Birmingham Public Schools
I knew we couldn't support a high number and broad range of users from novice to experienced techie without the Wikispaces Campus management features.
— Jordy Whitmer, Birmingham Public Schools
Birmingham Public Schools in Oakland County, MI, is a district of over 8,000 students across thirteen schools. Their Wikispaces Campus site is very active, often topping 1,000 edits per day. Jordy Whitmer, one of six BPS !gnite facilitators, talked to us about the amazing response the project has gotten from their Wikispaces Campus.
Bringing education into the 21st century
In 2008, Birmingham Public Schools was looking for new ways to emphasize creativity, collaboration, communication and critical thinking skills in their students. They already had access to computers in every class and school. But what they really wanted was a better way to make the technology part of the teaching process, not an extra or an add-on.
So the district developed the !gnite program. They had the idea of using simple tools for audio recording, video recording, still pictures, and mind-mapping in conjunction with web tools like wikis, blogs, and course management programs to speak to students — and each other — in that sweet spot where core content meets teaching practices meets technology.
They found that Wikispaces was an ideal tool: quick and easy to get started, but something that could grow with them as the program got bigger and involved more and more teachers with varying degrees of technical experience.
We were looking for tools with a low floor, WIDE walls, and a high ceiling.
Structuring a successful site — and successful wikis
In the beginning, BPS set out with one wiki each for each of the eight teachers in the program pilot, plus a professional development/curriculum development wiki and a separate wiki for the !gnite facilitators.
In their classrooms, teachers learned pretty quickly what kinds of things made for a successful wiki. Many got great results from having a page for each student where the kids could collect their work and link to joint projects. Others figured out that they could build pages dedicated to specific subjects, or projects. Whenever an individual teacher hit upon something that worked, other teachers would discover those pages through monthly sharing sessions or just by checking out their colleagues’ wikis. New ideas quickly made it into other classrooms, though often with a little twist.
Even individual activities can turn into lessons in the successful fusion of technology and education. For example, one third grade classroom used their wiki as a tool for science exploration in a unit on sound. Groups of students kept separate pages where they could record their predictions as well as the results of their experiments. As a review of the unit, they posted what they had learned as both text and video presentations. And because this work lived on the wiki, all the students in the class, regardless of which group they worked in, had a chance to learn from their peers — and could even go back to it to study for tests! The teacher was able to report back to all the teachers on the digital share page of the !gnite wiki, so his colleagues could learn from his success.
The ease of publishing to a group, allowing easy edits, facilitating discussions, attaching files, etc. makes Wikispaces invaluable.
Giving people a reason to get involved
In part, Birmingham Public Schools has had such success with their Wikispaces Campus site because they’ve kept their site content so relevant. All the wikis on the site are kept up-to-date and full of information that people actually want to find and conversations that people want to join.
For example, an individual classroom might post assignments and student work — or host a shared collaboration space. On the other hand, the professional development wiki has links to exemplary wikis, interesting videos about pedagogical theory, and prework and discussion around upcoming meetings. This is just the work that happens every day, but posting it up in the wiki makes it easier to find and easier to collaborate. And it gives people another little push to get more involved.
Building sustainability through engagement
The !gnite team realizes that the ultimate success of the program will be measured by how thoroughly it is adopted. So getting everyone on board with how powerful wikis and other web tools can affect pedagogy and content has been a priority.
BPS teachers are excited about the idea of using wikis in the classroom. And for those who need a little hand-holding on how to make that a reality, !gnite’s team of one full-time facilitator and five half-time facilitators are there with that hand:
We provided tech skills training on an as-needed basis and through a combination of mini lessons, exploration, problem-solving challenges, and group discussions. Almost all of those discussions were within the context of using it with kids or as a professional tool. Never did we do traditional hour long or day long hands-on workshops.
The !gnite team also made a point of reaching out to the community by making presentations to the board of education and to parents, so that they understand what wikis are and what they mean to the students. Recently, those have been led by the classroom teachers themselves.
Of course, when it comes to the wikis themselves and the way those wikis have transformed the classroom, the students love it.
The kids are a soft sell. They take to it like ducks to water.
One to grow on
Birmingham Public Schools has made great use of its site in nurturing creative, self-directed students and fostering an engaged, collaborative community of teachers. And as the site grows, they keep learning more and better ways to use it.
We learn a LOT from our students, too! In fact, that is part of our summer training, getting our teachers comfortable with that.
Students are already living every day with technology that was unimaginable even ten or fifteen years ago. A Wikispaces Campus can be a fun and easy way to bring teachers into that same world, give them to tools to communicate with their kids — and with each other — and get students more engaged in their own education.
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