Wiki: great tool for coordinating large projects, group activites

Okay, I apologize–I was offline longer than anticipated (will be off a little while until summer, getting my cyber properties moved around), but I have a great excuse for April.  We just bid “adieu” to a great group of French middle school-age students, part of an exchange with my daughter’s middle school. We hadn’t been part of the group previously (a 14-year program), just stepped in this year to offer a host home.

“Reply All” Headaches

After two weeks of involvement, it became clear the group needed a wiki.  The teacher –a fabulous woman who gives much time for the kids–was accustomed to hitting the “reply all” button to communicate with the parents and their kids (hey, after doing this for 14 years, she was just thankful everyone now had email).  With 20 families, weeks of activities/trips run by volunteers, coordination regarding scheduling etc. — we had a LOT of email.  Families who had been involved in past years commented to me about how they often miss or ignore email for this program.

Screen Shot -- School Exchange WikiSharing Documents

Email overload wasn’t the only problem.  We began to pass around a Word document, intended to gather emergency contact info, parents’ various cell numbers, kids’ bus numbers.  I was perplexed….how would we know where the “latest” version was? 

Wiki Solutions

A wiki offered the solution to our email and document-sharing challenges, as well as the challenge of changing direction and information.  (See “When Wikis Trump Email”).   I took ten minutes to set up a free wiki on www.pbwiki.com.  Since it is educational, we had no ads.  I was fortunate the “mom-in-charge” took to it like a duck to water. 

How it was used

We used the “Sidebar” (automatically at the top right of page) as a navigation page for documents.  We posted Word documents that contained necessary forms, contact information (such as our phone chain) that we could print out and carry with us.  We had a calendar (in the screen shot above) that was a simple table, with links to individual pages for each date. (For others projects I’ve worked on, the Sidebar would have been the navigation to access these pages, but this made more sense given the nature of our project).  The coordinator initially put all this info up on the wiki, to ensure we had a unified format.  But after that, individuals in charge of particular day trips or events would update their page details.  The group was instructed to check the night before each event for changes.  Of course, I subscribed to “changes” so I automatically received an email when any information was changed.

We had some formatting challenges (such as our blank space next to our French/East Coast U.S. time clock—PBwiki makes it easy to drop Google gadgets into your wiki.  You don’t need to be a programmer).  Formatting issues would have been surmountable but it wasn’t worth fussing over.  After all, this was a productivity improvement tool.  We’re now using Shutterfly to share photos (via a free group “collection” album) of the trip confidentially (we don’t like photos of the girls on the web, unprotected). 

Thanks to the wiki, the only tears that were shed were on the departure of the students back to France. 

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When Wikis Trump Email

j0404960.jpgGlad I discovered Stewart Mader yesterday.  What drew me was a discussion of wiki versus email on Day 2 of his series, “21 Days of Wiki Adoption.”

Last month, I wrote how email might not be going away anytime soon, and I stick with that.  But having held jobs where I’d leave my desk for a meeting, returning to find 100 emails, I know there must be a better way.  My email-from-hell experience was during the implementation of a rather large project–welfare reform–in one of the largest state agencies in existence.  I was top assistant to the Deputy Secretary overseeing this sea change. 

Everyone would “CYA” themselves by copying me on every email…it was how they “collaborated.”  Sound familiar?

Oh, if we only had wikis then.  Development of regulations, retraining of staff, outreach to constituencies, new policy manuals, IT apps–all under deadline with thousands of people involved.  How many days we broke our momentum to attend front-office meetings to explain where we were on the project(s) and “collaborate.”  Some staff had to come from across town or across the state. 

Collaboration and a Smaller Inbox

Fortunately, wikis are now idiot-proof and easy to set up.  I’ve used them (from PBWiki) for my college teaching, in both traditional and online classes.  In all cases, I’ve been the only person involved who knew what a wiki was at the outset, but most participants adapted quickly. 

 duqprojectmanagementwiki2.jpg

The screenshot here was for a Project Management class I ran of adult (mostly National Guard) students enrolled in a Masters of Leadership program run by Duquesne U. 

We were spread all over central PA during the week at our jobs, but had 8 weeks (and 8 evening classes) to run a fundraiser from scratch to finish to benefit The American Legion Legacy Scholarship.  We used the wiki to get our ducks in a row for a mission statement, then used subsequent pages to share word documents, timelines, tick lists, etc.  In projects, a wiki lets you:

  • Avoid the barrage of email
  • Have one source for the most current version of documents
  • Get input from multiple sources in an orderly manner
  • See the most recent updates, comments and postings by your colleagues
  • Let participants view parallel activities that might affect their portion of the project
  • Be more nimble, reacting to new input and altering direction, if needed.
  • Cut down on meeting time (if you need meetings at all).

