Wikis as collaborative writing tools in science education

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Wikis as collaborative writing tools in science education

Students building open educational resources

Declan J. McCabe

Science may set limits to knowledge, but should not set limits to imagination. – Bertrand Russell (1872 - 1970)

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Learning Objectives

After completing this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Understand how wikis might be used in a college classroom setting.
  • Appreciate how some of the challenges of collaborative student writing assignments can be overcome using the wiki format.
  • Visualize student engagement with collaborative writing for content creation and revision
  • Benefits of wikis in teacher education and learning


Wikis are websites that can be edited by anyone with internet access. Several commercial sites provide wiki space to users for free or on a fee-for-use basis. Some educational institutions host their own wikis. Access to these sites ranges from completely free and unfettered editing by all comers, to password-protected, administrator-controlled, invitation-only wikis, and completely closed wikis that cannot even be read by uninvited guests.

The sites use a simple editing format that can be used by individuals with little computer training. Edits, new contributions to existing pages, or brand new pages saved by a user are immediately uploaded to the internet where they can be seen and potentially edited by others.

The mechanics of editing vary from site to site, but there are some commonalities. Most wikis share some or all of the following list of tab links on each page: ‘Article’; ‘Discussion’; ‘Edit’; and ‘History’. The sites open up to the article view and the content is in a readable and printable format. A ‘printer-friendly’ link is frequently available. By clicking the ‘Discussion’ tab, users can comment on the article, leave suggestions, ask or answer questions without altering the article. The ‘Edit’ tab brings the article up in an editable format. In edit mode, in addition to the content being visible, formatting codes, and the external and internal links that produce the final readable article can be seen and altered. The ‘History’ tab allows one to see how the article has developed, who edited it and when, and importantly, one can quickly revert the article to an earlier version.

The course model

The course is based on a very simple premise: elementary education students should experience teaching science to children before it becomes part of their job description. With that premise in mind, I have formed partnerships with teachers in three nearby elementary schools and we run our science lessons in their classrooms.

I have quickly observed what is probably obvious to more seasoned teacher trainers than I: student teachers take more initiative, ownership, and pride in lesson plans that they themselves develop than in any canned, off-the-shelf kit that I can assemble or purchase.

Developing lesson plans

Experienced teachers in the schools provide my college students with learning objectives. Working in teams of three or four, my students then develop short lesson plans that address those learning objectives. The lesson plans are both graded assignments, and tools to be immediately implemented in the classrooms of our partner teachers. I use an eight-step process to bring students from learning objective to implementation:

  1. The learning objectives are assigned.
  2. Students are required to research, find, and/or invent lessons to meet the learning objectives.
  3. Each team discusses their ideas and selects one to develop.
  4. They assemble and test materials until they have a workable lesson plan.
  5. Lessons are developed collaboratively on a wiki.
  6. The lesson plans are tested out on their peers and evaluated.
  7. Lessons that survive the peer test (and most do survive; failing plans are typically weeded out by the team in advance) are fine tuned and then used.
  8. After using the lesson with children from our partner schools, my students reflect on the experience and make final edits on their wiki.

Working with partner teachers

The course calendar is assembled in advance by contacting partner teachers in elementary schools. In general the response has been very positive. Teachers have been quite willing to participate in the program, and been very helpful in providing suggestions and feedback. When teachers have declined to participate, it has typically been because of schedule inflexibility. One school declined to participate because they were active in working with other colleges in the area and could not easily accommodate another program.

Many teachers prefer to bring their students to us because the trip to a college laboratory provides a unique learning experience outside of their classroom in the middle of Vermont's harsh winter. Schools have traveled using parent car pools, and also by using school district buses. I try to schedule those visits earlier in the semester because I have more backup resources in the laboratory for inexperienced teaching teams. Fifteen to twenty student teachers can easily work with up to sixty elementary students spread across several lab spaces.

