25, No. 19, April 20, 2006
Wikis help teachers and students
Sharita Forrest, Assistant Editor
photo to enlarge
by L. Brian Stauffer
Norma Scagnoli, a visiting project coordinator
in educational psychology, is studying creative
uses of wikis, Web pages that allow readers to
add and edit content, as course-management and
instructional tools. Scagnoli has used wikis for
class discussions and to create two Spanish-language
books on blended learning with workshop participants
living in Argentina and Costa Rica.
While public speaking is said to be
most people’s number one fear, writing,
at least for some people, can be equally disconcerting.
Joe Grohens, a lecturer in the department of English, said that many of the engineering,
business and computer science students who take his business and technical writing
class are comfortable crunching numbers, but find stringing words together to
“These students all have huge writing apprehension,” Grohens said. “They’ve
been told they can’t write. They’re good at math, but they don’t
have many writing assignments. I want them to start feeling more confident in
And Grohens has found a way to encourage students to write – and write
well – by using a wiki (rhymes with “tricky”). A Hawaiian word
for “quick,” wiki is defined as a Web site that permits visitors
to edit the pages and that encourages collaborative writing and editing.
Grohens said he primarily uses the class wiki as a course-management system,
to publish assignments and for students to post their work. Students like the
wiki because it’s easy to revise their work and because they can work on
their assignments anywhere they have a computer and Web access.
“The wiki enables me to give them lots of assignments and for them
to write frequently, making it kind of a regular habit,” Grohens said. “The
students feel like, ‘Oh, I can get started with something small and it’s
not too painful, and I can come back to it later.’ ”
Grohens believes that the quality of students’ writing improves as a result
of using the wiki because drafting and revision is so easy, and because they
know that someone besides the instructors – their classmates – will
be reading and critiquing nearly every assignment.
Grohens recently co-taught a brown-bag seminar about using wikis with Norma Scagnoli,
a visiting project coordinator in educational psychology who uses wikis in a
course she co-teaches with faculty member Tom Anderson as part of the department
of educational psychology’s online master’s program. Scagnoli also
is studying creative uses of wikis.
As part of an online workshop, Scagnoli’s students – who live in
Costa Rica and Argentina – collaboratively wrote two books in Spanish on
blended learning for kindergarten through 12th grade students.
“Next year, I teach the same workshop to students in Argentina, and they
can work on the same wiki as my students in Mexico, although they were not in
the course at the same time. Students can contribute to what students created
during a previous semester. That’s what makes it so rich: working with
people who are geographically and temporally dispersed,” Scagnoli said.
Some instructors, like Scagnoli, use wikis for class discussions, posting topic
headings on pages and having students write on the topics of their choice.
One of the instructors Scagnoli studied uses a wiki to collaboratively develop
the course syllabus with his students, to schedule students to bring in treats
for the class and to host book exchanges, in addition to using it to post their
Grohens has found the wiki to be a time-saver. He previously taught the technical
writing course, with similar assignments, using Blackboard to post assignments
and for students to submit their work, which he then downloaded to review. By
the end of the semester Grohens’ computer was glutted with files.
Grohens said he also spent a lot of class time teaching students the basic principles
of HTML but now they can create their own Web pages easily using the wiki.
Grohens’ students create Web pages, post an introduction about themselves
and then link their pages to the class page. The students create, edit and finalize
their assignments on their pages, which Grohens said, “is much easier (for
me) than retrieving a file.”
Wikis track changes made to the page, allowing the instructor to see each student’s
contributions to projects and to compare different versions of a project side
One of the primary reservations instructors have about wikis is accountability:
How do they know that a student – and not someone else – actually
wrote the material? But that’s also a problem with any writing assignment
done outside of class, Scagnoli said.
Some wikis have people who monitor them and alert the monitor to changes. If
the wiki is on a public-access server, plagiarism and incorrect information may
be uncovered by people surfing the Web. In any event, the wiki assignments should
be only one method of assessing students’ learning, Scagnoli said.
Wikis also can be protected to prevent people from editing them, which Grohens
began doing to the home page of his class wiki after spammers vandalized it several