My aspirational brain vomit

Wikis: Glocal Connectivity and Doctorow’s For the Win

The cumulative effect of so many interwoven stories is that new ones feel like a layer of the previous. While each of the narrators could have easily been the star of his or her own book, they are instead strands of Doctorow’s global web, proving that everything’s interconnected.

– Emily Pohl-Weary (2010)

Pohl-Weary’s quote above, from a review of Cory Doctorow’s young adult science fiction book For the Win, is also analogous to the potentials of wiki usage.

Wikis are meant to be collaborative – each contributing member adds a layer, creating an “interwoven story” on a wiki as a whole, be it for a class project, a club, a cause, an event, professional development, etc. The first wiki I ever created, in 2008 in Wikispaces, was used as a central place for my grade 6 class to connect with one another about classwork and related ideas, as well as a place to post homework, information, announcements, and the like. The name I came up with for this wiki was based on British Columbia’s grade 6 social studies curriculum, which is focused on Canada’s place in the modern world and current issues, and my need to intertwine the International Baccalaureate perspective, which very much emphasizes a global perspective. These curriculum requirements, as well as my dawning understanding of the potential for Web 2.0, led me to call my site A Connected World. Even though part-way through the year our school officially adopted Moodle, and therefore I transferred everything over to that medium, I hung on to my site and its title, as I had a hunch that it would remain relevant and could be used again: turns out my hunch was right.

As I read For the Win, the idea of using a wiki popped into my head as an additional way to connect the various international players (literally and figuratively) of the story. I also believed that I could use this idea for a novel study or literature circle for the book. Hence, I decided to experiment a bit with this concept and produce the beginnings of a sample wiki supporting For the Win’s story line and characters. The major focuses of this blog post will be to discuss this activity, as well as my experimentation with Google Sites (yes, it is a wiki application) with the intent of creating a school library site, as well as the provision of discussing wiki usage and issues in general.

Reflections on the process of learning about the tool

I had quite a bit of fun playing with the wiki tools I tried out. While I already have some wiki experience, I did learn a lot more as I went as I played further with Wikispaces and experimented for the first time with Google Sites.

First off, I decided to turn my inactive A Connected World wiki into a alternative method of communication for the various arms of the Webblies (a developing union for the mistreated virtual gold farmers of the world – you’ll have to read the novel to get an understanding of the virtual gaming economics of the near future).

Anyway, each main character and their compadres get their own page within my Wikispaces site. The characters generally communicate via voice chat in videos, as well as through other means, but I thought they could use alternate methods (and perhaps more effective ones) to plan collaboratively. The “good guys” are located in China, India, Singapore, and the USA. Collectively they speak a variety of languages. Big Sister Nor, the Webblies union leader, speaks several languages fluently, which I sought to reflect by translating some of her commands into the languages she spoke using Google Translator. I gather Google Translator isn’t great for rendering English into Chinese, for instance, but it’s what I had. In a real classroom situation, it would have been great to have bilingual students do the translating.

This global connectivity, especially as applied to the theme of For the Win, fits especially well with the The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (2009) Global Awareness section, in part described below, in its Skills Framework:

•    Using 21st century skills to understand and address global issues

•    Learning from and working collaboratively with individuals representing diverse cultures, religions and lifestyles in a spirit of mutual respect and open dialogue in personal, work and community contexts

•    Understanding other nations and cultures, including the use of non-English languages (p. 2)

I thought too that wikis, such as my A Connected World one, could be used to develop in students the effective application of technology, such as the use of “technology as a tool to research, organize, evaluate and communicate information” (The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2009, p. 5). In the case of the Webblies, students in the guise of the characters would need to learn this not only for the sake of wiki-building, but for the development of the plot of the novel.

So, I decided to explore the myriad of “widgets” in Wikispaces (Google Sites calls them “gadgets”, and has just tons of them), as the only one I’d ever tried before was the Table of Contents widget. I thought that embedding maps into my pages would be appropriate, considering how far flung the various characters were from one another. Big Sister Nor’s planning and instructions might also get a boost with maps of zones where strikes were to occur.

It’s also possible to embed RSS news reader feeds directly into a wiki page, as well audio, video, calendars, chats and instant messaging, etc. You can also add Glogster pages directly in Wikispaces, to boost the often plain wiki look, such as in one wiki created by some of my graduate classmates and I. Note that because we weren’t using the educator version of Wikispaces, the Glog is somewhat obscured by an advertisement column.

I then decided to see if Google Sites had similar features because I am seriously considering using it now to build our library website: it apparently integrates very smoothly with our upcoming Google apps for schools package. For instance, we can have the library site’s URL changed so it looks like it comes from our server, and the student log-ins will be the same as their school server log-ins, which should keep maintenance of accounts relatively simple. Anyway, it turns out Google Sites does have similar features (including the wiki-defining element of collaboration), plus some, since a Google Sites site is in fact actually a wiki. If it smells like a wiki, sounds like a wiki, looks like a wiki, walks and talks like a wiki, then it’s a wiki!