We also travel to partner schools and I feel that working in the schools is a better and more realistic experience for my students. They experience how science can be taught in a school setting that lacks the amenities of a fully equipped laboratory. We pack all of the needed materials in plastic crates and set up our stations in classrooms, hallways, or playgrounds. This experience emphasizes the need to be organized and prepared. When possible, I schedule these trips only after the student teams have had the experience of running a program in our campus laboratories. After that initial experience, the students have a firm grasp of the logistics and level of preparedness required for success.

The most important things provided by the teachers are learning objectives, and time slots in their very busy schedules. The learning objectives structure the entire program and drive lesson content. Because the teachers are working toward specific educational standards, the objectives they supply are a true representation of content likely to be soon encountered by my students in their own classrooms.

Our partner teachers have been very generous with their time, feedback, and in sharing their classrooms and students. In one particular classroom, the teacher gathered my students in the hallway at the end for a discussion. She praised them for the professional way they ran their programs. More importantly, she pointed to very specific examples of successes they had had in reaching some children with learning differences, language barriers, and behavioral issues. The feedback was invaluable and inspiring for a group of young teachers.

Working with children in our partner schools

By necessity, the lesson plans are designed to be short. The program must fit within the dual time constraints of a college laboratory session, and the elementary school's needs. We do our best to fit six hands-on lessons into a roughly two hour time period. When teaching day arrives, students from our partner schools come to our campus, or we travel as a group to their campus. Stations are set up with all materials in place and manned by teams of eager student teachers. Elementary students travel from station to station and experience the lessons under the watchful eyes of their own teacher, myself, and frequently parent volunteers.

Because the program is run for small groups of elementary students, by young adults other than their usual teacher, and for short time spans, we typically have the undivided attention of the students. Our partner teachers stack the odds of success in our favor by carefully selecting the groups in advance. The teachers know their children far better than we can ever hope to, and are ready to step in when help is needed. Thus far, teacher intervention has infrequently been needed, and my students and the elementary students have had very positive interactions.

Logistics of the six-ring circus

  • Groups circulate through stations in order.
  • Lessons must account for potential allergens.
    • It is best to avoid peanuts and tree nuts entirely. There are so many potential lessons available that risking serious health consequences is unwarranted.
    • Most substrates in which you can grow plants will also support mold growth, particularly when sealed for a week or more. It is better to keep containers sealed and make observations through the side of the jar or plastic bag, than to open the container releasing potentially dangerous spores.
  • Schools traveling to us must be met in the parking lot to save time.
  • A successful dry run is even more important when we travel to a school and away from accessible resources.
  • One can't rely on running water (much less gas and vacuum) in all elementary classrooms; if you need it, bring it with you.
  • Even free resources such as recycled bottles must be in hand in advance.
  • Each student teacher team must be completely self sufficient and independent of my help. This will be true also in their own classroom.
  • As is the case with stage performance, only the teacher truly knows exactly what materials are needed and how the lesson should run. When something is misplaced, or fails to work, the show must go on.

Wikis and collaborative learning

Wikis solve two potential problems in collaborative learning: version creep (De Pedro et al 2006), and tracking individual effort. In addition they provide a medium for quickly sharing the developing product.

When several students collaborate on a traditional term paper, the potential is great for multiple versions of a document to simultaneously exist. If three students simultaneously edit a document, it is difficult to reconcile the contributions and produce a single final product that values the work of all concerned. Because a wiki exists not on an individual student’s computer, but on a universally accessible web site, the version creep problem is largely solved. Each student’s editing is immediately available to others. They can make additional modifications of their peer’s work, independently edit other parts of the document, or write new material. The most recently-saved version is the only version that shows up under the article tab. Earlier stages can be viewed under the history tab.

