Category Archives: pghscitech

Choosing a wiki for collaborative curriculum design

Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy is a groundbreaking new sci-tech magnet school opening in 2009. Among other innovative methods, they are keen on working with education and technology researchers to the latest research into their design and practice. They are designing a new school and integrated 4-year curriculum from the ground up, and as part of the CMU‘s PIER program I have had the opportunity to see the challenges and opportunities this affords. As an HCI researcher in collaboration technologies to support education, I have been particularly interested in how they can best support collaboration among teachers and administrators as they carefully design their curriculum to kick off in classrooms next Fall.

This morning I spoke with Stephen Pellathy, the Curriculum Coordinator for science, who has made some visits to my curriculum design course this semester to discuss their process. When he started, the curriculum was a Word document that got e-mailed around. Aware that wikis were much more supportive of collaboration, he set up a Google Sites wiki to hold the curriculum so that he and the teachers could easily write and revise it together.

He picked Google Sites initially because it was convenient and he knew it already, but he had been hearing of other options and wanted to decide on a long term platform soon before the content grew to a size that would be formidable to transfer. Through the conversation we hit upon these concerns:

  • Will the storage be enough after years of growth? Can it host video?
  • How time consuming is accounts management?
  • How hard is moving the content to another wiki if another becomes more appropriate?
  • How hard is it to integrate other documents like budget spreadsheets?
  • Can it differentiate between teacher and student access? On a per-page level?

There are comparisons of wikis for education on the web. (e.g. 1). Most take a focus on wikis for student learning. Here the concerns are on the teaching side. A big site for wiki-based curriculum is Curriki, but that is for open content, and hopes to facilitate collaboration on a large scale. That challenge is great and some believe it won’t work. I should write more on that at a future date, but right now I’ll restrict the focus to teachers and administrators collaborating within a school to develop a new curriculum. Basically, a recounting of key points from our conversation.

Google Sites
Currently they’re using Google Sites off a Gmail account. I think this gives 100MB storage. If they want to stick with Google Sites, they could set up a domain with Google Apps and get 10GB for shared storage. A private Google Video service is included, but will soon cost $10/user/year. Account management isn’t too difficult since there is a batch account manager. With the Premier level they offer single-sign-on.
Google Sites integrates pretty nicely with Google Docs, allowing you to embed spreadsheets.
One drawback is on portability. There’s no way to transfer your Google Site to another service or even download it as an archive. Another key drawback is it has only role-based and no page-level access controls. That means that to let someone edit any page on a site lets them edit every page on that site.

Another option he had heard of was MediaWiki, the software that runs Wikipedia. For most educational contexts this isn’t an option since it requires a server to host it, but in this case the person who suggested it also offered to host it. A key feature of MediaWiki is that it is open source, but that doesn’t matter much here in practice because no one has the skillset to be editing the code. It does mean that it has more community investment and there are many more tools to support it, such as plugins. But again, these require a level of technical skill that may be available.
One pretty advanced feature within the wiki software is its template system. This is used extensively in Wikipedia, such as for the info boxes on the right hand column of a page. These could be useful in curriculum design to maintain uniformity across documents. On the other hand, they could force constraints that may be stifling. Maybe it’s better to achieve uniformity through cultural norms and let people break out of them when they see fit.
While hosting MediaWiki yourself is a cost, it’s also a benefit to portability since you hold all the data. You can easily move it to another MediaWiki server and perhaps even other wikis if you find a conversion tool.

I suggested he consider a third option, PBwiki. I made a PBwiki when their service was just starting up and I’ve seen it grow into a really powerful and easy to use platform. The release of Google Sites gave them some hard competition, but their new 2.0 release seems to have made them stronger for it.
The key advantage of PBwiki for this school is page-level access controls. For example, teachers or administrators can draft a document with a smaller group before releasing it to view by students. MediaWiki has this but Google Sites doesn’t. This requires the Academic Silver package ($100/year).
Another key advantage is single-sign-on. They already have an authentication system for their current web site. This way a user only has to log in once and can go between the current web site and the new wiki. I don’t know whether MediaWiki offers this. Google Apps does but in my cursory research it looks a little wonky. This requires this Academic Platinum package ($1k/year). That’s pricy, but it’s within the budget and could pay for itself in time saved. The Platinum level also includes 5GB storage. Less than Google’s 10GB, but more than enough for curriculum documents. Hosting video would eat into that quickly, but that can easily be uploaded elsewhere and embedded on PBwiki pages. Same for spreadsheets, etc.
My favorite advantage of PBwiki is the ability to download your whole wiki as a ZIP archive. This mixes the hosting advantage of Google Sites with the “it’s your data” advantage of MediaWiki.

This is not by any means an exhaustive comparison of these three wiki platforms. I just wanted to write down and share the concerns and light research that came out of this phone call. They will probably decide on a platform within the next week. Please comment if you are interested in hearing more about their ultimate decision and the factors in it.