NYC school uses collaborative wikis to cut costs and save time

One school shares how it tapped collaborative wikis to let teachers and parents efficiently work out schedules without endless phone calls or last-minute confusion.

Collaboration 2.0 doesn't mean breaking the bank. That's what one New York City school discovered when it replaced

its old pencil-and-paper parent-teacher meeting scheduling with a collaborative wiki that lets teachers and parents efficiently work out schedules without endless phone calls, slips of paper disappearing on the way home, or last-minute confusion.

The Allen-Stevenson School, a private K-9 school in Manhattan, will be using Wikispaces for the third year come fall, and Steve Cohen, assistant upper school head, said he's delighted with the results so far.

"The only responses I've received are that it's great," Cohen said. Every semester, he creates a blank schedule for each teacher with times listed. Parents are then directed to the wiki, which also includes written instructions and a video explanation, where they can enter their names into an empty time slot without registering or having to use any unfamiliar systems.

The wikis have been successful enough that Allen-Stevenson has used them in other areas, both internal and external facing (internal wikis can be password protected on Wikispaces).

The wikis include everything from test scheduling (internal) to early dismissal information (external).

"Every document is always up to date, and updated in real time," Cohen said. "I used to have to compile it all and send out emails with updates. It's taken a lot of work off my hands so I have more time for important things, like the kids."

Because Allen-Stevenson is an educational institution, Wikispaces provides the service, which includes unlimited wikis, free of charge.

"We've saved lots of money," Cohen said. "But the real drag of using [expensive collaboration products] was you have these elaborate systems; parents had to get accounts; you had to give vendors the students' names; there was lots of work just to get it to work."

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With the Wikispaces, Cohen can just set the program up and have users do the work for him. Privacy concerns are minimal because the only publicly accessible information is the student's name and time of meeting, and if there were concerns about privacy due to special circumstances, Cohen said, he could take those appointments by phone and manually track them, as he does for the two or three families every year that do not have access to a computer.

Encouraging collaborative wiki uptake

Cohen also likes the project because it was a simple way for teachers to "get their toes wet" with collaborative technology with a shallow learning curve and a high return on investment. For the spring semester, he said, teachers would actually have to sit and field calls for scheduling parent-teacher appointments.

Demonstrating the value of collaborative technology, while teaching how to use it, is the hardest challenge in its adoption, said Zeus Kerravala, a Yankee Group analyst.

"The success depends more on the utilization of the tools than the tools themselves," Kerravala said. Keeping it simple and easy to access increases the chance of success.

It also doesn't hurt to take the carrot-and-stick approach. Kerravala suggested, for example, offering prizes or recognition for top wiki contributors.

Cohen had some suggestions for the "stick" approach.

"Make it necessary," he said. Much of the essential documentation for teachers is now on wikis at the school, but Cohen still fields requests for how to do this, or for hard copies of those forms. He regularly denies such requests and points the users to the appropriate wiki page.

"Our teachers use our wikis for things because that's where the stuff they need is," he said.

Surprisingly, the toughest audience for wiki adoption has been outside of school staff.

"Kids only use technology for the things they want to use it for," Cohen said. "They won't necessarily check the website for their homework."

So, after posting assignments on a wiki with mixed results, Allen-Stevenson is moving decidedly old school: They are putting a white board in the hall with all the assignments so that passing students cannot claim they didn't have access.

Contact article author Michael Morisy at mmorisy@techtarget.com.

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