Evaluating and rewarding effort is a second issue that wikis help manage. I have found that in off-line collaborative projects, one highly motivated student sometimes does much of the heavy lifting, while other students hang back and minimally contribute. While using a wiki will not magically turn a slacker into a workaholic, the history tab documents exactly who did what and when. It has been my experience that collaborating students can be stressed by workload inequity. This often leads to friction and difficult group dynamics. A significant cause of stress in such situations is student fear that the inequity will not be recognized and reflected when grades are assigned. Use of a wiki can reduce that particular stress because the system is very transparent to anyone who cares to hit the history tab. This transparency applies to instructors and students alike. In some wiki formats, one can also access the total contributions of a particular user. On the History page, a simple click on the ‘contributions’ link after any user’s name reveals their site-wide work history. This is particularly useful if students contribute to multiple pages.

In traditional collaborations, I have found hard-working students distressed because a collaborator has simply scheduled their writing earlier and done the lion’s share of the work. This leaves little to be done by genuinely motivated students. With wiki collaborations, we have solved that particular problem by dividing the tasks equitably and establishing informal deadlines that occur in advance of the firm deadlines. Students can work outside of their assigned tasks only after the informal deadline has passed. This approach affords each student the opportunity to contribute, but also establishes a fallback position so that the project is completed by the deadline.

Sharing classroom tools on a wiki

I established my first wiki in 2007 for use in my new course on teaching biology in elementary schools. The course is structured around a series of laboratory experiences developed by the elementary-education majors enrolled in the course. The lesson plans are tailored to the learning objectives provided by collaborating teachers in our partner schools.

The laboratory portion of the semester-long course is divided chronologically into three sections. During each section of the course the students develop inexpensive hands-on science activities. In the first year of the course, elementary school students from grades one through three visited our college laboratories to take advantage of these activities at the end of each portion of the course. In the second year we also took the program on the road and implemented programs in elementary school classrooms.

Each third of the course is dedicated to working with a different grade. The student educators begin by brainstorming and tracking down sources of potential teaching ideas to be implemented in the classroom. Their sources have included web sites, textbooks, and even TV shows. The ideas are discussed and winnowed down by the students until each teaching team agrees upon a single project. They then write the idea up in a lesson-plan format directly on the wiki site.

After receiving some initial feedback, the students edit, improve, and build upon the first iteration of their idea. We purchase needed materials and each student team does a dry run for their peers. The completed lesson plan and materials are then placed in crates for use with our partner schools. The students photograph equipment in some cases, make handouts and videos that can be downloaded by teachers, and generally improve upon the original concept until they are ready to implement the idea with students.

After running the activities for the elementary school students, the elementary education students record reflections, observations, pitfalls, or problems encountered during the implementation of the teaching idea.

Working in online communities

Interestingly at (, the first wiki site we used, a site administrator took an active interest in our activities and spent some time providing formatting suggestions and even editing our formats to improve the visual quality of the teaching tools under development. A second administrator from a different wiki provided additional input. Such input from strangers is one of the core ideals of working in the wiki format. In both cases, the Wikia administrators were constructive and improved the visual quality of the product without changing the content. We worked successfully at for the first semester, and I am indebted to the site administrators for hosting the material and for the training and support they provided. Despite a very positive experience with Wikia, I became uncomfortable with the nature of the advertising used to fund the site and so looked for an alternative host.

WikiEducator ( proved to be an ideal site for our course materials and is more compatible with my goals in sharing information online. The site is funded in large part by the Commonwealth of Learning (COL) (, a Vancouver-based intergovernmental organization. There is no advertizing and the online community is active, truly international, populated by motivated educators working from kindergarten through college, and covers many academic disciplines. I have had continued support, help, and productive discussions from diverse collaborators facilitated through a Google discussion group (

Establishing a format for the wiki

To provide some consistency and to reduce the intimidation of the blank page, I provide a series of headings around which my students structured their wikis. This eliminates some of the formatting problems encountered by first-time users. The student teams agree upon a name for their wiki and enter it in a box on a wiki-creation page built for their class ( Their new page is instantly created and comes complete with a course navigation bar, college logo, some disclaimers, wiki categories, and pre-loaded headings followed by suggestions and instructions fill the page. Once students begin to work on their site, they replace the instructions with their own content.

