Blogs and Wikis

by Jeff Johnston, Assistant Director, Vanderbilt Center for Teaching

Using Web 2.0 technologies in working with today’s learners

Blogs and wikis are two web based technologies that each offer a variety of benefits to students and instructors.  This web page provides basic information about these two technologies, discusses how these technologies can be used to engage students in learning, and provides a variety of links for further information. 

Web 2.0

Blogs and wikis are both examples of technologies that are often labeled Web 2.0.  According to Wikipedia’s entry on Web 2.0:

Web 2.0 is a term describing the trend in the use of World Wide Web technology and web design that aims to enhance creativity, information sharing, and, most notably, collaboration among users. These concepts have led to the development and evolution of web-based communities and hosted services, such as social-networking sites, wikis, blogs, and folksonomies.

(Wikipedia is itself a great example of a Web 2.0 technology and is discussed in more detail below.) The term Web 2.0 emerged to distinguish these newer technologies from Web 1.0 technologies, typified by static web pages.  With Web 2.0 technologies, participation and collaboration among users are key, think Wikipedia, Facebook and YouTube.  This is important in the context of teaching and learning because Web 2.0 technologies embrace what cognitive scientists tell us about effective learning, namely that learning is more authentic and takes place at a deeper level when the learner is actively involved in the learning process rather than passively soaking up information that is being presented to them. 

Our students have changed radically. Today's students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach. - Mark Prensky, "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants"

Students of Today

Another reason to incorporate blogs, wikis and other Web 2.0 technologies into your teaching comes from the changing nature of students today. In general, students today have grown up surrounded by digital technologies and are comfortable integrating them into daily life in ways that most people of the previous generation are not. Marc Prensky coined the term “digital natives,” to represent the digitally enabled generation that now sits in our classrooms, and to contrast them with the rest of us who are “digital immigrants.”  While as a generalization the distinction between digital natives and digital immigrants is accurate, it is important to recognize that not all of your students will have experience using and be comfortable with these new digital technologies.  As with anything else, be aware of what skills and abilities your students bring to the classroom and adapt the learning environment accordingly.

The sources below provide additional information on students of today and some of the ways that they differ from the students of previous generations.

  • A Vision of Students Today,” Kansas State University Digital Ethnography Project.  A short video summarizing some of the most important characteristics of students today.  Created by Michael Wesch in collaboration with 200 students at Kansas State University.  
  • Teens and Social Media: The use of social media gains a greater foothold in teen life as they embrace the conversational nature of interactive online media, Pew Internet & American Life Project, December 19, 2007. 


In “7 Things You Should Know about Blogs,” Educause describes blogs as:

An online collection of personal commentary and links. Blogs can be viewed as online journals to which others can respond that are as simple to use as e-mail. The simplicity of creating and maintaining blogs means they can rapidly lead to open discussions. Faculty are using blogs to express their opinions, promote dialogue in their disciplines, and support teaching and learning; students increasingly use blogs for personal expression and as course requirements.

Like other educational technologies, there are many ways that blogs can be incorporated in a course.  One way to use them is to have one blog for the entire course.  The instructor (or a student) posts an assignment (or a question or a comment) on the blog and students respond to the instructor and each other.  Used in this way, a course blog is similar to a threaded discussion.  An important difference, however, is that while threaded discussions are typically only available to those in the course, blogs can be made publicly available, thus opening up the conversation to a wider audience.  Blogs also enable users to post pictures, video clips and just about any other kind of digital media in ways that are not possible with threaded discussions. 

Another common way to use blogs with a course is for each student to set-up and maintain his or her own blog.  This can be a great way to facilitate student journaling, with journal entries either kept private, shared with just the instructor, or shared more widely.  Alternatively, students can be required to post reactions to class discussion or to something they read on their blog, and then to comment on other students’ blog entries.    

Two technologies that enhance the conversational nature (and manageability) of blogging are RSS and trackback.  RSS (which stands for “Really Simple Syndication”) enables you to “subscribe” to a blog (or just about any other kind of website) so that you are notified the next time new content is posted to the site.  This keeps you (and your students) from having to visit sites to see whether or not they have been updated.  With a Trackback (or linkback) a web author is able to keep track of who is linking, and so referring, to his or her website. A trackback is a form of acknowledgement to facilitate communication between blogs.  Using a trackback a student can post a comment on his or her own blog, linking the comment to something on another students blog.

As this brief introduction indicates, the possibilities for using blogs to encourage student writing and to engage them in conversation about their writing are immense.  See the links below for more information. You can also contact the CFT to set-up a consultation to talk about how to incorporate blogging into your course.

More information on blogs:

Sample blogging software:

Sample educational blogs:


The important potential for wikis involves their ability to garner a public audience and involve it in knowledge making through collaboration. – Michael Pannell, University of Rhode Island

When most people think of wikis, they think of Wikipedia.  While Wikipedia is the best known example of a wiki, it is simply one particular application of wiki software.  Essentially, a wiki is a web page with an open-editing system.  Wikis in Plain English is a short movie describing what a wiki is and how it can be used in a collaborative process.  According to “7 Things You Should Know about Wikis:”

Wikis are Web pages that can be viewed and modified by anyone with a Web browser and Internet access. Described as a composition system, a discussion medium, and a repository, wikis support asynchronous communication and group collaboration online. Their inherent simplicity gives students direct access to their content, which is crucial in group editing or other collaborative activities. Their versioning capability allows them to illustrate the evolution of thought processes as students interact with a site and its contents. Wikis are also being used as e-portfolios, highlighting their utility as a tool for collection and reflection. They may be the easiest, most effective Web-based collaboration tool in any instructional portfolio.

While the use of Wikipedia as a reference source has been the subject of much discussion in higher education, many instructors are finding it to be an excellent teaching tool because of the ways that wikis enable collaboration and public knowledge creation. In episode one of the CFT podcast series Michael Bess, the Chancellor’s Professor of History at Vanderbilt, discusses his use of Wikipedia to help undergraduate history majors learn how to think and reason like historians.

Michael Pennell, assistant professor in the department of writing and rhetoric at the University of Rhode Island, discusses his use of Wikitravel in a digital writing classroom in a recent article in Pedagogy (Vol. 8, No. 1, p. 75-90).

For a sampling of the many, many things that educators are currently doing with wikis, see the Wiki Educator wiki.

There are a variety of free and easy to use wikis that make it quick and easy to get started using wikis.  For example:

As with blogs, the possibilities for using wikis to engage students both inside and outside of the classroom are immense.  Don’t hesitate to contact the CFT if you are part of the Vanderbilt instructional community and would like to talk to one of our consultants about incorporating wikis into your teaching.


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