"In Portland, you can put a bird on something and just call it art." -- Portlandia, Episode 2

Social media usage at the K-12 level has exploded over recent years, with some 40% of teachers saying they use blogs or wikis in the classroom. More social media, so the argument goes, means better communication, more collaboration, more learning opportunities. "In K-12 classrooms," to borrow the Portlandia punchline, "you can start a wiki and just call it 21st century learning."

But what does wiki usage in the K-12 classroom really look like? How are teachers and students using them? And are these online learning opportunities equitably distributed across different socioeconomic populations?

We have a better sense of the answers to those questions now thanks to the work of Harvard doctoral student and education researcher Justin Reich, who has just released a report and white paper detailing his investigation into wiki usage in K-12 schools. (His article, co-authored with Richard Murnane and John Willett, "The State of Wiki Usage in U.S. K-12 Schools: Leveraging Web 2.0 Data Warehouses to Assess Quality and Equality in U.S. K-12 Schools" will appear in this month's issue of Educational Researcher.)

How Are Wikis Being Used?

Reich's research involved taking a random sampling from some 180,000 wikis and looking closely at how they're being used.  From there, he developed "The Wiki Quality Instrument" to help ascertain whether the wikis were actually supporting 21st century skills (such as higher order thinking, new media literacy, and problem solving).

Reich found that wikis are being used across the curriculum -- in English, math, science, and social studies classes, for example. But despite teachers' claims that they used wikis to help develop student communication and collaboration skills online, just 1% of wikis were "Collaborative, Multimedia Performances of Understanding." Some 40%, on the other hand, were "failed wikis, trial wikis, or teacher resource-sharing sites without student audience or participation."

In other words, despite being a tool that's really designed around group collaboration, most wikis just aren't used that way, if they're used at all.

"In general, our findings cohere with 30 years of educational technology research," writes Reich. "There are a handful of teachers who make remarkable use of new technologies, but for the most part, when teachers adopt new technologies, they use them to extend existing practices rather than to develop innovative practices."

Wikis, Web 2.0 and the Digital Divide

How wikis are being used was just one aspect of the research; the other looks at whether or not there's a "Web 2.0 digital divide" between how economically advantaged and disadvantaged schools (and teachers and students) use wikis. This is particularly important if we see the potential for wikis to help foster those very crucial 21st century skills.

Among the research findings, wikis at schools that serve low-income families tend to be abandoned more quickly -- their median lifetime was just 6.5 days, with 42% of wikis created in Title I schools not lasting more than a day. Furthermore, some 50% of wikis created in Title I schools received a score of 0 with "The Wiki Quality Instrument" -- that is, students had no opportunity to interact with them at all. By comparison, 30% of wikis in non-Title I schools received this rating.

This gulf between rich and poor schools and their students' opportunities for developing 21st century skills via online technologies was part of Reich's argument late last year that OER might expand educational inequalities.

Whither the Wiki?

In a blog post on his website, Reich lists a number of things he thinks educators can learn from his study (which he's quick to point out is meant to be descriptive, not prescriptive). He suggests making sure educators clarify the learning goals and the norms with wiki-related projects and that administrators help support professional development in implementing them -- not just technologically but pedagogically as well.

Reich's in-depth look at wikis should also be of interest to those researching education and Web 2.0 technologies and their usage. Because of wikis' versioning and history, there's a wealth of data about who contributed what and when and from where. This can shed light on what collaboration really looks like, something that can perhaps in turn help reshape how such tools are both used and assessed in the classroom.

To be clear, Reich isn't arguing here that wikis are a bust. He notes that offline collaboration and communication are fairly lousy in most classrooms too, with for example just open discussion happening in less than 10% of class periods.  But Reich's research is a good reminder -- once again -- that technology alone isn't enough to introduce innovative teaching and learning into the classroom. 

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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