The headings I use are as follows:

  • Program title
  • Student worthiness
  • Primary biological content area covered
  • Materials
  • Handouts
  • Description of activity
  • Lesson plan
  • Potential pitfalls
  • Math connections
  • Literature connections
  • Connections to educational standards
  • Next steps
  • Citations and links

Part of each student group assignment is to build their teaching idea around these headings. Students can later choose to remove or add headings as suits their topic.

The navigation bar, college logo, and disclaimers can all be edited in one location and be reflected on all of the pages created by students over the years.

Dealing with images

Midway through the first semester we encountered some problems with use of images on the web site. These issues centered around copyright and intellectual property ownership. It is all too tempting for a student to find an image online and then upload that image to a wiki site. Use of such an image with appropriate attribution might be acceptable for a term paper, but on a publicly accessible web site it may constitute copyright violation.

Because of the risk of copyright infringement, a wiki administrator may choose to remove images of uncertain copyright status. Certainly, copyrighted images in most cases should be removed. But even photographs taken by students and willingly shared on the web could in theory be removed because of uncertain copyright status.

Our first approach to the copyright issue was to tag each image with one of a number of copyright tags. In that first year I found that our images came from three sources: student-generated photographs, drawings, and handouts; government agencies; and book covers. I modeled the image tags on those used by and each image category required a different tag. The tag system was cumbersome, required constant work, and frequently students would use the wrong tag for a particular image type. The process was frankly getting in the way of teaching. After moving to WikiEducator we used only student-generated images or images with licenses that were compatible with WikiEducator’s licensing. The largest source of these images has been Wikimedia Commons (

Advantages of wikis

Collaborative writing in a wiki environments is working extremely well for these student teacher projects. The benefits don't stop with their graduation.

Ease of use

Wikis are reasonably easy to use. Knowledge of HTML code is not needed because the wikis use a simple markup code to facilitate editing. Providing a format for students to follow can make editing simpler yet again. From my point of view, the wiki learning curve is far less steep than that of building typical web pages. The result is instantly posted to the web by students and requires little instructor help.

In WikiEducator, editing privileges are provided immediately to anyone who establishes a free account. This contrasts with web authoring at our college web site where students must be specifically granted access by busy IT professionals. While our IT staff has never denied web authorship access to my students, WikiEducator's student-driven process is simply more convenient.

During my first year using wikis in the classroom, I was typically half a step up the learning curve ahead of my students. I incorporated my new wiki skills into student handouts as I learned. The result was a sometimes confusing flurry of handouts, made on the fly, and subject to frequent revision. In subsequent years I have simply adopted the excellent tutorials ( developed and being continually improved by others. I distribute a short assignment by e-mail before the course begins, and the students begin the course with most of the wiki skill they need.


By working in a web-based authoring environment, other students can work on that material in a timely fashion. In our application, teachers from our partner schools can access the growing lesson plan and alert us to overlap with their curriculum or alert us to potential problems. We learned quickly to provide our partner teachers with the direct links to the specific lessons planed for their classroom. These links could then be shared by the teachers with school administrators, parents, and in some cases with elementary school students. In one instance a concerned parent wanted to be reassurance that our lessons would not involve exposing her child to specific allergens. Although our partner teacher had alerted us up front and we had avoided that particular risk, it was reassuring for the parent in question to have easy access to our program.

Sharing resources

Having a long-term repository of student ideas values student contributions and effort in a way not accomplished by traditional term papers. The ideas are shared, can be used by teachers elsewhere, and can in the future be used directly by former students in their own classrooms. Public dissemination of developed resources is also one of the tenants of service learning. Providing a service directly to the schools in question, in addition to sharing the results with a broader on-line community is also directly in keeping with the mission of Saint Michael's College.

By sharing their materials on WikiEducator, the students in the course are plugged into the open educational resources community from an early stage. Because the materials are shared without copyright restriction, educators anywhere are free to use the unmodified materials, adapt them to their own needs, or improve them and share the results. In many if not most cases, students in the course have modified existing ideas and added their own particular slant. While a teacher photocopying most conventionally-published sources would need to consider copyright implications, ideas modified, developed, and then shared on WikiEducator can be freely duplicated with a clear conscience.

