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SLF08 – Wikis Part 2

September 30, 2008

I had made a conscious decision beforehand that the real focus for my session should be on some of the work that pupils are doing using wikis in my school. In the end, I was not able to cover all that they are being used for, but I hope I managed to convey some of the enthusiasm that they have sparked. I’ll also try and highlight the rationale behind their use and why I believe they are A tool, not THE tool.

Having swapped from Keynote to Firefox I began by looking at one of the earliest wikis our pupils have created:

Midsummer Dreaming

logo-1.jpgMidsummerdreaming was created to support a 2nd year class who were studying A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I worked with the class teacher, Sarah Duffy, to set up a basic frame with a couple of pages and then we let the pupils loose on it.

We had no idea what to expect, but we were both amazed and delighted at what developed. Pupils were editing at (quite literally) all hours of the day and night. They started adding pages devoted to the characters in the play. They created a Chill page which they used to play an incredibly involved game of “King of the Hill”… they even used the ‘Discussion’ tool to create an Aunty Flo problem page where characters from the play would ask for advice about dilemmas from the play! Completely inspired lunacy which can be taken and used as a format for future teaching… not least because it required the pupils to show that they understood the themes, plot and characterisations created by Shakespeare. It is not perfect, but I believe it to be a great indicator of the potential. This is primarily because of the increased awareness of audience that using a wiki creates, and this is something that has made a real difference in the next example I talked about: The Caves of Mull.

The Caves Of Mull

I bounced back to the slides to introduce a wiki my present 2nd year class are using, this time as an extension of their creative writing. The Caves of Mull (slide 33)is a writing exercise from English Matters 1, a fairly standard textbook which can probably be found in most Scottish English Departments. The original exercise involves writing about a couple of caves with the emphasis on description, but it reminded me of the Fighting Fantasy books that I used to play. It didn’t take much to realise that a wiki may be the perfect tool to enhance the original.

logo.jpgI re-tasked the exercise so that the pupils had to create a description of a cave which lead the reader to make a choice between two (or more) courses of action. One choice would lead to another cave, the other choice would lead to a horrible and gruesome demise for our intrepid explorer. Once the initial description had been written, these were typed into the wiki. One page had the description, the other had the demise. Then it was a relatively simple matter of making the links. If you have a look at the site, you’ll soon see what I mean.

As an interesting aside, I’ve been using for mind maps and I showed the class one I’d done to illustrate how the caves could either be linear in nature or more labyrinthian. Within a day, one of the kids had signed up for an account and had sketched out the layout for the cave system (Mind map page). This served as a reference for the rest of the class for linking their caves.

One thing I did want to stress in my seminar is the difference that awareness of audience has made. As English teachers we know that, unless pupils are particularly conscientious, the first person to read their work is the teacher. AifL has raised the profile of peer assessment, and I have found wikis to be a really useful tool for raising this to the next level. It didn’t take too long for the class to realise that the individual pages they were creating were not as important as the artefact as a whole. What has started to happen (lead by myself as the teacher) is they are looking, not just at their own pages, but also others work. Those who are good at description are looking for opportunities to improve other pages, similarly with spelling and punctuation and the other aspects of the actual writing. The beauty of this is that the pupils have ceased to think of their writing as ‘theirs’ and accepted it as being ‘ours’. They are much more interested in checking and revising their own writing as it has a ‘real’ audience (mostly my first year classes who are desperate to play the game… and are now adopting the idea themselves for the novel they are studying)!

As a note of caution, the Caves of Mull is very much a ‘work in progress’. As the year goes on, we will be returning to it to add more caves, improve the writing, find better pictures (using CC photos from flickr as far as possible), and generally allowing the initial idea to mature. One fringe benefit has been that it has given me some valuable tasks for those in the class to do if they finish ‘first’. “Finished? Go and improve the wiki!”


Midsummer Dreaming and Caves of Mull are really just first steps. They are collaborative enterprises that allow the teacher to capitalise on the strengths of wikis: monitoring who is working on the wiki, following the revisions, guiding and teaching as appropriate. If we remember the 4 capacities (slide 32), we can see that effective use of wikis covers a lot of the ‘with’ and ‘are able to’ points. They are not THE answer, but they are a very valuable and worthwhile tool to help find AN answer to improving literacy.

