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A quarter million teachers to get free wikis

After Wikispaces gives out 100,000 wikis to teachers around the world, it decides that the project to help educators is worth continuing.

A San Francisco wiki services provider has just finished a multiyear project under which it gave teachers all over the world 100,000 free wikis. And now, it is doubling up and getting set to give away another quarter million.

The company, Wikispaces, decided in 2006 that it would make helping teachers use the collaborative software to further cooperation between students, both in their own schools and with schools in other cities and countries, a cornerstone of its business.

But while Wikispaces hasn't made any money directly from the project--and in fact has incurred significant costs due to supporting the teachers' use of the wikis--co-founder Adam Frey said the company has found that the educators are just the kind of evangelists that can aid a start-up in building a business.

"We just said that if you sign up for our paid service and you're a teacher, we'll waive the fee, and that message spread far and wide," Frey said. "People have been signing up for the last 18 months...It showed us the power of doing something nice for people."

Frey said that the company has given wikis to teachers all over the United States, in China, in Scandinavia, Australia, New Zealand, and in Africa.

"It always starts with just a simple way to get work done on the Web," Frey said, "having students put their work up on a Web page, and it quickly becomes collaborative."

For Vicki Davis, a teacher at the Westwood Schools in Camilla, Ga., the free wikis project has been a boon to developing her students' sense of how to be a responsible online citizen, as well as for completing collaborative projects.

Davis' institution has been part of the Wikispaces project since the beginning, and has engaged in several different online initiatives that have involved more than 1,000 students from public and private schools in many different countries.

She said her students are using the wikis to research the ideas of digital citizenship raised in Thomas Friedman's famous book, The World is Flat: copyright, digital law, digital ethics, and digital etiquette, and are using the wikis to write collaborative reports.

"When they're done (writing), they have a collaborative report and 10 to 15 students from at least six countries have edited it," said Davis. "They learn what it's like to live in a connected world."

One reason Davis said her school has been an energetic participant in the Wikispaces project is that the software company met its needs in ways other providers couldn't.

For example, she said, Wikispaces' wikis came ad-free, something that was crucial for working with minors.

That's because the AdSense ads that are served up by other companies' software are contextual, meaning that if the students are studying something with mature themes, the ads could easily end up being pornographic in nature, something that would have instantly shut any online work done.

Further, she said, the Wikispaces infrastructure can handle hundreds of students working on projects together, something some other companies' wikis could not.

Now, as Wikispaces begins to give away the next 250,000 wikis, it is likely to get the same kind of enthusiastic referrals to potential paying customers that Davis said she has happily done.

"They have spent their money giving educators free wikis," Davis said. "And they've done a great job on technical support...If (other people) ask me what wiki I use, it's absolutely Wikispaces. And I blog about that too.

To Frey and his partners, this is music to their ears. He said that Wikispaces has spent almost nothing on marketing since its launch, but that its investment in supporting the educators in its free wikis program has more than paid off in new paying business.

"When you give teachers attention and respect their needs," Frey said, "they want to talk about their experiences...When you give them something that they're actually excited about, they're more than eager to tell people about it."