The course is entering it's fourth year, and current participants are more frequently finding useful images, examples, and ideas uploaded by their predecessors and by others in the WikiEducator community. Encouraging this reuse approach is in sharp contrast to common educational practices that expressly forbid use of work created by other students. In my course I encourage reuse with attribution. I see this sharing as particularly valuable for teachers and emphasizes the point that successful educators should not reinvent the wheel, and whenever possible should collaborate directly with colleagues, or indirectly by using existing materials. Finally, by sharing their own materials online, students in the course become active contributors to these growing resources and are not simply recipients.

WikiEducator is an active and dynamic community of educators drawn from across the globe and based on site visitation statistics I believe that the student-developed lesson plans stand a much higher chance of reuse than if I had placed them on a college web site.

Rapid response to student writing

There are several common mechanical problems that I repeatedly encounter when reading student writing. These include for example, citation format, lack of figure legends, and the use and abuse of metric units. Other issues are specific to wikis such as how to create a picture gallery. These general recurring problems can be dealt with very efficiently by responding directly in the discussion section of the wiki using simple templates. For example, if I type the code {{Figures}} and hit save, a detailed message on how to format figures, together with a worked example shows up in the discussion. These templates are self designed and can be tailored to the specific needs and styles of a particular course or discipline. Templates compliment personalized comments by eliminating repetition of the same advice in response to multiple student papers.

Templates can also be used directly in lesson plans whenever a standardized block of information is required on multiple pages. This can be particularlly useful for safety tips. For example, I developed a simple template to warn lesson plan users of the risk of mold growth. By simply typing {{Mold}} , I can insert a short safety warning about mold spores. If in the future I learn something more about molds, I can edit my template and instantly add that information to all pages that have the mold template. The templates I commonly use are listed here:

Issues particular although not unique to wikis

Wiki is a remarkable, new technology for teaching and learning. Unfortunately, many of the traditional problems in student work are not eliminated with the introduction of wikis. Some problems can be exacerbated by the instantly public nature of the platform.

When plagiarism becomes copyright violation

When a student plagiarizes a piece of work for a traditional term paper, the product is tainted and the student risks institutional sanctions perhaps including dismissal. In general the issue is an internal institutional concern. When the same infraction occurs on a wiki site there is, at least in theory, the risk that the copyright holder could bring legal action against the student, the wiki site owner, the institution, and the instructor in the course. In a world where students have grown up downloading songs illicitly, there is a very high likelihood that some material in a course assignment will be in violation of copyright.

In practical terms the copyright holder would have to see the stolen work, request that it be removed, and perhaps bring legal action. While that may seem unlikely, it is important to recognize the possibility and take preventative steps. We also have a simple ethical obligation to respect intellectual property rights and model that respect for our students.

My students found teaching ideas from a variety of sources and most were not original to the students in the course. This provides a useful lesson in source citation and avoiding plagiarism. In addition it must be emphasized in the strongest terms that in a wiki format, the need to avoid plagiarism is immediate and goes beyond a moral issue and into the legal realm. It must be abundantly clear that one can’t simply find a good teaching idea, paste it into a wiki site and share it for free with the world. At first blush, one might shy away from using wikis for that reason but with emphasis on the importance of respecting copyrights, documenting that emphasis on the wiki site, and regularly monitoring contributions I find that the benefits far outweigh the risks.

I check written contributions by Google searching for strings of five or six words picked at random from each teaching team’s contribution. On one occasion a student added a wonderful teaching idea taken directly from a science museum’s web site. I immediately contacted the student, pointed out the error and encouraged the deletion of the content. The student shared the mistake with the class at our next meeting and it served as an opportunity to revisit the ground rules. We later used that idea, appropriately cited, and modified by group effort and by reframing it in the format I describe below.

