Using PBworks for Paperless Classrooms: A How-to Guide

PBworks HomepageThe benefits of running a paperless classroom are many and obvious:  reduced environmental impact, lighter bags, no students running in late on the day a paper is due because the lab printer was down, etc.  While many instructors are comfortable using institutionally based software like Blackboard for this purpose, I’ve come to prefer the free wiki site called PBworks due to its simplicity, intuitive interface, and friendliness to collaboration.

PBworks runs on a wiki software, which means that each page can be edited by anyone approved by the site administrator.  This makes it ideal for group projects, peer review, sign-up sheets, and generating things like collaborative vocabulary or source lists.  While not terribly fancy, you can effectively store and organize all of your class materials on it and use it as your class home page if you so desire.  On student evaluations, students consistently cite the wiki as one of their favorite things about my class.

Getting Started: When you first visit the site, you’ll want to select “For Education” and “Sign Up Now.”  You’ll then be given three options at varying costs.  Our department has its own paid-for account, but most people will want to simply choose the free “Basic” option.  You’ll then be prompted to name your site.  Pick something like “americanlitfall10.pbworks.com.”  Keep in mind that you can create as many unique workspaces as you want, so you can have “americanlitspring11.pbworks.com,” etc. in the future.  I usually elect to keep my class sites private.

A newly created wiki This is what your wiki will look like when you first create it (click to embiggen any of these screenshots).  Note the four tabs at the top left of the page and the two tabs underneath.  Each page in your wiki will have a “View” and an “Edit” tab.  Remind your students that you have to be in “Edit” to change anything.  They will inevitably forget and get frustrated.  The first thing you will probably want to do is change your front page.  I usually put my vital course and instructor info in there.  Just for reference, here is a screenshot of my latest wiki (with my personal information blacked out).

The front page of my latest course siteThere are two fields on the right that you’ll want to make note of:  The Pages and Folder list and the Sidebar.  You can edit the Sidebar like any other page just by clicking “Edit the Sidebar” at the bottom.  The edit interface features all of the standard items in a MS Word, Blogger, or WordPress interface.  You can add hypertext links, images, and video.  You can also provide links to documents that you’ve uploaded to the site.  I use my sidebar for links to important class documents like the grading policy and reading schedule.

Next, you’ll want to look at the file management system.  There are shortcuts to all of your files and folders on the right hand side of every page, but you can also look at everything on your wiki by clicking “Pages and Files” on the top left.  This interface will allow you to upload files and create folders for each of your students (or they can create the folders themselves).  Here’s a view of one student’s folder, with the folder list on the side (last names have been erased for privacy purposes).

Paperless Submissions: Students can either upload assignments as Word files or cut and paste text into the standard page fields.  Both methods offer different advantages, which I’ll discuss in a moment.  You’ll want to make sure, however, that in any case, students give their documents and pages unique names that designate their name, the assignment, and the current draft.  Files that are uploaded with duplicate names will overwrite one another, and having unique names makes it easier to find an assignment that hasn’t been put in the proper folder.  You’ll note that each page/file is also time stamped, which is handy if you are a stickler about enforcing deadlines.

Recent Activity page

If you return to the main page, you’ll notice a field called “Recent Activity” at the very bottom.  It’s a short list of the last several things that were done on the site.  If you click “More Activity,” you can see every action performed on the site in order.  This is part of what makes my oddball late policy doable.  This feature allows me to grade papers in the order in which they were received and save papers that did not meet the deadline for my next grading period. (Note:  the fact that the site rigorously tracks changes and who makes them is a bit of insurance against any shenanigans.)

Add Users pageOnce you have your site organized the way you want it, you can start inviting your students.  If you go up to the Users tab on the top left, you’ll see a button that allows you to add more users.  Simply enter the email addresses of the people you wish to add.  They will be sent a link and prompted to create a PBworks account.  Alternatively, you can send your students the link to your site and allow them to request access.


Sample Peer Review ActivityPeer Review: One of the many activities PBworks allows you to, by virtue of the fact that anyone can edit any page, is virtual peer review.  If you don’t have a computer equipped classroom, this activity can be assigned as homework.  Have each student copy and paste their paper onto a new wiki page.  Then assign two students to read each paper.  Have the peer reviewers go in and enter their comments in a different color and identify their color at the bottom of the page.  Students can also use the comment feature at the bottom to make narrative comments and write into the page itself for line edits or specific comments.  Note the image on the left (from a rhetoric class two years ago).

Paperless Grading: Using the wiki for grading purposes is tricky due to FERPA restrictions.  While the wiki is technically private, it isn’t perfectly secure, so you should never ever post grades or any sort of evaluation on the wiki.  Here is what you can do though:  have students upload their final paper submissions as a Word document.  Download them and use the Word comments feature for marginalia.  Then type up a summary comment either at the top or bottom.  Then use a secure service like Blackboard to email the document to the student.  I don’t even put a grade on it, both out of paranoia and because I think it helps the student engage with the comments rather than worrying about the grade.  I post grades on Blackboard’s gradebook, and students know they can check for it there after they receive their paper.

Sample Sign-Up SheetPaperless Sign-ups: Here’s one more nifty thing.  I have various activities (presentations, one-on-one conferences) that usually require a sign-up sheet.  Not any more.  You can just create one on a wiki page and have students go in and enter their names.

So those are the basics.  There are many, many different ways that you can use this site, especially if you have a networked classroom.  Look here and here for a few assignments that use the wiki for collaborative assignments.

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6 thoughts on “Using PBworks for Paperless Classrooms: A How-to Guide

  1. I really found this post interesting, at least in discussing the paperless classroom. My only complaint is with the SNAP previews. Can you turn that off in WordPress?

    1. I know, those are annoying. WordPress automatically enables them and sort of buries the option to turn them off. Your post motivated me to find it though.

      1. Thank you so much! They drive me up the wall on so many sites that I just stop going to them. I would hate to give up SFD because it is helping me cope with omg!grad school.

  2. Thank you for this post. I have been using Pbworks wikis for quite sometime in my classroom and have really enjoyed it. Most especially, I have appreciated how you can set the privacy settings as you like and can easily see which students have made what edits to the page. I have recently have run into a big problem, however. I am having my students collaborate on a research and writing assignment. I created a wiki for each group and directed them to record their research findings on the wiki. My students set to work busily collecting information but found that when more than one of them tried to add information to the wiki page at the same time, they were unable to. Have you run into this same problem before? Do you have any ideas on how to get around it? Some of my students simply gave up and went to Google docs as there they can all add to a document at the same time. I would appreciate any advice you could give me. Thank you.

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