If I try to be objective, I have been most impressed at the enthusiasm and commitment shown by the pupils. They are finding new opportunities for themselves to do more writing, and I am teaching them new ways of communicating… but I have also seen a note of caution that needs to be borne in mind before you go headlong into getting wikis running for your classes.

Mixed Messages

mixedmessages.pngAt the moment, many authorities will block any site classed as ‘social networking’ — why? Social networking, collaborative leaning and co-operation lie at the heart of Curriculum for Excellence. What does it say about our attempts to enable pupils to be ready for what ever the future holds for them if we are actively trying to dissuade them from taking part in the very tools that are becoming more and more common in the workplace?

In preparing for my seminar, I read widely and was unable to use even a fraction of the information I found, but one thing I kept encountering was the widespread uses of wikis in the workplace. How can blocking their use in schools be justified?

…and finally… according to the four capacities of a Curriculum for Excellence:

successful learners – use technology for learning
responsible citizens – make informed choices and decisions
confident individuals – assess risk and make informed decisions
effective contributors – solve problems…

Surely this is exactly what a pupil is doing when they use a proxy to circumvent a corporate firewall…

Please feel free to ask questions about anything I’ve said and I’ll post the link to the audio when it becomes available.
6 Comments leave one →
  1. September 30, 2008 12:04 pm

    Part of the problem is that many of the people doing the blocking are on the outside, not the inside, of Curriculum for Excellence developments. If you still think that a teacher’s job is to deliver content, you might struggle to see why access to a wide range of web sites, let alone social sites, is now so important.

    Maybe we need to launch something of a project to try to develop that understanding?

    BECTA’s new report could be a useful resource, although I haven’t read any more than the press release yet.

  2. September 30, 2008 3:41 pm

    Hi David,
    I only wish I’d had more time in my seminar to highlight some of the great work East Lothian are doing with wikis. Similarly, we are making extensive use of wikis ‘behind the scenes’ in P&K to organise and plan everything from transition projects to INSETs…

    As I’ve said so many times before (to the extent of pretty much boring myself, let alone anyone else), filtering without educating is pointless: trust and accountability are the best way forward, but if the teachers are not trusted, then what message are we sending the pupils?

  3. September 30, 2008 4:45 pm

    Amazingly the wikis are not blocked in Argyll, however you they don’t load properly and you can’t edit – this has not always been the case as I know I have added to wikis from school in the past. This means that one girl in my Higher class cannot add her sentences to our directed writing as she has no access at home, but she can’t do it during a study period. It also makes it difficult to demonstrate to classes exactly what I want them to do when adding to the wikis – one step forward and several back. I cannot tell you how much I agree with your last sentence!

  4. September 30, 2008 5:37 pm

    @Lynne: I find this lamentable. One of the things I had planned was to use That’s My Mouse so that the class could actually be live on the wiki during my session. We’d used TMM before the holiday with great success. It allows the teacher to see where the class are clicking, and also allows the class to ask questions if they get stuck… So… no surprise to find it was blocked during the summer holidays. Similarly, Twitter has also been blocked.

    In one fell swoop, two potentially useful tools have been blocked in school and there has been not one single reason or justification given. As you say, one step forward and several back, indeed… I’m almost tempted to start using proxies myself, but of course, I would almost certainly get into trouble for doing so while the pupils carry on regardless…

    I’m going to start a new post about the filtering issue — not least because of John Connell’s excellent recent post — but also because I don’t really want the issue to detract from the uses of wikis that I’ve tried to highlight.

  5. September 30, 2008 8:06 pm

    I’ll add a few more comments when you start your thread! Meanwhile I’m happy that my S3 class took a moment away from all their other online activities to have a little think about French poetry!

  6. Dorothy permalink
    September 30, 2008 10:35 pm

    I found that netvibes was blocked when we came back from the hols this year. We have an rm managed service, with a pretty heavy filter.

    I emailed them explaining that I was an adult, a teacher and needed my netvibes page to access the educational links I had stored there. It was unblocked the same day. Result!

    I couldn’t agree more with your sentence about trust.

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