Note that in the screenshot of the “Junior School” page, there are “attachments” and “comments” sections. These can be removed to limit clutter on the page for younger students and to simplify site supervision.

Google Sites also has four different types of pages that can be created. There is the regular “web page”, which can also be a wiki, depending on permissions you give, and then there is the “announcements” template, which functions like a blog. It also has a “file cabinet” template and the very handy “list” template whereby you can choose between several templates, including customization. For instance, you can use the “action items” list template to track action items decided on during a project meeting.

Discussion of the tool in terms of my own personal life and learning

I could hardly start off such a post section without including one of my own favourite wikis. Wookieepedia, for the development of my family life (my boys love all things Star Wars) and this blog, which generally does have a certain sci fi/Star Wars flavour to it.

Here are other ways that wikis impact my personal life and learning in positive ways:

  • wikis are a great place to list and store helpful information for educators as well as students (such as the numerous Joyce Valenza wikis like this one, or this one, or this one, etc.), and can act as pathfinders (such as this basic one I created, or the amazing Joyce Valenza pathfinder swap site). That said, I do think that if you are only going to have lists of links, then Diigo social bookmarking might be best. Of course I could include the links to my Diigo lists with instructions on how to use them on a wiki. Wikis do allow for a multimedia experience and information storage.
  • Heidi Hayes Jacob, author and editor of Curriculum 21, posts this great list of ways to use wikis professionally.
  • The global connectedness of wikis: my graduate degree is being done entirely online, and in one of my classes we did do a wiki-based group project, where each group member lived far away from each other, yet we managed to complete our assignment. Such projects can be expanded further to allow for professional development collaboration (such as this one for librarians) and sharing from educators from around the world.
  • Personal learning networks can develop through wiki collaboration. Wikis, for that matter, can be uses to promote PLNs.
  • Conference/workshop attendees can develop wikis to continue the “conversation” and learning, such as this one started by an International Baccalaureate Libraries conference attendee in Boston, which I also attended.
  • Librarians could use a wiki to create a library/volunteer manual. This one (with multiple “manuals”, really) is actually for university librarians themselves (and it far too complex for a volunteer, but is it ever exhaustive).
  • Our grade 11/12 faculty use a wiki module in Moodle (and take advantage of privacy settings limiting who can view what) to post Google Doc meeting minutes and consistently update important information.

Discussion of the tool in terms of teaching and learning

The current version of A Connected World wiki was done as a way to experiment further with Wikispaces, but was also a way to exemplify how wikis could be used in, for instance, the language arts. Admittedly, the site needs further fleshing out,  but it could be a way to get students thinking about the possibilities of literature-based wikis. In For the Win, mistreated gold farmers gather together, through the influence of Big Sister Nor, under the virtual banner of the Webblies to agitate and strike for better working conditions in a virtual (yet at the same time very, very real) economy. Students or student groups could log in as particular characters and have discussions on the wiki with one another, or post information on their pages relevant to the plot line, and a teacher, or a class with guidance from a teacher, could develop a rubric to assess the understanding students show in regards to particular characters or elements of the plot. At the same time, students could develop their geography knowledge using the map widget, or conduct an author study by adding an RSS feed from the author’s blog site.

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (2009) asks that students “take individual and collective action towards addressing environmental challenges (e.g., participating in global actions, designing solutions that inspire action on environmental issues)” (p. 3). Like the Webblies wiki I made, could not other global issues, such as environmental concerns, be tackled using wikis by an international cast of character? For instance, our schools Roots and Shoots club might consider developing a project resource along these lines with other Roots and Shoots clubs (Roots and Shoots main site and Roots and Shoots Canada).

Wikis can also be used for project work. I once had students conduct research into a product type of each group’s choice. We were just completing a unit on social issues around international trade. This is a very brief description, but basically the student groups needed to develop criteria and rubrics, based on what they had been learning during the unit, to determine which products (such as clothing, sports equipment, and fruit and vegetables) were a more appropriate purchase based on the criteria (e.g., was the product made by child labour, how far did it have to travel, how safe was the product? etc.). They researched these products and rated them according to their rubrics. I would show you the results but there isn’t any public access to the site, which is owned by one of the students.

