(PLACEHOLDER. EDIT/REPLACE AFTER WILL APPROVES HIS BLOG POST.)
Using a Wiki for a Parent-Teacher-Administration Partnership in School Redesign: Lessons Learned from a K-8 School. Written by Will Thalheimer, a parent and the wiki creator.
The Question Is a wiki an effective means for school redesign when the whole community is invited to help redesign the school? Background Our K-8 school is in an urban environment. We have a diverse population of students – according to state stats, that means approximately one third Hispanic, one third White, 14% African American (primarily Haitian), 10% Asian American, with visible Native American, Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and multiracial populations. The top four languages in use are English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Haitian Creole. In the Spring of 2010, our city school board voted that we should “unify” our school’s two main elementary programs. Previously, one program drew students primarily from nearby the school and included many immigrants and working-class families. The second, magnet program—about twice as big—drew students through a city-wide lottery to a program known for its progressive-constructivist practices and strong parent involvement and commitment. It included a majority of students from middle class and upper-middle class families with a significant white majority combined with a substantial group of minority families. (WILL, DO YOU WANT TO USE THE WORD ‘MINORITY’ IN SOMERVILLE, OR USE “FAMILIES OF COLOR”?) The decision to unify the school was highly controversial and emotions were raw in most of the school community in the 2009-2010 school year. Especially visible were the frustrations of those who were heartbroken at the thought of losing the progressive-constructivist lottery program. There were also frustrations from those from the second, neighborhood-enrolled program, who were concerned about being swallowed up by the larger program. The principal of the school in 2009-2010 was leaving the school at the end of the Spring. A new principal was being hired during this timeframe. The 2010-2011 school year was used for planning this “unification process.” This was carried out by a largely-elected school site council represented by teachers, parents, community partners, the new principal , and an outside consultant. The Need for a Wiki The unification school redesign process took place in a background of highly-charged emotions. The controversy from the previous year had splintered the school into two or more camps. A new principal was coming on board. If George Bush had been president of the school, we would have been in an Orange-Alert mode. The school site council began forming in September and October (elections were required) and the council ended up being comprised of about 24 members. The council members were trained in group process skills because they would be facilitating many meetings with members of the school community at large. The school board had asked that the unification process be one that was transparent and open for all stakeholders to have input. The school site council informally adopted the following communication principles—the TRUST principles: • T = Transparency (So everyone can see what's going on) • R = Redundancy (Multiple communications through multiple channels) • U = Universality (So everyone can be joined in the network of communication and inquiry) • S = Stakeholder Empowerment (so parents, teachers, staff, students, and community partners can have a voice) • T = Timeliness (Provide the information in a manner that is timely) The school site council subdivided into five working groups. The working groups each had a core team made up of the school site council members and invited teachers, parents, and community members to join one or more working groups. These working groups were charged with looking into different issues and making recommendations. In addition to the working groups, the school council formed an “Organizing Team” to organize and administer the process. The Organizing Team consisted of the principle, the consultant, one teacher, and one parent (the writer of this article). The wiki was created in first-draft form over two days of experimentation after several inspirations came together. Here are those inspirations: 1. By early October, there were clear signs that people in the school community began didn’t know what was happening, how the process worked, or how they could get involved. (WILL, DO YOU HAVE examples in addition to “people began complaining?”) 2. Only a few people had access to modify the school’s official website, and its interface was awkward to use. It was therefore not suitable for posting meeting times, minutes, etc. 3. Our reform principles required transparency and a way to enable people to have input into the process (even if they didn’t speak English as their first language, had little time to come to meetings, etc.) 4. The new principal needed a way to communicate with the school community. While he engaged in an exhaustive number of meetings with parents, he could not reach those without flexible schedules. 5. The findings compiled by the working groups needed to be stored somewhere. 6. While the progressive-constructivist program had an excellent email list of its parents, the other program had no list of its own. The school had a list, but it was limited to only one email per household and it wasn’t fully populated with email addresses. 7. Email and the bulletin board software were not adequate to create a public storage area or a communication channel. 8. The OneVille project was testing ways to increase and improve parent communication and I had the privilege to confer with them often. In fact, it was during a meeting with the OneVille technology team that I was inspired to try a little wiki experimentation. 