In the last decade the way we access and share information has changed dramatically. One of the examples of this change can be seen in Wikipedia and its growing reputation as a source of information for students, teachers, and the larger community in general. The advent of Wikipedia and so many other similar tools has not only transformed the way we catalogue and share knowledge but also empowered users when it allows them to create and distribute content. Amazing as it might sound, we teachers, have at our disposal software that enables us to do for our classes and for professional development the same thing that Wikipedia has done for the whole world: share knowledge and collaborate. In this article, we are going to write a little about this very software (wikis) and some ways in which they can be used to empower teachers and students. As we describe these wikis, we will also provide samples of real ones that fall into the categories we assigned. The only exception will be intranet wikis, that being private can only be accessed by its members.
First, let us begin with a definition of what a wiki is. A wiki is a free, online writing space that allows collaboration among multiple editors. It also has simple formatting rules and dispenses knowledge of HTML or any other computer programming language to add content. Its collaborative nature coupled with its user friendly interface, makes it an ideal collaborative tool for teachers and teachers, teachers and students, or students and students. As you can see, a huge spectrum of collaboration is possible if you opt for using it. In the lines below, we are going to give you some examples of usage of wikis for collaborative work having teachers and students in most of the combinations mentioned above.
One reason for using a platform that allows multile editing is that teachers, as a rule, have lots of ideas to share, but many times do not have a channel to do so. This necessity for sharing ideas calls for using wikis is as an intranet: a collaborative space restricted to teachers of a given institution. Having such a user friendly interface, a wiki allows teachers to upload power point presentations, videos, word documents, and other kinds of files that are part of their lesson plans, and therefore, making a whole range of resources available for their teaching community. Besides that, one can also add links to external resources that contributes to make it a rich catalogue of possibilities for adding content that is relevant for educators. One example of such experience is the one at our institution (Casa Thomas Jefferson). We have an intranet wiki harboring around ten thousand files and around three hundred teachers sharing and collaborating. Another language institute using a wiki as an intranet is IBEU in Rio de Janeiro which as of July of 2012 (according to informationtion shared in a presentation on the subject) had around twenty eight thousand files and also connected hundreds of teachers. An intranet wiki, besides being a place for sharing files and lesson plans, is also a venue for keeping staff informed about institutional events, sharing changes in policy and procedures, and fundamentally, a channel for communication.
A second reason for the use of wiki by educators is that in an age where e-learning seems to have become so popular, teachers involved in an online course can be at the four corners of the globe and, as a result, in different time zones. So, a wiki can be the platform of choice for collaboration and serves as the course platform and a channel for communication between course tutors and participants. The feature allowing one to create pages and folders makes it possible to have pages for participants’ and coordinators' profiles, syllabus, schedule for course activities and many other trinkets that are part of such courses. A practical example of such kind of cyber space is the Webheads’ wiki for the Becoming a Weabhead (BaW) online course. This is a yearly free five-week online course for language teachers interested in learning how to integrate technology into their classes. The course usually has around two hundred and fifty participants and they are all connected to the course wiki. This online space teaches and guides participants and empowers them once it allows them to collaborate and learn with course instructors and their peers.
A third motive for using wikis can be drawn from the Project/Problem Based Learning approach.This is an approach that has collaboration as one of its principles. Therefore, if a group has to come up with a final product that is a result of collaborative team work, a wiki can be the platform of choice. Once the group agrees on a project idea, members can start working on their own with the advantage that all group members can visualize, edit, and add their contribution to their partners ongoing work. This allows members to see the format the product is taking as it develops, and as a result, permitting members to have a more holistic view of what is being done. Such platform also enables participants to volonteer whichever specialized they have to the service of the group. A good example of such endeavor is the wiki with reading activities for EFL teachers created by three teachers (one in Argentina, another in Brazil, and another in Chile) while taking an online course in the University of Oregon.
A fourth reason for adopting wikis arises from the fact that teachers many times need to create a cyber space for students to add content and collaborate. The challenge, quite often, resides in finding a platform that would allow the creation of different pages and folders and permit students to work individually and access and see the work of others in the same web address as well. A wiki is such a tool: it allows the teacher to create pages for students and put them in charge of editing and adding content. For young learners, that in general do not have e-mail accounts, the platform makes it possible for the teacher to create an account with different user names and password for every single learner in his class. A great example of such achievement is the prize winning work of the Egyptian educator Azhar Yousef and her students . This was a project started by this teacher and her students after the political turmoil in Egypt. The goal of this collaborative project was to invite tourists to go back to visit Egypt and its amazing tourist attractions.
Finally, we would like to point out that this is in no way a final, comprehensive list of all the possibilities wikis can offer educators. If you enjoyed reading and happen to be interested in learning how to set up your own wiki, you can browse an example of wiki as a handout. This one was created specifically to teach workshop participants attending our presentation in the 13th Braz-Tesol National Convention how to create their own wikis.
by Jose Antonio da Silva and Maria Ines Saboya