Originally appeared in The School Administrator

“Technology accelerates transformation,” Jim Collins states in Good to Great.

The question facing top decision makers in public education is this: How can carefully selected technologies accelerate transformation in the work they do every day? How do new technologies for communication and collaboration — such as wiki tools — fit into what makes your school system tick?

“The fox knows many things,” goes the old saying, “but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Many school districts never realize how many things they are involved in until they write them down in one place.

One technology that can be used to focus a team’s work is the wiki. The wiki is a web page to which a small group of trusted individuals can contribute or edit. Sharing information, recording decisions in ways that are easily maintained and updated online and protected from prying eyes is essential to our work as decision makers.

A Sharing Tool
Technology’s power is no longer just in making information available. Rather the power to write ideas, share information and allow reflections to be published at will makes the difference. This attitude of sharing and collaborating changes your organization from a set of individuals around the table to a learning, organic team.

Wikis are web pages that can be easily edited, connected to each other through keywords and feature subscribable content via Real Simple Syndication feeds. RSS feeds enable individuals to subscribe to a wiki and to receive notification whenever a change has been made to the content. Two popular and free RSS readers are Google Reader (http://reader.google.com) and Bloglines (http://bloglines.com).

If collected over time, the wiki can serve as the collective history of discussions that have taken place, documents shared and decisions reached. As a school system leader, you might consider using wikis to accomplish the following:

  • Agenda planning. Move meeting agendas from e-mail to wikis. At the weekly meeting of our school district’s instructional technology team, staff provide updates on their priorities for the week. Instead of reciting those priorities aloud, they enter them in the wiki prior to the meeting. If items need to be added to the agenda, those are put into the wiki before the meeting starts.

As decisions are made, they are recorded in the wiki and updated by the person(s) responsible for implementation. Updates are made to the page periodically so all team members can view the status of a project.

  • Aggregating team information. It’s simple to record day-to-day decisions and aggregate information from multiple team members, for instance a superintendent’s cabinet.
  • Collaborative document development. When there’s a need to send out a memo to all principals or staff, you can use a wiki to develop the document. Instead of sending the document via e-mail for everyone to review, you place it on the wiki. The wiki tracks who is making changes and allows you to easily revert back to previous versions if the latest changes are undesirable.

For example, memos for principals are collected for the weekly information packet. Traditionally, this process involved e-mailing an MS Word document from person to person in the course of crafting a single memo. With a wiki, each team member goes to the wiki at a convenient time to make changes. The changes are tracked and the final decision maker decides which version of the memo he or she prefers. Use of the wiki eliminates e-mail clutter of multiple versions of a document.

  • Document management. Use the wiki as a way to organize documents. Access can be restricted, either through a username and password or placement of the wiki on the district’s local network (intranet), to those responsible for maintaining the document, while the intended audience can view the documents.

Principals who prepare a campus improvement plan typically must submit it to a central reviewer. Rather than send those documents via e-mail or compile them in an Outlook folder, it is simpler to enable principals to place their campus improvement plan on one page of the wiki that only they have access to.

  • Grant planning and writing. Collaboratively develop a grant application involving multiple staff members. Many wikis come with discussion group or forums that enable collaborative discussions around particular pages in the wiki. You can have a vigorous discussion about the content and have that discussion forum serve as an annotation to the work.

Equalizing Input
In a school district setting, the use of wikis can equalize powerful ideas, regardless of their source while not undercutting the superintendent’s responsibility for final decisions. A project management wiki, for example, enables directors and their supervisors to collaborate on the logistics of a project. The focus is on developing the best ideas, not the politics of who ranks higher in the hierarchy.

Miguel Guhlin is director of instructional technology services in San Antonio, Texas. E-mail:mguhlin@gmail.com.

Resources
Miguel Guhlin has compiled useful background on wiki technology and its uses at a blogsite he maintains at http://mguhlin.wikispaces.com, including links to school district-based examples of the wiki applications referenced in his column.

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