9. I work in the workplace learning field where wikis, blogs and other social media had been in discussions for years. I had also previously created several other social media interfaces, and witnessed the implementation of even more, all with poor to mediocre results (for example, I tried to start a social network in my daughter’s grade using Ning; nobody seemed motivated to be part of a new network!). So, I had some sense of possibilities and potential obstacles. The Wiki Development The first draft of the wiki really began as an experimental play space. I searched around for a wiki-development tool that was free to use, simple, and robust enough to enable the following functionality: 1. Tool that was stable, reliable. 2. Tool that was free (preferably). 3. Backed by an organization that was likely to continue to support the product into the future. 4. Had a wiki page interface where anyone could modify content. 5. Offered a way to have threaded discussions. 6. Offered a calendar interface so we could post meeting times. 7. Enabled customizable look and feel (enough to enable branding). I searched through Google for “free wikis” or similar and came across Wikispaces, which I had used many years earlier in my work. WikiSpaces offered a free education version so I signed up and began experimenting. By the end of two days, I was pretty sure the wiki would work to meet our needs. The calendar feature was not found within WikiSpaces but was hyperlinked. As a bonus, I figured out a way for Google Translate to automatically translate the wiki into the four major languages used at the school, requiring only small additional edits by human translators. The Wiki Rollout Ideally, we would have rolled out the wiki with fanfare and preparation. Unfortunately, there was no time to do this the right way. Instead, I demoed the wiki at a school council meeting, created a how-to-page, offered some individual tutoring, did one or two online meetings to show how to use the wiki, etc. The wiki navigation was designed to highlight its major components. This is the current navigation, but the major categories haven’t changed from the original rollout. You can actually click on the links below to go to the actual wiki. WILL: DO YOU OR ANOTHER PERSON WANT TO ‘CLEAN UP’ THE WIKI AND, GET IT READY FOR CONTINUED USE IN THE FALL? Essentials Home Calendar Link Ideas-Examples-Inspiration Principal DeFalco's Page Language Translation Volunteering and Donations MAJOR CURRENT ACTIVITIES ISSUE DISCUSSIONS Getting Started First You Must Join How a Wiki Works Best Practices for Wikis Why Use a Wiki? Play in the Sandbox Scavenger Hunt Working Groups Working Group Overview WG----Culture-Climate-Community WG----Parents-Staff-Students WG----Structures-and-Operations WG----Teaching-and-Learning WG----Vision-and-Mission Middle Grades Design Group After School Programs Group
Healey Council Healey Council Work Who is the Healey Council? Organizing Team Notes Each working group was given their own wiki page. In order for each group to see what it was possible to display on the page, the wiki was originally filled in with dummy data—information that obviously needed to be changed once the working groups began using the wiki. As co-leader of one working group, I began modeling one way that a working group might utilize their page. The consultant also offered a great deal of content, especially research findings, etc., early on. As I was on the school council’s organizing team, the organizing team made constant references to the wiki, so it was encouraged in this way too. Of the five working groups, three began using the wiki early with great enthusiasm, posting members’ names, meeting times, minutes, decisions made, decisions-to-be made, etc. Another group eventually joined in using the wiki, but the final group never did use the wiki. All during this time there were many encouragements to all the groups to use the wiki. To augment the text-based messaging available on a wiki, we created a narrated PowerPoint presentation available on the web and linked through the wiki that provided a visual model for how the unification process would work. You can view that on the school principal’s page: https://healeyschool.wikispaces.com/Principal+DeFalco%27s+Page. Note that the principal was so busy during the unification process that he did not have/take time to learn how to best use the wiki. Note that we discovered early on that because YouTube was blocked within the school system, we had to use a different online video platform to present any videos or narrated PowerPoints if we wanted the teachers to be able to view the videos while at the school. We used Vimeo. We got regular pushback from parents, particularly middle-class, middle-aged parents, that the wiki was not an ideal communication tool. There were many reasons for this pushback. Some were simply not comfortable using any computer technology other than email. Many had never encountered the wiki concept before. They may have gone to Wikipedia, but didn’t understand that anyone—especially them—could actually edit it. Some people were concerned that we would not be able to reach people who didn’t have computers. We had assurances that the school would be able to provide parents with access, but such access never happened. (A plan to get a computer in the PTA room of the school is still underway; it’s been slowed by concerns about people inadvertently putting viruses into the school’s network). Note that most wikis require that those who want to edit the wiki have an email address, so that the wiki to be monitored for vandalism or abuse—and people can be blocked for infringements. As explained above, though, not all parents had email accounts (and, some “get an email” nights held by OneVille didn’t have a great turnout, possibly because the rationale for getting online was still not clear!). We also didn’t do sufficient paper-based advertising of the wiki. We assured everyone from the beginning that the wiki was not meant to replace other forms of communication. The redundancy principle (of the TRUST principles) makes this claim specifically. Still, among a vocal minority, grumblings continued and we defended the wiki’s use with some regularity.