As with any piece of writing, plagiarism can be avoided by having students paraphrase their sources, reframe the ideas in their own words from their notes, and then citing the original source of the idea. Paraphrasing forces students to more thoroughly assimilate material than simple reading would do. Group editing adds yet another layer of change to the educational idea before a final draft emerges from the collective editing.

Students’ intellectual property

Students may rightly object to uploading original art work and writing to a wiki site. They should have the right to simply refuse on whatever grounds they see fit. However, in a power relationship as exists between a professor and student, the student may feel as though they have no choice in the matter. I make it very clear to my students that they can opt out of sharing materials online and one student elected to do so. In that case I graded the off-line assignment without penalty.

Exposure to vandalism

Anyone can edit a true wiki site. In an ideal world, all of these edits would be well intentioned and productive. Oh to live in such a world! In my experience, vandalism has not been a problem on WikiEducator or Wikia. I have seen vandalism on Wikipedia and I have found that the vandalism is typically reverted rapidly. I suspect that Wikipedia attracts vandals because of its large public profile. It also has a large community of editors keeping the vandals in check. An educational wiki is a less juicy target, and I suspect that vandalism would be a minor issue. This suspicion has been confirmed by WikiEducator’s director who reported very little vandalism.

There are some solutions to the vandalism and accidental deletions. Reverting to previous editions of an article is easily accomplished. Troublesome users can be prevented from editing. Many wiki sites have SPAM filters to keep illicit advertisers from adding links to commercial web sites to wikis. Finally, there are a number of commercial wiki sites that offer password protection ensuring that the site is accessible only to a limited number of authorized individuals.

Case Studies

Our students are encouraged to step outside of their comfort zones, and take some risks in developing their lessons and assembling materials. The risks they take generally pay off resulting in lessons that hold the attention of groups of seven-year-old students and leave both teacher and student excited to learn some more science. Risk taking implies the possibility of failure, and indeed my students do experience failure on occasion. With that in mind, we have built some safety nets into the system. I firmly believe that one should have confidence, faith, and a backup plan!

A lava lamp without electricity?

A student in the 2009 class found an idea that illustrated states of matter, some chemistry, density and buoyancy. Her idea was to make a functioning lava lamp but without use of heat or electricity. I must admit that based on gut instinct I could not imagine how this might work, but I have learned to listen to student ideas regardless of my skeptical tendencies.

The student asked me for cooking oil, water, a bottle, some food coloring, and an Alkaseltzer tablet (all materials that I had on hand). She combined about two thirds oil with one third colored water in a plastic bottle and added the Alkaseltzer. The result in fact a spectacular little lava lamp that continued to work so long as the Alkaseltzer gave off carbon dioxide ( Gas bubbles pulled colored water up through the oil and when the gas was released at the surface, the water droplets cascaded back down through the oil.

The elementary school students loved the hands-on combination of science and art. Because the assembly and demo did not occupy the entire time available, my student teachers made an additional connection to oil spills and lined up reading materials to compliment the lesson plan.

Oxygen production (or not)

An excellent student group worked hard with aquatic plants, aquariums, funnels, and test tubes to replicate a classic experiment demonstrating oxygen production in plants ( Because the lesson was needed in February when Vermont looks indeed like a winter wonderland, we ordered the plants from a biological supply company. Everything went well with the dry run. Oxygen was collecting in test tubes; glowing matches were bursting into flame as they should when placed in oxygen. However, a few days before third graders came to the school, the plants mysteriously stopped giving off bubbles of gas.

We changed the water, added fresh sodium bicarbonate, and ordered fresh plants. The replacement plants were delivered frozen and dead and so with no time to trouble shoot the exercise, the idea was literally and figuratively dead in the water and the student team experienced some significant stress. They quickly retooled, and assembled the materials to implement an idea developed by the previous year's class ( They learned valuable lessons about trying experiments well in advance. They also learned the value of a backup plan. Although they did not meet the objective of studying oxygen production, they did pull off a spectacularly successful exploration of the scientific method and states of matter.

Worms have legs?

