Wikis: The Graphene of Information

Front of Scotch Tape packaging circa 1994Image via Wikipedia

Graphene: The Game Changer for Electronics
Graphene is a 2-d form of graphite and was only first discovered in 2004

“when physicists from the University of Manchester and Institute for Microelectronics Technology in Chernogolovka Russia found a way to isolate individual graphen planes by peeling them off from graphite with Scotch tape.” (definition quoted from Wikipedia see original paper at Electronic Fields in Atomically Thin Carbon Films.)

Does anyone else find this horribly interesting?  According to, the five years since this discovery have been lightning fast:

“Graphene has the potential to enable terahertz computing, at processor speeds 100 to 1,000 times faster than . For a material that was first isolated only five years ago, is getting off to a fast start.”

So, what started as some scientists using Scotch Tape and Graphite in the UK and Russia is now turning heads all over the world as we look at processing speeds that we simply cannot comprehend.

That, my friends, is a perfect analogy for the process of change.

I would like to argue that we are also sitting on some of the greatest innovations in education, however, unlike graphene, we've not done a very good job at recognizing it.

Wikis: The Graphene of Information
For the first time in history, we can do group project-based work with INDIVIDUAL accountability and INDIVIDUAL grading.  No more “A student does all the work and F students throws pencils at the ceiling while getting an A for being on the right person's team” kind of stuff.  This tool named from the founder taking a shuttle in a Hawaiian airport (“wiki wiki” means quickly in Hawaiian) has unrecognized potential.

But this is what is sad. Most wikis aren't collaborative.  They just aren't.  Teacher posts and shares.  Students post on “their page.”

When Justin Reich, a leading researcher in this field, came to Camilla, he and my students and I all discussed this at length.  Most people don't “get” collaborative. Because truly, I'd isolate the life cycle of a wiki something like this:

Life Cycle of Effective Wiki Editing

1) Content Generation
Putting things on the page.  You have to write something to have something to edit. Additionally,

2) Contextualization
Truly, if my students are doing well, they will contextualize AS they write. This means to hyperlink IN CONTEXT.  None of this: For more on this click here kind of nonsense that drives ME NUTS.

If you state it, prove it.  If you cite it, link it.  If it is something a fifth grader wouldn't understand, link it to a definition.  These are the things I teach and emphasize.

3) Concise-ification (aka Editing) and Collaboration
When students are asked to add to a page, that is what they do: they add to a page.  They don't edit.  They, in some ways, are afraid to touch the sanctity of another student's words, even if they are WRONG. They'd rather restate than rephrase.  They'd rather be disjointed than cohesive.  This, simply must stop.

This is where some of the most powerful teaching happens.  They must learn to do this and do this well so that they can become effective editors and contributors to the massive group-edited tomes that are in the future of mankind. This kind of editing cannot be taught on paper. Additionally, the “techno-personal” skills required to communicate and let this happen without the wiki-war that you do not want to happen is a skill. Leaving messages on the discussion tab, soothing hurt feelings, overcoming language barriers.  Again, these are things that cannot be taught.

Additionally, there is the coordination of understanding what is missing and organizing who will “attack” those portions.  This is also something that needs to be coached.  Someone has to step up to leadership and I always tell every student I teach that they must “own” the leadership and expect others will too. This doesn't mean dogmatic, autocratic dictation but it does mean, putting your suggestions out there and NEVER waiting for another person to handle something.

4) Maintenance and/or Rebirth
Now, for long standing wikis, they will often go through this process being reborn and re-hashed out all of the time. And to be a good wiki, it takes editors to watch and be a part of that.  Often, in schools we archive these projects and start over again from scratch so that we can see the process happen again, while using the best practices of wikis that have been used and created before.  To take a student into editing the work of another means that I'm intentionally ignoring phase 1 and indeed sometimes I want to do that.

However, as with our Flat Classroom projects, we want to do the entire process and push towards collaboration on the wikis. This is tough, it is a challenge and it is hard to do.  Students tend to want to edit for 5 minutes and then quit and hand it off to another student and “wait” for them to “do their part.” 

This is not sychronous project work and we have to get it through their heads. I tell my students I expect 50 minutes of heavy work, content generation, and editing and that “wait” cannot be in their vocabulary as they may try to shift to some sort of mindless Internet surf.

We've got to move to collaborative and as far as I have seen many wikis, we are falling sadly short of this into some sort of pseudo easy way to publish a website sort of thing.  That is sort of like using a Lamborghini to go mud bogging – falling short of the potential for what it really could do and the intent of the vehicle.

Some innovations in Wiki Assessment Needed
Perhaps the biggest complaint I hear from teachers are the assessment and monitoring tools.  If they don't use an RSS reader, it is tough (the NOtify me tabs from wikispaces help) and truthfully a lot could be done to give teachers an “assessment console” for their wiki — assimilating the types of edits, quality of edits, kinds of edits that were made to help teachers isolate what is happening on the wiki.  You cannot ever assess just on edits because they will just do the “add the comma, take it away 20 times trick” and trust me, I've seen some pretty good ones.

Thus far, this isn't something that interests wiki vendors and is something we truly need to help mainstream teachers be able to assess more easily and fairly.

I'm not saying that there aren't a ton of TRULY collaborative example, however, don't judge a wiki until you look at the collaborative portions of a wiki (not every page is designed to be collaborative) and hit the edits tab – you'll see very quickly if there is truly collaboration or just wiki-dressing happening.

Not all that glitters is gold and not all that is wiki-pretty is actually collaborative work by a group of students.

Bottom Line: We need to recognize the potential of wikis in our society and schools (read Wikinomics if you don't agree) and also realize that what we're doing now probably doesn't measure up any more than the original graphite on the Scotch tape allowed anything cool to happen in that form.  This is the birth of a tool, and right now, the baby isn't even walking yet.

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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