The Wild World of Wikis. . .

I’ve been doing some professional development with teachers on the use of wikis in the classroom recently and had a teacher email to ask about the risk of inappropriate content being posted by students.  Thought you’d be interested in my reply:As far as your concerns about wikis go, you’re right that there is the risk that inappropriate content may be posted before you get to it.  That is an unavoidable fact of any efforts to get kids to create and communicate using Web 2.0 tools—and it is a fact that I had to wrestle with long and hard before engaging my kids in work with wikis.

In the end, I came to the conclusion that taking the risk was worth it because the rewards were pretty meaningful and real.  My wiki for this year currently has over 200 pages of content created by my kids that have literally been revised thousands of times.  Most days, I’ve got dozens of kids online interacting with content even though most of the work on our wiki is ungraded!

That ability to steal online minutes from my students and get them involved in content is very real and very powerful…..even if it does involve some measure of risk.

Now, that doesn’t mean I completely ignore the risks and simply hope that my kids never make inappropriate decisions online.  Here are some of the steps that I’ve taken to minimize the likelihood that inappropriate content makes it up on my wiki.

1. Our wiki is closed to the general public.  That means people outside of our school community can’t see our content at all.  By keeping our wiki closed, I’ve limited the damage that is done if inappropriate content is posted.

2. The students of my team all must sign a permission slip before being allowed to participate in our projects.  The permission slip states that kids will follow responsible Internet behaviors or lose their right to participate in our project at all.  It also informs parents of the potential risk of inappropriate information being temporarily posted…and of the actions that I will take once I am aware of that happening.

3. I teach my students about digital citizenship and responsible Internet behaviors ALL the time! We’re constantly talking about what is and what is not appropriate online—and comparing that to what is possible and impossible online.

In all honesty, these are some of the most important lessons that I teach—and I firmly believe they are the responsibility of all educators.  I’m proud that I teach them to my students because I know that they will take those lessons into their online life beyond our school project.  If I weren’t teaching these lessons to kids, they’d still be online but they’d be unprepared to be there!

4. In past years, I’ve had individual students or groups of students assigned as “page monitors” to help me keep an eye on content.  By having multiple eyes to police a growing wiki, I feel safer about turning my students loose!

The best part of a wiki is that anyone can edit information—-while that means some may post inappropriate content, it also means that others can delete inappropriate information when it is found.  Policing—which could be an incredibly time-consuming job–doesn’t sit only with me.

5.  Students are required to sign in with their first name and last initial when entering my wiki.  This gives me a detailed record of every child that makes a revision.  When children are aware of the fact that their revisions are recorded and that I can go back to see what was added by who—and when it was added!—they are far less likely to post inappropriate information.

6. Sometimes I suggest that teachers who are very concerned about safety of content limit participation in a wiki to smaller groups of students.  That way, you’ll have a better idea of who is adding content.  You could also create multiple wikis—each group working on a project could have their own wiki—-and then hold individual group members accountable for all of the content that appears on their site.

By doing so, you’re taking excuses away from students.  They must accept complete responsibility for the content on their site.  If they share passwords with someone outside of their group and that person posts inappropriate content, the original group is still held responsible.

7.  The best defense against inappropriate content, though, has been the great pride that my students take in what they are creating.  For the most part, my students rarely think about adding inappropriate information because they think what we’ve created is remarkable.

They also know that our wiki can be shut down at any time if repeated “vandalism” (the term for intentionally destroying content in a wiki) occurs.  Whenever anything is done that is questionable, all that it takes is a few reminders about the fact that the wiki is a privilege and not a right to get the kids back in line.

In the end, there’s no perfect answer to your question—-but I’ve jumped in and had pretty positive results. In four years of this kind of work, I’ve had perhaps two or three inappropriate comments posted in digital forums.

While those were disturbing and made a few waves that I had to deal with, they certainly haven’t outweighed the incredible amount of learning that has happened between students and the high levels of motivation that have come as a result of our digital efforts.

My tolerance for risk—-and the tolerance for risk demonstrated by my administrators—has grown since starting to work with digital tools.  We value the potential in teaching kids to communicate and collaborate online and recognize that we’ll need to rethink the kinds of risks we’re willing to take—and the kinds of lessons that we typically deliver—-if we’re going to be successful.

(Image credit:  Wiki Wiki Mart by Andjam79, Licensed Creative Commons Attribution)