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Blogs and Wikis - Are they useful in schools?

There is a lot of talk nowadays about “blogs” and “wikis”. This article explains what these tools are and discusses how they can be used to enhance education.

November 2006

Using ICT in the classroom.

Everyone is talking about the new “social media” – online tools for sharing viewpoints and ideas – and especially about “blogs” and “wikis”. The widespread use of these tools is bringing about changes in the way we communicate and exchange information, but are they useful for enhancing teaching and learning?

Most of the teachers using blogs and wikis in the classroom would answer this question with an emphatic "Yes". While there is some controversy over the use of social media in schools, more and more teachers are discovering that they can be valuable tools for enhancing learning. In particular, teachers find that these ICT tools can provide a means by which to develop the research and communication skills of students, in a fun way that motivates students to learn.

What is a blog?

A blog (short for “weblog”) is like a journal that the whole world can read. A blog often looks like a normal website but unlike a website, which typically lacks interactivity, a blog lets web-authors get feedback on the comments and opinions they have published.

Most blogs consist of text, and often have links to related information and websites. Some blogs also have photographs, video clips and audio clips. When blogs are primarily composed of photos and videos they are called photoblogs and vlogs respectively. Podcasts are composed of multimedia/audio files.

While blogs were originally a form of online diary, written by people who wanted to share the details of their everyday lives or their opinions on particular current affairs topics, blogs are increasingly used as a mainstream medium for creating and disseminating news and information.

Blogs in the classroom

Writing blogs relating to coursework encourages students to express in writing what they have learned, which enhances the learning process. In addition, writing blogs can enable students to communicate their ideas and opinions about what they are learning - and thereby develop analytical skills.

Because blogs are published online, students gain the satisfaction of seeing their creative work in print and in the public domain, and the feedback students receive from readers of their blog often serves as a motivating factor for students to keep improving their writing and developing new and better material.

For example, when a group of Glasgow primary school students wrote poetry and published it on their school blog, the comments they received from all over the world made the children realize that what they created was meaningful and motivated them to continue to create new material. The realization that they had a global audience also transformed how they interacted with the world (Alden, C., 2005, “How blogs can make the link”, The Guardian).

Using a blog can also teach students about using the Internet. With careful supervision from teachers, students using a blog in the classroom can learn about how to use the internet as a resource, how to create content responsibly, how to protect themselves from online predators, and how to recognize spam or phishing attempts.

Apart from supporting the learning of students, blogs can also be a tool for teachers to use to enhance their own learning and professional development.

Setting up a blog

Setting up a blog is generally very simple and requires fewer technical skills than setting up a website. The software to create blogs is easily accessible on the Internet and simple blogging software is available for free. Special blogging software, with security features to screen or block inappropriate comments, is also available. Free blogging software include: Edublogs, Blogger and Pivot.

The accessibility of blogging software makes it easy and affordable for teachers to set up a classroom or school blog. They just need to have at least one computer that students can share (which has sufficient RAM for the associated software), and Internet connectivity.

While blogs are very useful for the exchange of information and ideas between a few people, they are not so effective when there is a large number of people contributing information. That is when a “wiki” is useful.

What is a wiki?

A wiki is a type of website that a group of users can contribute to. The most famous example of a wiki is “Wikipedia”, the online encyclopaedia with articles that are written and edited by authorized site visitors.

Wikis in the classroom

Wikis can be used in the classroom in similar ways to blogs, but have the added advantage of enabling team-work and online collaboration among groups of students.  For example, using a wiki, students from multiple classes or even multiple schools can collaborate to write online articles on subjects ranging from what they learned in biology class that week to an analysis of the country’s constitution. The wiki structure makes it possible for several students to work on the assignment concurrently. Most wiki software packages track changes, so students and teachers can see what has changed and who made the changes.

Setting up a wiki

Wikis are as easy to set up as blogs. You can take advantage of a free wiki hosting site (a “wiki farm”); or you can pay a provider to host your wiki (often your Internet Service Provider provides this service free of charge when you set up a school website); or you can create everything yourself.

Free hosting sites include Wikicities, WikiSpaces, and PBWiki. Installing wiki software, such as MediaWiki, generally requires a minimum of 256 MB RAM.

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