Wikis and virtual learning environments – testing the water (part 1)

Over the past month I have been trying to integrate more technology into my classroom and I have been experimenting with two things, the first being a wiki and the second being a virtual learning environment (VLE) or, if you are from North America, learning management system (LMS). The wiki website I have been using is from Pbworks.com and the VLE is from Schoology.com.

Let me start by saying that I am not a complete novice when it comes to using both wikis or VLEs. Many years back I worked for a company where I trained teachers, and some businesses, on how to use Moodle. I even started to create a wiki for that same company to help train new sales staff on products and terminology (although I left before it was ever finished or used). This is, however, the first time I will be using both as a teacher, and I’d like to share my experiences in this blog.

Let me start in this blog (part 1) with the wiki. The class I have been using the wiki with is a small group of students who I have for 1 hour each day, Monday to Friday. They are mainly Arabic men, aged from 19 to 50, and are at a high pre-intermediate level. The aim of the class is to work on practising a skill for that hour. The point of the lesson is to spend a quarter of their day with a different teacher where coursebooks aren’t used. I usually pick a theme, e.g. food, and practise skills around that theme like listening to a recipe, role plays in a supermarket, or a discussion about strange foods around the world.

The first week using the wiki I planned my lessons to practise speaking, listening, and reading, but I mostly wanted to focus on writing and collaborating within the wiki. My Arabic students tend to appreciate writing in class as much as, and sometimes more than, speaking, so the wiki really appealed to me here. It seemed like the right group to use as my guinea pigs.

You might have heard of something called Wikipedia, the most famous wiki of them all. Now, I have heard lots of very good ideas about how to use a wiki in class such as collaborative story writing, however I wanted to try to use our class wiki a bit like an encyclopaedia. Just as Wikipedia do, I wanted to take a theme or subject, take some key points from that and then write about them. I planned my week very logically as follows:

Monday – introduce a topic and practice speaking skills.

Tuesday – do a listening exercise around the same topic and have a small comprehension and a follow up discussion.

Wednesday – Students write on the wiki.

Thursday – Students finish off writing and present their wikis to the class.

Friday – make corrections, choose several words within their wiki to create more pages.

I used this basic plan with the topic of signs and symbols. I made some of my own resources and also used a peace symbols listening exercise from the British Council website, which, by the way, turned out to be interesting and new for both teacher and students. On Wednesday I got the students to write about one symbol each, putting the reading/listening from Tuesday’s lesson into their own words, and finding more information and pictures from the internet.

I think as a whole the weekly plan to set up and create a class wiki worked well. Students enjoyed the chosen topic. They also enjoyed being creative with a webpage of their own and inserting pictures to make it look good.  They all appreciated the extra writing practise too.

From a teachers perspective it really gave me the time to observe my students strengths and weaknesses. It also gave me time to sit down with my students, ask them what they were going to write and what new things they have found. We shared how to add a page and how to insert a picture communicating all the time. We were all learning how to use the wiki together so it really helped the dynamic of the group.

So yes, I am fairly happy with the wiki so far. It has proved itself to be educationally useful. It involved little extra effort on my behalf and it was producing positive results and good work. There were however a few things that I didn’t like.

Firstly the navigation in Pbworks. Now that’s not to say there isn’t some sort of navigation. There is a navigation bar on the side to jump to different pages within the wiki, however this is in alphabetical order and the class has made quite a few pages making a long list. There is a sidebar area where you can edit and create links to main pages but at the moment students are just using backspace or calling me over because they’re lost.

Another thing about the wiki is that it looks a bit dated. Now I’m no graphic designer, and I don’t think the majority of my students are either, but I am afraid that the wiki may look dull and amateurish and that students will lose interest. There are things you can do to it though such as add a logo or change the colour, but it’s the limitations of the text boxes that make it appear a bit messy. I think my main concern is that students are all using different size fonts and lots of typefaces. One thing I could do is set aside time each week to ‘tidy up’ the wiki making it look more appealing or train students to always edit a page a certain way. The latter could even turn into a collaborative wiki page designed by the students themselves.

Overall, the PBworks wiki has worked well. I got some good feedback from the students and we have worked on the wiki for two full weeks on two different topics. If you would like to see what my class has done so far then please click here.

Please feel free to make any comments as to how you have used wikis in class or if you have used something similar to PBworks.

In my next blog I will write about my experiences with Schoology in part 2.

Thanks for reading,

Tom

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1 Comment

Filed under Tech

One response to “Wikis and virtual learning environments – testing the water (part 1)

  1. I made this listening activity for the song. You can download for free:
    http://en.islcollective.com/worksheets/worksheet_page?id=45018

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