How Wikis Can Help Schools Organise Their Content

By Elly Faden.

Students and teachers are embracing web 2.0 technologies with fervour but administrators are not, even though these remarkable tools can provide much needed cost-saving capabilities. This phenomenon is understandable,because older office tools, an already overburdened staff, and the reluctance to change the way of doing things all discourage jumping into untested waters. However, it is clear that administrative wikis can provide school administrations with radically improved documentation processes. In fact, they can begin to make schools the very platforms that students and teachers need to succeed in their technical endeavours. Why not reinvent schools as technology centres? After all, they are already theatres, restaurants, sports complexes, and more. The road starts with the administrative wiki.

The school’s ‘content repository’ will contain all written content, including staff directories, newsletters, forms, templates, announcements, maps, instructions on using equipment, and more. Once entered into wiki pages, this information is automatically saved by the wiki tool, so historical school records are seamlessly maintained over time. Wiki users can easily find, copy, and update information, saving time and confusion about where information is stored. The administrative wiki is maintained by multiple users who are committed to assuring that its content is accurate. In the long-run, the benefits and payoffs of an administrative wiki far outweigh the small overhead of acquiring a new software tool and training school staff to use it.

Wikis are easy to procure, populate, and share. A school can have any number of them – for example, one for public information for viewers in front of the cloud, another for science teachers to store information about the lab, and so on, wherever encyclopaedic storage is warranted. For the administration, rather than storing content in Word files that may become outdated, the administrative wiki is the go-to tool. When a teacher changes contact information, he or she can update the staff directory wiki page, and it immediately becomes available to all. Storing school procedures in the wiki is beneficial when someone needs to use a complex piece of equipment, such as a smartboard. No more inability to use equipment for lack of a users’ guide. An administrative wiki virtually eliminates missing content or unknown procedures. All this is done by users who have access to the wiki by its url, or address (for example http://www.myschoolswiki.com).

“Writing once, publishing in many places” is the technical writing term known as ‘single-sourcing’. When administrative content is centralised, it can be easily shared. The staff directory can be placed on the school website or sent to the district office. Contributors may even be inspired to add content to the administrative wiki that they have known for years, but never knew how to share.

Acquiring an administrative wiki is done gradually, with these first few steps:

  • Establish a technical team to encourage and support the implementation of the administrative wiki
  • Choose the correct wiki tool
  • Develop a table of contents and add a few key pages
  • Promote it to selected contributors.

Establishing A Technical Team

The technical team can consist of motivated users, including parents and teachers, who are familiar with web 2.0 tools. The team should strive to cultivate a positive attitude about the project and motivate administrators and staff to embrace process improvements. Teams and wiki users include all levels of ability. Eventually, everyone will learn to use the wiki, and hopefully realise that it is an essential tool. Team meetings follow standard processes, such as introductions, setting milestones, and reporting on accomplishments. Templates for parent-teacher technology groups are available at http://www.schoodl.com.

The technical team can track progress in the wiki itself, for example collaborating on an ‘About our Wiki’ page, or they might start a private account on a  social networking site to stay in touch. Meetings can be held weekly, monthly, or asynchronously online – whatever is most convenient for the team – and progress reports can be given to the administration at staff meetings. The spirit of collaboration is key to bringing staff on board.

Choosing A Wiki Tool

Wikis come in two flavours: commercial and open-source. Before committing to one or the other, the technical team should research whether their school region suggests a particular one, and whether it holds licences for sets of web 2.0 tools. The team should also determine where the administrative wiki will be hosted: on the school, or vendor’s server for greater accessibility to staff.

Commercial wikis include off-site back-ups and the assurance that they will be available for viewing 24 hours a day. They come with clear and easy-to-read documentation, online help, and technical support. Vendors may work with the technical team in implementing the administrative wiki at a school and/or within a school framework. They may provide discounts, or even free wikis, to educators and educational institutions.

Open-source wikis are part of the web 2.0 collaborative movement in which volunteer programmers create free tools (such as Wikispaces) that anyone can download or join. ‘Software as a Service’, or SAAS tools contain user-friendly interface buttons, links, content-management dashboards, built-in backup features, and online help.

Developing A Table Of Contents And Adding Key Pages

How to structure information in the pages of an administrative wiki is another relatively simple decision, because it is suggested by the tool itself. Some wiki tools provide a one-level-deep page structure and others, a hierarchical structure with folders and multiple
page levels.

In the Wikispaces wiki, the ‘Mac’ and ‘PC’ pages are entitled ‘Computers-Mac’, and ‘Computers-PCs’ in order to keep them in alphabetical order in the table of contents. The PBWORKS wiki shows how the tool enables pages to reside within folders. Content is searchable in all wiki tools, so if something is placed on the wrong page, it is easy to find and then copy and paste to another wiki page.

Choosing what to put on the homepage of the administrative wiki is another important consideration, but one that can be somewhat light-hearted. Trying different approaches in displaying content can be creative and fun. For example, staff may vote to view the daily announcement when they access the wiki, or they may prefer to see commonly accessed links. Over time, content is groomed and improved in the administrative wiki and managing school information becomes a self-improving endeavour: certainly a tremendous benefit of the wiki tool.

Promoting The Wiki

After the administrative wiki is installed and the technical team adds the first few pages, other stakeholders are invited to become users. Teachers and staff can be asked to populate specific pages. A science teacher might add instructions on the ‘Science Lab’ page, and a special education teacher might place links to important government forms on the ‘Special Education’ page.

To encourage other staff to use the administrative wiki, the administration and technical team can play up its benefits at staff meetings. Knowing that a school’s valuable content will be stored in one convenient, central, and collaborative location is just the kind of motivation that encourages everyone to collaborate in developing the school’s administrative wiki.

Administrative wikis are indispensable tools for technically-savvy schools. Organising a technical team that will make some relatively easy-to-implement software decisions, and encouraging the rest of the staff to get on board is about the extent of oversight necessary to get a school administrative wiki going, placing the school firmly on the road to becoming a thriving technology centre.

Elly Faden is a technical writer and English teacher who developed www.schoodl.com, a website that provides a road map for schools to become technology
centres. She can
be contacted at efaden1@gmail.com.

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