While the Commons offers a number of excellent technologies that can enhance your classroom, research, and collaboration goals, sometimes the sheer amount of technologies that are available can be overwhelming. Educational technology, like any other technology, goes through phases of adoption. As a result, you may hear about a particular technology from colleagues or in articles and feel compelled to find ways to place that technology into your course plans, regardless of the fit. Or, a technology might be a phase where it seems “everyone” has finally converted, and you want to see what the hype is about. Or perhaps, you’ve already tried a particular technology and are looking to grow your technological savvy by including a new one. Regardless of your impetus for including a technology tool in your course design, in order for the technology to work you will need to have a clear sense of your expectations for that technology, the purpose in your choice to implement it, and the strengths and weaknesses of that technology in order to fully and successfully integrate it into your course design.
One question we get often from the faculty we serve through the Commons is, “Should I use a wiki, or a blog?” While these formats may seem somewhat related in that they both provide a space for faculty and students to collaborate in producing and sharing knowledge, how each technology accomplishes this goal is very different. It is these differences that can help you choose the best technology for your course design, and maximize the technological potential for learning.
What is commonly referred to as “blogs,” in the Commons technological toolkit is actually better described as a course website. The Commons provides course websites through WordPress, which is a platform best known for its ease of use, simple navigation, and versatility. While blogs are a central feature of WordPress sites, they are by no means the only, or even a required, feature of the site that you might decide to customize for your course. The WordPress sites’ strength lies in their adaptability. Many of the sites you see on the Internet today, with or without blogs, are built on the WordPress platform.
A WordPress site is an excellent choice for course management. On these sites, you can create pages to organize all of your course materials, including documents, pictures, and even videos. You can use the blog feature to gather student responses, provide links and interesting articles to students in real time, and even as a place for students to submit peer-reviewed assignments. WordPress sites are also the platform we use to create student portfolios, where students can collect and present work they’ve done over the course of a semester, year, or major. WordPress sites can be customized in a variety of ways, including themes, menus, pages, and permissions.
WordPress sites are great for tracking the progress of a course, project, or student over time. The blog feature provides date and time stamps, as well as organized ways of accessing posts by student, category, or tags, which gives you the ability to view a student’s progress over the course of a semester. Students can also benefit from reviewing previous work on their site, to see how their work has grown and changed over time. These sites are also excellent as a central organizing space that all students can use to access course materials, readings, links, and the syllabus from any computer, making them well suited for inclement weather, illness, and other challenges that occur during the semester.
WordPress sites can become a little challenging to manage if students are not using categories or tags to mark their blog posts. When you have an especially large class, the sheer volume of blog entries can be hard to sort (Georgetown Commons does offer a Campus Press plugin on our WordPress sites, which allow you to sort blog posts by date and by name). Also, since the blog format is a long line of responses and comments, it can be hard to sort through all of the responses and comments for discussions between students unless you provide some additional structure. Some professors have solved this challenge by breaking students into smaller groups and having those groups comment only on their group member’s blog postings. Other professors use the blog form to collect student responses and develop discussions around those responses in face-to-face class time.
Wikis are usually most closely associated with Wikipedia, for better or for worse. However, there are actually a variety of ways that wikis are used in both educational and professional contexts that have nothing to do with Wikipedia. A wiki is, in its most basic format, a tool that emphasizes collaborative production and editing of information, presented in a very basic layout. Most wikis have a basic menu, either located at the top of the page or along the left-hand side, which allows viewers to navigate between the different topics or pages. Wikis do not generally display information about who has produced and edited various parts of the site on the front end; rather, this information is available in the “history” portion of the site, where you are able to see each the creation and revision history for the site, for various pages in the site, and in each section of the site.
A wiki’s layout is relatively linear. Pages are divided by headings and subheadings, which appear on the page in the order that the collaborators place them. They are minimalist by nature, and while you can sometimes change text colors or occasionally the border colors of a wiki, the visual elements from a wiki depend heavily on what the collaborators add.
The strengths of a wiki are its collaborative structure, the ability to track the changes it has gone through, and the fact that it displays only the most recent version of material that has been saved to it. Wikis are particularly well suited for reference materials that are revised often and require a record of revisions, as well as for final projects that require collaborative writing. Wikis tend to be more text-heavy, though they can accommodate images as well. According to Ruth Reynard in this excellent article at Campus Technology, wikis provide a forum for students to reflect on the knowledge construction process, and assist in making knowledge useable because students encounter the knowledge in an applied context.
A challenge with wikis is that they require some familiarity with basic coding, as they utilize HTML-based languages to be constructed. While this may seem intimidating at first, wikis come with ample support to learn coding, and coding is actually much easier than it may seem at first. What is important to note when using wikis, however, is that the learning curve is a little longer for students who are unfamiliar with the format. Therefore, wikis are good for projects that students will be working with over a significant period of time, where they have multiple opportunities to encounter and master the coding process. For an excellent example of how wikis are used through the course of a semester and as a final project, see Martin Irvine’s course wikis here: (Wikispaces; Metapedia Wiki)
If you need assistance in deciding which classroom technology best fits your needs, Georgetown Commons staff is available to consult via email or in-person. To set up a consultation, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.