If you need an easy-to-understand resource on what a wiki is, check out this video by Lee Lefever of CommonCraft.com

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Email is for old fogies…but it’s not going away anytime soon.

j0423020.jpgLast night, I began teaching a college class in strategic planning.  It got me to thinking about a recent conversation with my hubby, who also teaches college part-time.  We’ve had difficulty lately getting in touch in a timely way with our students.  We try our darndest to help students succeed, often in spite of themselves–sending reminders about upcoming or missing work, or concerns about incorrect assignments that were submitted, or any range of issues.  (I once had a student upload a geology paper instead of his e-business paper–could have been a stall tactic, but I’m willing give the benefit of the doubt).

I’m Junk Mail 

Yes, we use wikis, blogs, an occasional audio file and utilize a range of hands-on projects (often web-based) to create as rich and collaborative a teaching environment as we can. But when we need to contact a student directly, is usually means several things:  using the online teaching platform (often some version of Blackboard) to post an announcement or discussion board response or email.  Email usually means either the personal or college email account for a particular student.  Intuitively, I know their personal email is checked more often. But the experienced professor in me also knows that I can better track when, where and to whom the emails were sent and whether they responded through the school’s email.  This is especially needed because students often claim “but I sent you an email about my problem, didn’t you get it?”  No, I didn’t.  Or “What, you sent me something?”  Yes, I did.  And I don’t have to route through my personal email to prove it.

Of course, I shouldn’t take it personally….they’ve just used their personal “college spam filter” to ignore me.  You know, the one that filters out as junk anything institutional.  And as much as I try not to be, I’m part of the institution. I’m junk mail.

The Chronicle of Higher Education had an article back in late 2006 about just this issue.  Entitled “Email is for Old People,”  it pretty much sums up the way most college undergrads and teens view email.  It’s supported by a several-year-old survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.   Yes, teens declared then, email’s for “old people.”   But many of my current classes consist of, well, adult learners age 40 and up.      

The Virtual College

Today, Campus Technology has an article  by Trent Baston that discusses web2.0 in the college environment.  He notes that “Web 2.0 is becoming a tipping point for creative energy in higher education’s use of technology, moving its center from the campus desktop or server to the Web.”   Some profs are even using platforms like SecondLife to pull everything together for learning.  In a simpler application, the use of lecture-capture systems is growing, enabling students to study anywhere, anytime.  Some colleges have been providing iPods for students, allowing professors to do lectures in podcast (or even videocast) form.   The iPods are either available for rent or at drastically-reduced prices. Overall, the way we help students build knowledge is changing–and anyone who has snoozed through a 1-hour lecture will tell you, it’s due for a change.

Hello, is anyone out there?  Email Etiquette 101.

But that doesn’t solve the problem of one-on-one communication on private issues.  When I email an entire class and get not one response, I feel like I’m shouting in the wilderness. You’d think students would at least check email on their mobile devices.  Last week, Campus Technology wrote about a survey done by Eduventures (thanks to SmartMobs blog for pointing me to this) detailing the technology owned by current college students. A web survey found that 97% of 4-year college students had cell phones and 79% had laptops.  (Of course, the flaw in this is that it was web-based, probably eliminating the students who didn’t have ready web access…but I digress).  Their finding show that students were online for up to 5 hours a day and that email remains the communication of choice for school purposes.

In a perfect world, I would know every student’s phone, they would all be cell phones or other mobile messaging devices.  Maybe they’d even all be tweeting.  But I can’t rely on that for a personal message.  Sometimes I don’t want to build a community or connect with thousands–I just want to communicate with one.  Even with the ability to text message or phone, I find email more preferable.  I send attachments related to class, longer notices about changes in deadlines or clarifications (even if it is also posted on the class web).  I don’t have to worry about if they are in class, at work or what time it is. 

I still say email will be sticking around.  Other forms are preferred for casual communication, but in some situations, email serves the purpose best.  Maybe we need a required short course in Email Etiquette for all college students.  For now, all I can say is:

Chck Ur Email Plz

 …and hope that one of the readers of this blog has a suggestion for better communication options.   I’m open!