June 20, 2011

A few semesters ago, a student stopped by my office with her laptop because she had broken the links between a slideshow file and the images in it.

Easy fix, I thought. Locate the folder of images and relink it. I asked where she kept the files and she replied, “On my desktop.”

She handed me her MacBook, so I could look at the desktop. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see the desktop because it was entirely covered with overlapping files and folders.

“You, kiddo, need to organize your digital life,” I said. “Structure is your friend.”

In this fast-paced and ever-morphing world we’re sending our journalism students into, organization is critical. Instead of just telling my students that it’s important to be organized, I try to show them tools that will help them develop organizational skills. One of my favorite ways to do this is to have students collaborate through class wikis.

Wikis are simply collaboratively-built websites that groups of people can edit together. The most widely used wiki is, of course, Wikipedia, which invites the public to build the world’s best-tested encyclopedia. (If you’re a geek like me, you’ll chuckle at Wikipedia’s long, collaborative analysis of its own accuracy.)

While I caution students against relying on Wikipedia as a primary source, I heartily encourage them to use their own wikis in other ways. My favorite free tool is a service called PBWorks, which is ad-free for educators and students.

My classes use PBWorks when they have ongoing team projects. It’s been especially useful in my magazine course, where we use it to:

  • Record team contact information, so we have one go-to spot for emails, Instant Messages and cell numbers.
  • Set up story idea grids for commenting and revision.
  • Submit stories and move them through the editing and fact-checking processes.
  • Post design proposals for comment.
  • Take group notes on guest lecturers.
  • Request help with sources, art, critiques, etc.

The wiki is locked off to the public, so the students can freely exchange ideas, information and commentary.

I like the functionality of wikis because it encourages students to be collaborative and organized throughout a project — two key assets that will serve them well throughout their professional (and even personal) lives.

And I especially like PBWorks because it has an alert function that you can turn on to receive notifications when changes have been made to the wiki. Some students tell me they like this function the least, as the last thing they want is more email. But since you can control the function to update you immediately, once a day, or not at all, I think it’s terrific.

Wikis have been a lifesaver in one of the large, tech-heavy classes I teach. My teaching assistants and I used to get inundated with questions about software and would easily get 50 or more emails the day before a project segment was due. I grew frustrated answering the same questions over and over again from semester to semester.

Now, we require students to post their questions to a wiki and search previous posts before asking something new. Doing so has cut our troubleshooting traffic to almost zero. What’s more, the collaborative nature of a wiki enables students to answer one another’s questions without having to wait to hear from me. It’s been the single best time-saver technology I’ve yet used.

This class wiki is open to the public for reading, so feel free to use it to find your own answers to questions like, “Why does my Audacity audio file sound like the Chipmunks movie?”

Organizing groups of students doesn’t require a highly specialized tool. You can get started simply by using Google Docs and its “collections” function. It serves as more of a document repository but offers the group-editing functions of a wiki. The important step is using shared online spaces to set up and manage effective group work.

Do you use wikis or other group organizational tools in your teaching? Tell us about your experience in the comments section.

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