If you thought a wiki was something to do with burning candles, then prepare to be enlightened. Wikis are at the forefront of Web 2.0, the term given to the newer internet-based services with the emphasis on collaboration and sharing, also encompassing blogs and podcasts. Of these, blogging might be the current favourite among schools, but many regard wikis as the next step.
For the uninitiated, a wiki (Hawaiian for "quick") is a website that can be edited and amended by anyone who reads it. Whereas blogs or forums are temporary or can sprawl to indigestible lengths, a wiki can be a permanent artefact created and then updated by many people.
The Wikipedia is now the most prominent example of this kind of "wisdom of crowds".
For schools, a wiki is a good way to sharpen skills. It can involve group work, writing, fact-checking and proof-reading (good for improving writing), and even learning critical faculties, such as how different views on issues can arrive at some sort of consensus.
"It's good for kids learning about writing for an audience, and not just one teacher," says Miles Berry, a member of the British Computer Society's E-learning working party. "The sense of peer review is important - what you write or add doesn't count unless it's accepted by peers."
Miles is headteacher at Alton Convent Preparatory School, Alton, Hampshire, and his Year 6 class has used wikis to create a school magazine online.
"When my pupils realised that the others could change what they had written, they were initially terrified, but soon they learned to trust their peers not to damage their work. The sense of communal responsibility over the shared artefact was an important social transformation," he adds.
With collaboration comes responsibility. On a wiki, every contribution or amendment is attributed, and the history function allows anyone to track the evolution of the page.
Miles even conducted an experiment to test whether the wisdom of crowds leaned towards the constructive or destructive. The result was positive.
"We created a page about our school on Wikipedia, but deliberately put in wrong information, effectively vandalising our own entry. Someone else in the community spotted and corrected it. The community takes pride in what it produces," he says.
This sense of communal responsibility would even have implications for dyslexic children as another child could be delegated the task of checking spelling.
Scotland is ahead of England in the adoption of Web 2.0 technology, and Sharon Tonner, junior school ICT teacher at The High School of Dundee, an independent for five to 18-year-olds, has already brought wikis into various subjects.
"The school keeps a diary-style blog about its Bear Exchanges, when we send and receive teddy bears to and from other schools," she says. "The comments section on this was popular so I thought that using wikis would be a natural progression."
Their maths wiki provides lesson support, with a page on diameters, radii and circumferences and another on fractions. Pupils search for definitions of equivalent fractions and record them on the wiki.
The main collaborative use of wikis is for P7 (Year 7) pupils to create scripts for the school radio show, which is podcasted. The wiki is organised into pages for groups of five or six children, with rotating responsibilities for gathering information to podcast.
More than 70 children are involved, and creating wiki-scripts allows for writing, editing and discussion away from the confines of the classroom.
The children are assigned specific roles as writers or editors. Once individual contributions have been entered, they collaborate on editing the final scripts in the discussion area. Younger pupils are involved too. A P3 class recently created an audio-visual poem for the RadioHigh wiki. (Visit http:radiohigh.wikispaces.com.) "Once they realised that they were publishing to the world, their language skills developed along with their enthusiasm," says Sharon Tonner. She is now planning a story-writing project for P3 where each class takes control of the story each week.
The wiki is one of the requirements for a learning platform recommended by Becta, the Government's partner in advising schools on technology.
"The Government's e-Strategy talks of children no longer being passive recipients, but becoming empowered to create their own educational content," says Miles Berry. "I think wikis are one of the easiest ways of achieving this."
A wikispace is available free at www.wikispaces.com. Guidance for key stages 1 and 2 teachers can be found at www.wikispaces.comsiteforteachers100K.
The software is downloadable for free from MediaWiki - www.mediawiki.org