Tag Archives: wiki

The iPad: a tool for teachers

When the iPad was first announced I posted some brief thoughts about its potential for education. Since then, it’s been released and I’ve had the chance to spend some time playing with one. It’s been an opportunity to see to what extent the device itself and the software available would be a useful tool for supporting the work of teachers and lecturers.

My initial impressions that the iPad functionally resembles a giant iPod Touch have been confirmed. Still, I use my iPod Touch all the time, so all the advantages of a bigger display are very attractive. The key question for me is to what extent the bigger display makes the iPad a great device not just for consuming media but also for generating content.

The iPad is a great device to view content – it’s fast and the display quality is impressive. And of course there is a huge number of apps available for it,  given that it’ll run existing iPhone / iPod Touch apps as well as apps developed just for the iPad.

But as a working teacher I also want to generate content. And it has limitations here:

  • Want to edit online content such as Moodle or mediawiki pages? Results vary – you’ll almost certainly need to use HTML or wiki markup since the iPad is unlikely to work with wysiswyg editors. I don’t mind that – in fact I prefer to use HTML or wiki markup – but many teachers will find this a real drawback. And things are worse if you’re one of the many educators using the PBWorks wiki- at the time of writing it was impossible to edit a page with the iPad.
  • You can’t print. So you’ll need to rely on a desktop or laptop computer for this.
  • Using Google Docs? At the time of writing you can view but not edit using an iPad.
  • Want to create media resources?  There are useful apps becoming available, but the lack of native support for accessing the iPad file system and the use of proprietary file formats is likely to be a barrier. My two-year-old grandson loved using the built-in mike to make that cursed animated cat speak funny – but there is no obvious way just yet to record audio to standard file formats that can be moved easily to a desktop, edited in other applications and published.

In my mind, Apple has focused too much on the entertainment aspect of its portable devices and neglected their use for real-world work. I’d like to see both, and I don’t believe they need to be mutually exclusive. The iPad is not quite ready to meet my needs as a working teacher – can’t wait to see the next version.

Image: Glenn Fleishman

Getting started with PBWorks wiki

To my surprise, I’m still recommending PBWorks to teachers as a good way to get started using a wiki. That’s because the Moodle wiki is still not a very effective tool, and PBWorks is easy-to-use and provides some good features for developing and formatting content. It’s proprietary, of course, so it has to be used with caution, but it’s a good way to get started.

When I’m introducing teachers to the potential of wikis and other web tools, I naturally start by getting them to set up and work with wikis themselves. It seems to me like a set of core skills – how to plan and put together a collection of linked pages. This can be applied in reflective individual writing or as a collaborative exercise.

Here’s a 3-page PDF document on how to get started with PBWorks. It’s covered by the by-nc-sa licence so you are welcome to download and use it as you see fit provided it’s not used commercially and my authorship is attributed.

If you modify or adapt it, please add a comment to this post with a link to the new version.

Image: Andjam79

The iPad in education

Wordpress on iPod - edit postIn an earlier post I discussed how Apple’s software development efforts seem very focused on consumption of media.

I’m interested in learning which incorporates producing information (not just consuming it) and which makes effective use of Web 2.0 tools to publish, not just to read. Given the iPad currently appears to have pretty much the same features as an oversized iPod Touch, the software limitations are likely to parallel those of the iPod. These include:

  • The only multitasking available seems to be that music can be played in the background while you use other apps. So moving content from one app to another is clumsy. Given the size of the iPod, this is not such a big deal. But if I purchased the much bigger iPad, I’d expect it to be more suitable for productive work such as editing web-based content.
  • Many web-based systems use WYSIWYG editors for creating and editing content. These are not available using the current iPod OS, so editing is restricted to plain text – unless you can use markup. This affects all kinds of web-based systems used in education: Moodle, PBWorks, Blackboard, Mediawiki, etc. In a wiki you can use wiki markup to get around this, otherwise you’ll need to use HTML. Either way, this will be seen as a big step backward by many educators and learners!

There are many apps which allow the user to access content as consumer but few apps which allow authoring. One that I really like is the WordPress blogging app which allows me to create and edit posts and pages and manage comments. Like WordPress, it’s simple, straightforward and effective. But notice from the screenshot above (on an iPod Touch) that the editor shows only source code (HTML). Now I work in that mode most of the time anyway, but I know many of the teachers I work with would see the loss of the WYSIWYG editor as a return to the dark ages!

Since the iPad is not yet available, my comments are merely predictions based on the current technology. I hope I’m wrong, but I suspect the first iPads will not solve these problems. My advice to teachers: if you are using Web 2.0 tools or an LMS such as Moodle, you may not find a shiny new iPad is a suitable platform for creating and editing content. Unless of course you are prepared to learn some markup!

Assessing student contributions to a wiki

The article Towards a Process for K-12 Students as Content Producers by John Concilus has some great ideas. I really like the way he refers back to well-founded research from an earlier era (eg on process writing and writing for an authentic audience) while discussing the impact of new technology. John’s in-depth article raises lots of interesting issues and explores how tools such as a wiki can be used in student learning without lapsing into over-simplistic promotion of the tool.

One innovation he describes which raises some fascinating issues is the WikiDashboard, which provides a way to analyse individual contributions to a collaborative wiki. WikiDashboard shows a list of users who have contributed to a page and quantitative data about the amount each user has contributed and when they did so.


While this tool provides fascinating information on who has edited a wiki article, I have some strong reservations about its use as an assessment tool. My main concern is that it provides an easier way to quantify contributions but does not really provide any qualitative insights into the quality of these contributions. The danger here is related to the assessment dilemma – we tend to assess the things that are easy to measure, but these are often less important than the things which are harder to measure.

If we want to assess educational outcomes such as higher order thinking, analysis and critical thinking, we need to assess qualitative evidence. While the Wiki Dashboard is a great tool that can help an assessor find qualitative evidence, the data it provides is not in itself such evidence. It can help us find who wrote what content on a collaborative wiki, but we still need to assess each person’s contribution qualitatively and avoid any tendency to use its percentages in allocating grades.

Wiki markup in Moodle and Mediawiki

Some have asked whether wiki markup is dead, but when editing a wiki or teaching others to do so, I usually prefer to use markup tags to format text and create links. Why? Because the WYSIWYG editors tend to be:

  • a bit unreliable and don’t seem well-supported across all browsers.
  • likely to cause problems with boundaries – eg further editing next to a list item can cause new text to be mistakenly inserted into the list. This can cause major confusion for new users. Since often the only solution is to edit the source anyway, knowing how to do so becomes an essential skill.
  • not very intuitive to use – eg some of the buttons in the Mediawiki toolbar below are obvious, others much less so:

wysiwyg editor toolbar

There are some important differences between the markup used by various wiki systems. Because I use a range of wiki software (Mediawiki and PMWiki for my own sites, Moodle wiki and PBWiki for some of my courses) I find I sometimes use the wrong markup for the one I’m using and need to refer to the documentation.

Here’s a handy table comparing the markup for a few common functions of Mediawiki and Moodle wiki:

Function Mediawiki Moodle wiki
Small heading ====heading==== !heading
Medium heading ===heading=== !!heading
Large heading ==heading== !!!heading
Internal link [[pagename | text to display]] [text to display | pagename]
External link [http://www.verso.co.nz text to display] [text to display | http://www.verso.co.nz]
Bold ”’bold text”’ __bold text__
Line break <br> %%

There are other differences between the markup of various functions, of course, but in my view headings and links are the most significant because of their semantic purpose.