All I Really Need to Know I Learned Through My Wikispace

Guest blog post by Miriam Stein

This time last year, the most I knew about anything wiki related was Wikipedia, a site that I went to if I needed a quick, and hopefully accurate, background on something. In a few short months, and with the help of my talented and incredibly patient Darim coach, my approach to wikis and web tools has changed dramatically.

I was working at the Partnership for Jewish Life & Learning, whose mission is Transforming Community through Education. One of the Partnerships most innovative projects is called CE21: Congregational Education for the 21st Century. This is an initiative in which 6-7 congregations participate at a time and engage in a complete overhaul of their approach to congregational education, something that many people would agree is a broken system.

Any innovative project for the 21st century needs to include the power of technology tools. Our goal was to showcase the most cutting edge technologies both as a tool for the congregations, but also as a model for them to use in their own congregations. Although I was tasked with injecting this project with web 2.0 tools, I considered myself moderately capable in the use of social media, hardly the expert that I wanted to present myself as!

I was lucky enough to find out about the Darim Online program which provides excellent technology coaching for Jewish educational organizations. As described below, through my work with my Darim coach, Caren Levine, we created something that I am really proud of, and most importantly, is helping congregations transform their communities.

My goal was to create a forum for communication between seven congregations involved in CE21. They are all local to the area, but getting together at the same time for meetings or calls is a challenge. Through exploring what would be the best option for them to communicate, Caren and I came up with the idea of creating a wiki using Wikispaces. My most important criterion was usability for the target audience, who I knew might not be tech-savvy. Wikipedia is already very familiar to people, and that served to make people comfortable with the idea of a wiki from the start.

Once I knew that I wanted a wiki, I had no idea how to create it or how to make it effective. The following six months opened my eyes to how to create an incredible web resource. The best part is that I have learned a lot through the process. My lessons are listed below, with some explanation, and hopefully some instruction about how becoming comfortable with wikis and web technology is really about so much more.

  1. Be patient with yourself: learning how to speak a new language is never easy. My first few sessions with the Darim coach were all about learning the language of the wiki (like what “wiki” even means!). I wanted to know a lot immediately, but it took time to get used to the format, the language, and the tools that made information appear the way I wanted it to. I learned that there are web tools to help us become more comfortable with other web tools like the Common Craft video on how to use wikispaces! Taking a few minutes to invest in learning the right way to do things from the beginning pays off tremendously later on. That investment turned into the use of some really cool tools that we integrated into the Wikispace. Our goal was to make it as user-friendly as possible for our members, some of whom were not very tech savvy. We installed a navigation bar which serves as a Table of Contents for the site and was constantly visible on every page. We tagged pages with key words, and then created a tag-word cloud below the navigation bar to make it easier (and more visually pleasing!) for members to find pages relevant to certain themes. The more frequently a word or theme is tagged, the larger the word appears. I also knew that our site is very text-heavy, and I was looking for a way to make that more appealing to the user. With the help of Caren, I learned how to code the text so that within each page, we included a table of contents to help the user navigate the page. These small tools all of which I learned through practice, practice, practice took the site from a warehouse of information to a resource that was very user-friendly.
  2. Practice makes perfect, or at least makes it passable. As with anything, the more you practice, the better you become at it. The key for me to remember in creating the wiki was that while my end users were at a level that required a certain amount of knowledge to use it effectively, I did not need to know everything about Wikispaces. Sometimes the perfectionist in us gets the better of us, but the truth is what was really necessary was for me to meet my clients needs and make this tool helpful to them. What they needed was a forum for communication and a resource for information. A wiki was the perfect medium for that because it allowed them to exchange information and communicate without having to coordinate a specific time to talk with each other. The user-friendliness of Wikispaces made the experience really enjoyable. It also served as a model for how members could use a Wikispace with their own congregations as one did.
  3. You have friends who can help you whether at Darim Online or at the Wiki help desk. Questions would come up along the way as I continued to build up the wiki with more content and more features. Could it do this? Could we see that? The good news is that a lot of these questions were generated by the wiki members which is exactly what we wanted! Rather than try to figure everything out on my own (which I probably would not have been able to do anyway), my Darim coach was always ready with either a really nifty solution, or the right person with whom to be in touch for assistance. I dont think anything came up that we couldnt answer with a little bit of patience and creativity!
  4. Communication is what makes us human. Our ability to exchange ideas and collaborate has the potential to lead to greatness. Wikis make that even easier by providing forums for users to post their ideas and create content, building a site that is the woven fabric of the community’s ideas. The primary difference between a traditional webpage and a wiki is that content can be more easily generated collaboratively by members without an intermediary such as an administrator or webmaster. The CE21 Wikispace and the ideas and research there is the product of the communication of the seven CE21 congregations.
  5. Congratulate yourself on your successes. In creating a wiki, not only did I learn something new a skill that I can bring with me wherever I go but I know that I am helping my local congregations make their communities better. This means individual members will have an enriched Jewish experience, which is really what this is all about.

Miriam Stein is the Director for Jewish Life at the Charles E Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, MD. She worked on the Wikispace for the CE21 project for the Partnership for Jewish Life & Learning. Miriam lives in Washington, DC and when she is not working on cool web 2.0 projects and teaching, she is the proud wife of Andrew and mother of Aviv.

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