and defining a topic.”
They continue by saying, “When students have critical questions about narrowing down topics, figuring out search terms, and obtaining background information appears to be a critical time of need. It is a period of initial curiosity, but also one rife with inevitable frustrations in search of solutions.”
In the Framework presented by the Partnership for 21st Century Learning, “a focus on creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration is essential to prepare students for the future.”
According to Berger & Trexler (2010),“Wikis are the quintessential collaborative tool … Content is usually created by a number of authors, providing a variety of perspectives on the topic addressed. Wikis focus on authoring content, rather than just downloading existing content on the Web.” (p. 96)
Wiki use in the classroom can be found somewhere along a continuum towards increasing engagement in a participatory culture:
Some examples of wiki use in the first stage of the continuum are the use of a wiki to share information, such as This Week in Tech – Kindergarten, or What Your Teacher-Librarian Can Do For You. Students might follow a pathfinder like Pathfinder Swap set up by a teacher that provides them with direct links to support their initial stages of inquiry. Or, a wiki could serve to aggregate information for professional learning for teachers, such as hyperlinks that take them to lesson ideas like Cyberlit‘s collection of lessons to support digital citizenship and online safety.
In order to further support the 21st Century learning outcomes, wiki use can be expanded to include more participation. To support literacy development with greater collaboration, students can contribute their reviews and opinions of books to wikis such as Bookleads or Wikidreading. SennReads allows for a widget from LibraryThing to be incorporated, creating a visually appealing wiki and cross-platform sharing of information and reviews. When Moreillon, Hunt & Ewing (2009) used wikis as part of their literature circles at the high school level, they found that students “began to experience the powerful benefits of a 21st century collaborative learning environment; they began to prepare themselves for living and working successfully in a participatory culture.” (p. 28)
Collaborative writing in content areas, or as personal expression can be highly motivating for students through a wiki, as they create, comment, discuss and revise. Tharp (2010) shares how she approached assessment within a collaborative writing project with high schoolers, and emphasizes “the power of social networking for composition … particularly among young people.” Tolisano (2010) involved students in the creation and development of a math wiki Student thoughts about their math wiki. And Maltese & Naughter (2010) had middle-school students from different parts of the world collaborating on a wiki where they connected to the “This I Believe” podcasts on National Public Radio.
In considering how I will support teachers and students in moving along the wiki continuum, I turn to Davis’ (2010) Tips for Teaching Wikis – How I explain it to students, in which she outlines two phases for students:
Content Creation (including the contextualization of sources using hyperlinks)
Content Editing and Refinement (including a set of critical thinking questions for editing content)
The critical questions provided allow for students to think about how to read information on a Wiki and determine not only what might need updating, but how they might go about it.
Concluding question(s) to ponder
In my role as a teacher-librarian, I am questioning how to bring a more participatory culture to students, and whether these questions will help guide them in wiki collaboration. I am wondering about how a wiki can be incorporated into my library’s digital presence, how to support students to effectively contribute and respect multiple perspectives, and model for teachers how to bring this participation into their classrooms.
“When we ask the right questions, we succeed as a thinker, for questions are the force that powers our thinking. Thinking, at any point in time, can go off in thousands of different directions, some of which, by the way, are dead-ends. Questions define the agenda of our thinking.” (Paul and Elder, 1996)
Questions help us to move beyond the power of belief; the belief that something is true simply because I/we have always believed it, have been told to believe it, or feel it is in our best interest to continue to believe it.
The Tea Party Movement in the United States is an example of following beliefs and refusing to consider other information or points of view, resulting in the popularity of people such as Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck who promote their narrow views. Stephen Colbert accurately portrays this mindset as “America, the Greatest Country God ever gave Man, was built on three bedrock principles: Freedom. Liberty. And Fear — that someone might take our Freedom and Liberty.” This agenda of fear, the promoting of blind faith in the views of others without questioning the facts or listening to another perspective is something that must be remedied.
Becoming a 21st century learner means being able to ask questions, to work collaboratively to make meaning, to think critically about what we know and understand, and to find creative solutions to problems when they arise. Linus’ sincere belief in the Great Pumpkin left him waiting alone all night in the pumpkin patch. Even Sally left him when she realized that we miss out when we refuse to ask questions and simply wait for things to happen.