Wiki Results When evaluating any piece of communication technology, it’s critical to compare the process using the technology to what the process would be like without the technology. So for example, in evaluating the benefits of the wiki, we need to look at the kind of process we would have without the wiki. This seems to be a particularly difficult thing for people to wrap their heads around. People look at the wiki and have complaints, but they don’t naturally think about what the process would look like without the wiki. As you’ll see in our communication strategy below, we had to specifically highlight the benefits of a wiki. We advertised the following potential benefits on the wiki and in correspondence in other communication channels, like the listserv in existence for one of the school’s programs: Potential Benefits of the Wiki Technology 1. Enables everyone to view the activity of the unification process. 2. Enables more people to have a voice and get involved in the unification process. 3. Enables more busy parents, teachers, students, and administrators to engage in Healey business when their schedules allow. 4. Enables those who are intimidated working in public or in groups to express their voices more easily. 5. Enables those who are intimidated speaking in groups of people demographically different from themselves to express their voices more easily. 6. Enables a wider group of parents, teachers, and students to get involved in the work of the Healey – IF issues of computer training and access get addressed. 7. Through Google translate, we could enable participants who speak different languages to speak to each other more effectively without human translators being required. 8. Makes it at least a little less likely that a small unrepresentative sample of our community makes or influences all/most of the decisions. 9. Overcomes the bottleneck problem where information does not get disseminated to a centralized website because it is simply too much work for one or a few people to keep up with the demand. 10. Enables the community to feel empowered to speak out, share views, etc. Such empowerment has subsequent benefits: o Better ability to understand each other’s' views. o Fewer offline gripe sessions that undermine school morale. o More opportunities to collaborate and share enthusiasms. o Better ability to coordinate actions. o More visibility regarding the issues of importance to parents, teachers, and students. After several months of wiki use, the grumblings diminished—at least publicly or to us. Throughout the process, the wiki was used mainly by the folks most involved in the working group work [meaning only the working groups, or some additional collaborators? Maybe get more specific], rather than by the full school community, Despite its limited reach, the wiki enabled its users - teachers, parents, and community members to work together in ways that would not otherwise have been possible. Some specific benefits: 1. Because of the wiki’s sheer presence—that it looked reasonably nice, that it seemed well organized, that its translation function seemed almost magical, that it gave a sense of thoughtful activity—it sent a message that the unification process was in good hands. 2. The wiki bolstered the “brand image” of the school, creating a buzz throughout the community at large and generating at least one article in a nearby town that praised our work (see http://tinyurl.com/6evmb4s). 3. The wiki enabled working groups to capture multiple sources of relevant information in one place, without requiring any one person to compile and post everything on their own. It particularly helped when we were seeking research examples of “how x is done in other schools.” 4. Enabled group members to reflect and/or comment on issues between meetings. The following shows a posting that enabled everyone to consider issues before discussing them at a following meeting: https://healeyschool.wikispaces.com/message/view/WG----Teaching-and-Learning/32808780. This post, as you may have seen, was not successful in getting others to reply. 5. Enabled in-depth discussions that would not have occurred in any other way because they were a low-priority of the collective, though still centrally important to a small minority. See for example, this discussion: https://healeyschool.wikispaces.com/message/view/Homework/31616317. Face-to-face meetings didn’t allow such a conversation because meeting time was at a premium and other things were discussed. 6. Enabled issues that weren’t resolved in the timeframe allowed (in our case before the final report was due in March) to still maintain a presence, for possible future consideration. 7. Enabled the many meetings that were scheduled, to be posted in one place, without stressing a bottleneck of having one person keep track of everything. Some Wiki shortcomings: 1. People did not take to the wiki quickly. 2. A large number of the school community did not engage the wiki at all. 3. An unrepresentative sample of school community members utilized the wiki. 4. Items were not always kept up to date. 5. The sheer size of the wiki may have kept some people away from the process. Just as many people don’t engage elections until there are only a few candidates still in the running, perhaps people felt it easier to stay disengaged until the work of the working groups boiled down to specific recommendations. 