My Western Civ courses last winter and spring had some mandatory discussion components. Students had to visit the Holocaust Museum and talk about their experience online. I had them do the same with two old movies as well. (They chose from a list I had given them.) Both assignments went pretty well, except for a couple students who thought they only needed to copy and paste someone's words from an online movie review. The other downside to the assignment was assessment. Blackboard gives precise statistics for each user, so it is possible to combine one's impression of the students' quality of effort with numbers. Wikispaces, which I like, did not offer these statistics. (It might for its Private Label version, but my school doesn't have that. I had to set up my own Wikispaces account.)

What was really interesting about the Wikispaces experience, however, was that students started using the discussion feature in other parts of the course. It wasn't mandatory, though I had told students I'd keep it in mind when doing their class participation grade. I've said the same thing to classes where I have used Blackboard, but without such positive results. The difference was related both to Wikispaces and the number of students involved.

Wikispaces lets people stay logged in on their laptops or desktop computers. That makes it really easy to check on a regular basis. Wikispaces also makes it easy to create course content that is easy to navigate. Blackboard makes creating course content much more difficult, at least that's been my experience with their folders. I put course content in them and then got all kinds of emails asking where the stuff was. I never had that happen on Wikispaces. Obviously, I could learn to use Blackboard more effectively, but that will cost me more time than I've had, and the process of building pages will continue to be clumsy and slow. Wikispaces is so much easier, especially with one learns it's easy markup, though that is not necessary.

My experience with Wikispaces forums was different for another reason, however. Last spring I put together all three courses on one Wiki. That gave me about 110 people. Since the course is required and not everyone is as interested in online participation, or even familiar with online forums, these numbers gave me the critical mass I needed to get self-sustaining discussions that did not require too much shepherding on my part.

By way of comparison, this fall I am using Blackboard again, because I did not feel like paying Wikispaces any money or dealing with student usernames. (Neither of these things would be an issue if the university bought the service for the whole campus.) The result has been mixed. I have not required online participation because of the bibliography project, but I was hoping to see a little discussion about the content of the course like I saw last spring. That has not been happening much. The problem, I think, is that while I have 95 students, they are split into two courses and therefore two places on Blackboard. (I should have asked for consolidation of the two.) This means I lost my critical mass. Also, logging into Blackboard is a pain in the neck. Not only can it not leave one signed in, but it insists on checking browser compatibility every single time. Why can't it just drop a cookie? And Firefox asks me every single time whether I trust the security certificate or not. (Using Safari is not even an option.) These minor things really get in the way, because logging in distracts the user from whatever she might have wanted to say. Adding insult to injury, Blackboard automatically logs one out after a certain amount of time has elapsed, which limits the utility of its note-taking and calendar functions. (I'm not sure how much time has to pass, but the automatic logout has happened to me a lot this semester.)

One other thing I've noticed is layout. Many students need teaching about threaded discussions, no matter what platform, it seems, but Blackboard's are just plain clunky next to Wikispaces'.

One important point to note about Wikispaces: The free version does not shield students' comments from the public, and it includes ads via Google AdSense in the right-hand bar. The instructor can gain privacy and get rid of the ads by paying $5.00 per month or $50.00 per year. That is good if one plans to recycle the same site. If not, the number of sites could grow. Sooner or later one will have to release the comments to the public and allow the ads. I knew this was going to happen, so I told students ahead of time that I would be opening the wiki at the end of the semester. I also offered to delete their names, though only one person took me up on that. Of course, none of this is an issue for universities with an enterprise edition. Also, teachers in primary and secondary education can obtain free wikis for their classes.

Bottom line? I wish more universities would buy Wikispaces Private Label, which is between $1000 and $8000 per year, depending on levels of storage and service. I don't know what Blackboard costs, but I suspect this is a pretty cheap price that would make an invaluable tool available for student collaborative projects as well. And instructors would have control over their course websites and forums in a way that Blackboard users can only dream of. Of course, some instructors might be using Blackboard's testing features, which Wikispaces doesn't have, but I'm not.

Update (1/7/2010): I have deleted the wiki initially linked to at the beginning of this post. As interesting as the experience was, I would like to maintain the privacy of the students, and I cannot afford the annual dues to password protect the thing. I do wish that the universities I teach for as an adjunct wer subscribed to the enterprise version of Wikispaces.