Helen Mongan Rallis & Shelley L. Smith
Because wikis and blogs are newcomers to the educational technology scene, deciding when and how to use them best can be puzzling for faculty. Although versions of wikis and blogs vary, each has a unique personality and strengths that make them useful tools for accomplishing specific educational objectives. This article offers information that can be used to answer the question: Should I use a wiki or blog or a blog and a wiki?
Blogs and wikis can be used for similar purposes, but they have distinct qualities that lend themselves to different purposes. For example, both can be used very effectively to post updates and announcements for professional purposes, and allow users to ask questions and post-comments. However, a blog is primarily a personal/individual tool and is best used if you do not want others to edit/change what you have created, while a wiki is best used as a collaboration tool.
Blog: This is mine
A blog or weblog is often used as a kind of web-based journal. It is a personal posting with a very public face. Think of it as something made for world consumption. Blogs lend themselves well to the esthetic display of text, images and other audio-visual elements. They are best used when you want a public space to display your own work or where your students can share experiences, opinions, or creations that reflect the best of their learning. Then a blog is a viable option.
The easiest way to get started with blogging is to use one of the many free blogs available to the public. One of the most widely-used and most dependable is Blogger. Found at http://www.blogger.com/, it is simple to use, advertisement free, and has a user-friendly help guide. To get started using Blogger, you will find step-by-step directions at http://www.d.umn.edu/~hrallis/guides/blogs/blogger.html. If you prefer to create a blog using a University of Minnesota supported tool, you can create a UThink blog (http://blog.lib.umn.edu/). This is less user-friendly than Blogger.com but is worth checking out. From the UMD homepage, go to Faculty & Staff (http://www.d.umn.edu/itss/facstaff/), then Technology, and look under FacultEtools. While you are at the UThink blog page, it is worth visiting some of the blog sites listed to view examples. You will also find resources that suggest ways that faculty and students can use these electronic logs.
Wiki: This is ours
A wiki is a tool which allows users to co-construct a web page that can contain text, images, and links. You may be familiar with Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia to which users may add or subtract information. You might use a wiki in a project in which you want different people to be able to go into the site, create something, add something, or brainstorm, and then make changes or additions to the original site. Wikis work well for group projects, particularly when students have conflicting schedules and have problems getting together.
There are numerous free wikis available for public use. One of the easiest to use for both creators and contributors is http://www.wikispaces.com/. To see step-by-step directions on how to set up and use this tool, go to http://www.d.umn.edu/~hrallis/guides/wiki/wikispaceguide.html. An alternate to the public wikis is the U of M-supported wiki called UMWiki (go to FacultEtools and select UM Wiki). While more complex to use, this has the advantage of requiring users to log in with their U of M x.500, enabling instructors to keep track of the identity of people posting to the wiki and to limit editing rights to U of M members only.
Wikis are best used for specific tasks such as collaborative research in which you want others to revise and refine the text. Once the document has been edited to a point that is acceptable to the group, or to you as the owner, you can then copy the contents and paste them into another format (such as a word-processed document, webpage, or blog). Avoid using a wiki if you do not want others to edit/change what you have created. You can, however, limit or totally restrict editing access to the page. For example, in Wikispaces, you have the option not to allow anyone to edit—unless you first grant them access. If you use that option, what you effectively have is a webpage that only a select group can edit and that others can read but not edit. Wikispaces has a useful feature that is not common to all wikis. This is a discussion board that is linked to the wiki that enables others to initiate and carry on discussions about what is on the wiki without being able to edit the wiki itself. If you want to have more control over who edits your wiki in Wikispaces than you do in the free version, you can purchase added features for $5 per month.
When selecting which wiki or blog tool is best for what you want to accomplish, key factors to consider are reliability and ease of use. Even though the free blogs and wikis are outside of the control of the university, both Blogger and Wikispaces meet these criteria. Both use editing tools that have the look and feel of a word processor but don’t require users to be familiar with html coding. Although a number of our students and faculty are technologically sophisticated, others are not. Either way, we are all busy, so unless it is easy and quick to set up and contribute to a wiki or blog, faculty and students are less likely to use them. Although U of M supported products are not as easy to use initially, you can rely on them to be available indefinitely, whereas even with reliable tools on the Internet, like Blogger and Wikispaces, there are no guarantees it will be there tomorrow.
In making the final choice of tool, confidentiality and safety are always an issue when dealing with students’ digital identities. Students need to be aware that their names are attached to their blogs and that anything they say or show will be in the public realm for a long time. It is possible to set up discussion forums in a password-protected WebCT or Web Crossing course site where students can practice posing questions and giving opinions (i.e., develop their blogging skills) in a safe environment.
As you think about whether it would be better to use a wiki, a blog, both, or none of the above as a discussion and presentation tool, consider the following types of initial questions, and let your needs and the needs of your students help you choose your tool:
Do I want end users to:
- read only?
- be able to read and edit?
- read and comment, but not edit?
- read and contribute ideas up to a cut off date?
- be able to get started quickly and easily without being taught how to use the tools?
- have their identities protected?
- be held accountable for what they post on their own as well as others’ blogs and wikis?
When you have answered these questions, you will be ready to determine: wiki or blog, or blog and wiki. However, while you ponder which is best to use for your teaching, it is best to start by setting up your own personal wiki and blog. Jump in, create them, and start playing around to see what can be done. As you become more familiar with using them, you will be much more discriminating in how they can best facilitate your students’ learning.