Although worms do not in fact have legs, one student idea seems to have legs and has taken on a life of its own ( The idea is a simple one developed for third grade: make an ecosystem in a recycled bottle. Include layers of soil, sand, and leaf litter and add earth worms. Students can then hypothesize about what materials will compost and be incorporated into soil by earthworms. They can compare artificial habitats with and without earthworms, they can compare soil mixing, species of worms, different soil types, temperatures etc.

The initial idea grew from a Y maze type of experiment brought in by a student team member. The maze idea failed to work and the students simply changed course and instead developed the habitat idea. The page has been accessed 9,000 times and I have seen the idea adapted from our materials by a fifth grade teacher who piggybacks the lesson on to an earth worm dissection and some other activities. The student developers have long since graduated and may or may not be aware that their term paper lives on.

Opportunities to reflect

I'll admit that this subheading is at least partially disingenuous. My students are actually required to post reflections on their teaching experience to their wikis. The idea is simply to provide an honest response to their classroom experience and to point out valuable lessons learned. The reflections have included difficulties with language barriers, recognizing the need for word banks for emergent readers, and in many cases, obvious pride in a job well done.

Reflection on the wiki experience is optional, but many students have taken the opportunity to post responses here: The most common theme that emerges from these reflections is that students rapidly achieved confidence in their abilities to work in the wiki environment despite some initial apprehension in dealing with a new technology. For many students, Wikipedia was their only prior exposure to wikis, and none that I am aware of had previously edited a wiki. Their reflections reveal that a lack of computer experience is not a significant barrier to successful use of this technology.

Take-home lessons

The project has been extremely well received by the college students, partner school teachers, and students in our partner schools. There is no shortage of schools interested in participating in the program, and many are very willing to travel to us. Some of our partner teachers are beginning to use some of the ideas from the wiki site independent of our program. Because each new class of students develops new ideas, the site is growing rapidly.

Based on the success in the first year, I have offered a second section of the course and student enrollment has justified that move. Starting in 2009, I have added a wiki-based service component to an upper-level biology course. In the long term I plan to build a simple organizational structure for the lesson plans to tie them directly to educational standards such that teachers could start from standards and use menu-driven screens to locate appropriate lesson plans.


Wikis are web-hosted sites that facilitate collaborative writing. In my Biology in Elementary Schools course at Saint Michael's College, I have replaced traditional term papers with wikis. The advantages of this easy-to-use format include rapid communication of ideas, elimination of version creep, and valuing individual student contributions. Because material accumulates from year to year, students' writing is valued beyond the time period of their college course, is a contribution shared with a far broader community, and is still accessible to them when they graduate and have their own classrooms. Disadvantages are few and are outweighed by the advantages. The product of this approach, in addition to students with hands-on experience using wikis and teaching science, is a growing set of online science lesson plans.

Websites Mentioned

Other links of interest


  • Category - descriptive tag that can be inserted into wiki pages to group like pages together, facilitate searching, and link users of similar interests. Categories add wiki pages to automatically generated lists. -- based on
  • Preloaded page - a wiki page that is created and populated (in this case, by the instructor) with an outline and instructional prompts for students to "fill in the blanks" for their project page. This ensures that there is a standardized format for major headings and navigation, while providing wide latitude for student creativity and collaboration.
  • Wiki - (pronounced /ˈwɪki/ WIK-ee) is a website that allows the easy creation and editing of any number of interlinked Web pages, using a simplified markup language or a WYSIWYG text editor, within the browser. Wikis are typically powered by wiki software. Wikis are often used to create collaborative websites, to power community websites, for personal note taking, in corporate intranets, and in knowledge management systems. -- source:


Xavier de Pedro, Maria Rieradevall, Pilar López, Dolors Sant, Josep Piñol, Lluïsa Núñez, and Miquel Llobera (2006). Writing documents collaboratively in Higher education using Traditional vs. Wiki methodology (I): qualitative results from a 2-year project study. The Fourth Congress of the International University Teaching.