Sunday, January 22, 2006

Which Wiki? or The Trouble Without Email

My friend and colleague John approached me for suggestions regarding an upcoming web project he plans to undertake with his class of fourth and fifth students. He was planning on having them create posters to share information about alternative energy at the end of their energy unit. He then wanted them to be able to easily share that information on the web so that families could see and possibly even respond to it. He was going to create web pages, as he has in the past, but wondered if blogs would better fit the task since families would be able to leave comments.

I pondered it and told him the answer was none of the above. He should use a wiki. I quickly showed him PBWiki and Wikispaces. He looked unconvinced; he's a busy guy and didn't really want to take the time to learn this new tool since he was wishing he'd started the projects LAST week.

I argued that since he was going to set up the entire web site as a template, the kids weren't gaining much in the way of skills. If they used a wiki instead, they would be part of the read/write web because they could do the work themselves and other people could leave them comments. As Clarence has found, they would probably go home and start creating wikis of their own.

To better convince him and to get up to speed for my own upcoming student projects, I decided to set up a How to Wiki wiki for him. I poked around with the various wiki hosting options to see which would best meet our needs. John and I have identified three key criteria for our wikis.
  1. They need to be readable by families and other schools.
  2. They need to be protected to some degree from spam, but still allow outsiders to leave comments.
  3. They need to track who makes what changes, so we can track malicious editing back to the person who did it.
Here's what I've learned so far.
There is a wiki in Moodle, but from what I can tell, it is safely locked up inside the Moodle, so it fails to meet the first criteria.

PB Wiki meets the first two criteria. Wikis can be viewed by anyone, but we can restrict editing privileges to only those people who have our passcode. This would keep out spam bots, but would fail criteria #3.

Wikispaces meets all three criteria, but at a price. Each child receives a separate invite. Accepting the invitation makes them a member of Wikispaces and of our wiki. Since each child is a separate member, the wiki can track which user makes which changes.

It sounds perfect, but it is at this point, that I once again run up against the thorn that keeps jabbing me this year; we don't have student email addresses.

I could use a service such a, but this will involve getting parent permission. Since we don't plan to use the addresses for correspondence, this sounds like a lot of hassle.

I could create them on my BlueHost account. I think my subscription allows me to create 2500 email accounts. This could be almost as safe as accounts, since I could set them up in such a way that all messages must stay on the server. However, it will be tedious work to do this for 50 users.

I know that with my mail application on my computer, I can tell the program whether to leave messages on the server or to download them to my computer. I wonder if that can be over-ridden by settings on the actual mail server. If it can, then even if the students tried to use their email addresses, I could monitor them. This is important both because I don't want to give the world unlimited contact with my fifth graders. I also don't want to give my students unsupervised access to each other. Some of them are still at the nasty note writing stage. I don't want to give them another tool to use for that, since the tool isn't going to be in use for positive activities as well.

How does everyone else deal with this need for student email accounts when setting up Moodles, blogs, wikis and other shared online spaces? Please share with me how you have overcome this problem.