Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Digressing from and considering wikis - again

Craig Ullman's article on wikis in Educators' eZine is a good description and definition of what wikis are. However, that's not why you should read the article. It's his point that wikis represent one of our greatest educational values - individualism. At its heart, isn't that the most important skill we teach students in school? Being an individual? So how do we make that translate into skills students can bring to society?

As a digital tool, wikis provide everyone with equal power to write, edit, revise, even vandalize. It's this concept that's also made sites like Wikipedia a bane for educators. What are we supposed to do with this, now that our students have access to all this unreliable information? I've heard educators ask themselves and each other a variation of that question numerous times. I guess the answer is to teach them. It's no longer relevant to send our students off in search of a research paper and sit back and wait for them to come back with the usual suspect of sources. We, as teachers, need to be more involved in the process. How do we find information? What tools are at our disposal to sort through and filter what's out there? How do we determine what to use? What responsibility do I have as a reader/researcher? Those are tough questions, and for an industry (education) where many teachers are still just dealing with the fact that students can cut and paste from the internet to plagiarize an essay, this has to seem like an about face in what we've taught in the past. I guess it is.

Another good point Ullman makes is that wikis provide an opportunity to assess the whole class, rather than just the individual, a concept that many in education avoid - "In any case, the choice between assessing the individual or assessing the group does not have to be an either/or. We can, and should, look at both levels; we can, and should, think more about how we can leverage the knowledge and interests of each individual student to create a better result for the whole group." This might be where the answer to connecting individualism to the real world. I don't think it means holding each individual group member equally accountable for a group project product. However, the skill our students need to know is how to work in a team, collaborative setting, to create a final product.

There is value in group products in the classroom. However, we mustn't lose sight of the individual in all this. Again, it is no longer relevant to simply assign a group project with an all or nothing stake at the end. Finding ways to "leverage the knowledge and interests of each individual student" is a daunting task. It speaks to the heart of differentiating instruction, both in process and outcome. That means we still need to know our students, what their strengths are, how they learn, and what they are interested in. Web 2.0 tools aren't going to do that for us, but rather provide us better ways to do our job, or to allow for student creativity, or even to encourage previously marginalized students.

So there. Where have I ended up? Where I always seem to. There are no absolutes (except that one, I guess). Like everything we do in education, there is no panacea. Although we are in the middle of a shift, we can't ignore good teaching, and we need to be willing to embrace the technologies of our student's world, not just ours.

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