I found that students were able to learn from each others’ triumphs and tribulations, as they were always able to watch other groups in the class develop their projects over time. Students modeled to each other in this way. They could also see the feedback that I provided to other individuals or groups and learn from this. For instance, I would add my comments next to the portion of an assignment that needed fixing in a different colour of text. Once students had made an improvement, they could delete my commentary themselves. Students were also able to create a multimedia experience as they discovered not only text-based information but also, for instance, supporting video and pictures, etc. One of the great things about using a wiki for projects too is that a teacher can see changes over time and who did what when: the teacher has easy access to the process rather than just the product.

Furthermore, a) it’s easy to go back and fix inappropriate changes due to this revision history feature (Richardson, 2010, p. 59) and b) because you can track who changes/adds what, students are encouraged to keep things appropriate. Students can participate in this monitoring too, as I found with my class wiki project as described above. For instance, a student attempted to test the boundaries by posting inappropriate material from home. Upon spotting this, another couple of students decided to take it down on their own, report it to their parents and me. Response was rapid. Of course, sometimes negotiation needs to take place: students would take down a peer’s material when in fact that material was appropriate and had good reason to stay. But the posters learned much from having to explain and justify why the material needed to stay in order to convince his or her classmates.

Wiki-based projects teach students to collaborate with others. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (2009) asks that students “demonstrate [the] ability to work effectively and respectfully with diverse teams, exercise flexibility and willingness to be helpful in making necessary
compromises to accomplish a common goal [and] assume shared responsibility for collaborative work, and value the individual contributions made by each team member (p. 4). My experience thus far is that wikis can help help develop these skills.

Not only, however, is using a wiki in this way a collaborative and sharing experience. It can also be a competitive experience for those students who thrive on some friendly competition. For instance, two or three of the more competitive personalities could constantly work to one-up each other in terms of assignment quality, effort, research, explanations and justifications, provision of evidence, etc., as they see what their peers have done. They use each others’ work as a springboard for further growth and ideas development.

Other wiki uses in teaching and learning:

  • Library and book promotion (such as could be done with For the Win on A Connected World wiki).
  • Collaborative creative writing tasks.
  • Teach students to take advantage of reference lists provided at the bottom of Wikipedia entries.
  • Have students contribute to a wiki, perhaps even a public one. They could also assess other wiki entries for e.g. accuracy and neutrality, as in the case of Wikipedia (or Simple Wikipedia for younger students), or whatever attributes are required by the wiki genre in question. For instance, there is an IB Psychology standard level “textbook” created on WikiBooks. I could have my students update this for the latest course requirements.
  • Have someone embed a calendar into a project wiki to help students keep track of deadlines.
  • Insert files/handouts for easy access.
  • Teach students the appropriateness of using certain gadgets/widgets for a site. Have them pick and choose, and not just dump everything in. Students should ask whether this gadget/widget will enhance the point of the site, or is the purpose lost in a sea of gadget vomit.
  • Have students, as Vicki Davis describes here and shows here, use a “turnin” tag for when they have completed an assignment, and then follow that tag on an RSS reader so you will be notified when students apply the tag. Perhaps this tagging thing might also work if e.g. students were to tag something with “help”, or “feedback” (I haven’t tried this out). You’d know that anything that shows up with the RSS tag “help” is a student asking for help, or “feedback” is that the student is wanting feedback from a teacher/peer on some ongoing work.
  • Have students create pathfinders for their assignments.
  • See Richardson (20101) for more ideas.

The collaborative possibilities of wikis are seemingly endless. I only hope that the characters of For the Win were able to take full advantage of the wiki I made for them…


Doctorow, C. (2010). For the win. Retrieved from

Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2009, December). Framework for 21st century learning. Retrieved April 2, 2010, from

Pohl-Weary, E. (2010, May 28). On the line, online. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from

Richardson, Will (2010). Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

5 Responses to “Wikis: Glocal Connectivity and Doctorow’s For the Win”

  1. jacquihigginbottom

    “gadget vomit”
    You wrote so much good stuff, and these are the two words that stick out to me. Typical me. =)
    Love the ideas you share.
    The Web Wanderer

  2. Jeff Yasinchuk

    Love the use of Doctorow in your review, Kirsten! We have two teachers using iPods and Doctorow’s For the Win along with a wiki to discuss our “connected world”. I will put one of the teachers in touch with you (if that’s OK) as she might be interested in your ideas. I’ll definitely forward your blog post to her. Thanks for an insightful and truly thought-provoking piece.


    • tlkirsten

      Hi Jeff,

      Sure, you could put the teacher in touch with me, although as I actually haven’t used this yet with a class (although have my target class in sight for next year on this one as they just finished their sci fi unit), I may not be especially useful. Happy to help though however I can. It’s great they were already doing this (and I thought I was being original)! 😉

      • tlkirsten

        Actually, your teacher in question will likely be able to give pointers to me on this one – how things went etc. Maybe the classes could collaborate on this for next year if the teacher of the class I’m thinking of wants to get in on it.

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