6. The wiki-master (your author) became stretched too thin and didn’t always engage the wiki as much as might have been needed. 7. The wiki became something of a forest of disorganized information, because people just posted reams of information without really understanding the capability of a wiki to post small chunks and link between them. (I ADDED THIS B/C THIS WAS HOW I HELPED SCREW UP THE WIKI!) 8. Good threaded discussions were very rare. The discussion tab was used extensively for posting and viewing, but was almost completely unsuccessful in having good back-and-forth discussions (except for the one linked to above). Whether this was a matter of training, comfort, or something else is not clear. 9. The working groups did not usually post their deliberations in a way that would make participation easy. Even within the school council—the most active group—things that were going be voted on in a coming meeting were not always posted in advance. Sometimes they were sent around in emails directly to council members, but this subverted the ideal of complete transparency and stakeholder involvement. 10. Some of the working groups did an inadequate job of keeping the school community informed, letting them know when the next meetings were, or inviting them to comment on their work-in-progress. 11. Teachers—who should be at the heart of the school redesign work—did not participate in the wiki, except for those who were actively involved in the working groups. The principal initiated lots of teacher input and discussion during professional-development time, but we didn’t do anything to involve teachers with the wiki early, and they didn’t jump in. 12. There were no students who used the wiki—at least as far as could be discerned. 13. The principal could have been utilized more to align his messaging with the wiki. He mentioned the wiki during teacher meetings and parent get-togethers, but to really draw people to specific wiki content, he could have mentioned more specifics. 14. The findings gathered on the wiki was compiled and/or interpreted mostly by people without a background in doing educational research. As might be expected, some of the research conclusions drawn from this work were lacking in rigor and perspective. I’M NOT SURE YOU WANT TO INCLUDE THIS ONE; IT SEEMS LIKE A RED HERRING/SOMEHOW UNRELATED TO WIKI’S, PERIOD 15. Despite the translation mechanism, virtually no non-English text was offered on the wiki (except as a demonstration). Lessons learned (things we might do better for next time): 1. More outreach, more training, more hand-holding early to get more people using the wiki earlier, and to improve the way the wiki is understood to be used. 2. Find a team of wiki facilitators/coaches who would volunteer to monitor the wiki and coach the most-active wiki users to improve the way the wiki is being used. The central idea is that training and getting people started is not enough, but that someone needs to monitor wiki use early and gently make recommendations for improvements. 3. More direction at the school council level to create specific plans for wiki use and wiki outreach. 4. Because of the large number of navigation options, people got a bit lost. Eventually we put up an ISSUE DISCUSSIONS page to drive people’s attention to the key issues under discussion by the working groups. This was a good idea to focus people’s attention, but we needed more compliance from the working group leaders to utilize it. Not all the issues were placed on this page. 5. Use a narrated presentation to add some personal messaging to help people learn how to use the wiki. The instructions were clear, but by adding a human voice to the instructions, people might have been more willing to engage the wiki itself. Note: This was planned, but the wiki creator never got around to it.[You say on p.5 that you created a narrated PowerPoint presentation. Did this not end up happening?] 6. Create more alignment between the principal’s messaging and the wiki. For example, during a parent coffee, the principal could have pointed out wiki pages to pay close attention to.
Bottom Line The wiki was essential to our work, but it was certainly no panacea. Our redesign process was under incredible stress from a ridiculously constrained timeline and we just couldn’t do the wiki right. Of course, even if we had added all the supports suggested above, there is still no guarantee that we would have engaged more people in wiki use and school redesign work. The wiki did create a positive buzz and ameliorated somewhat the incredible schisms that had been previously formed. The negatives linger in mind. Those of us in the process might even say something like, “The wiki is the worst communication tool in the world today for participatory school redesign work, except for all other communication tools, which would be worse.” Others of us would add, “wikis can be amazing – if people get trained to use them.”