11 March, 2009

Wikis: The Community and the Technology

Recently I've come across more people who want to use wikis for projects and collaboration in the classroom. On the face of it using wikis is simple, but it is worth staff having a good understanding of how wikis work, and an awareness of issues that could arise.

We'll start by having a look at a range of wikis.
- Wikipedia (English Version) - The largest wiki.
- Pulp Bard - Colaborative project to translate the Pulp Fiction film script into a Shakespearean equivalent.
-Wikipatterns - A collaboratively updated book about different ways in which wikis can be used.
-Reading List for a Course Created by Students - Barely started wiki that students could use to recomend relevant books to each other. The idea is that it could both encourage students to reflect on why their reading was worthwhile, and to communicate to other student both now and in the future why different books and articles would be worth reading.
-Wikis in Plain English is a video that explains why wikis and collaborative online documents are useful, using the example of planning a camping trip.

From these we see that wikis generally contain editable pages, discussion sections, history sections and a web feed to subscribe to notifications of any activity on the wiki. I guess the first step is for users to know about these and gain some understanding of the processes that took place in the development of the articles.

Firstly someone needs to start off an article. On Wikipedia many articles start off as short 'stubs' just to get them started. If enough people are interested in updating an article the development can be very interesting, as shown in this screencast by Jon Udell from a while back. In this screencast we see Jon extensively using the History feature of the wiki.

The screencast linked to above shows how incidences of vandalism are dealt with on an openly editable wiki. Classroom wikis will generally be only editable by the class, and vandalism is easily traced back to the culpit in that sort of situation. If people have genuine disagreements with a claim made on the wiki, they can use the Discussion area of the wiki to query it with people before making changes. If you use a wiki in your class, perhaps you can encourage this as an initial step when making changes to existing work.

In Minocha and Roberts (2008), research such as Minocha and Thomas (2007) is said to show that
  • "inadequate socialisation at the start of the collaborative activity was a key obsticle in conducting group projects or activities at a distance".

They define socialisation as
  • "the social act of coming together for a common purpose, for example, when students familiarise themselves with one another and learn about the norms, roles, rules and code of conduct.
If you are teaching at a distance using colaborative tools like wikis, it is worth thinking about how trust and understanding between students can be encouraged and protected.

So if you want to get started using a wiki, what can you do?

Edge Hill University isn't able to provide staff and students with access to wiki software in the near future, so your projects will need external hosting. This does mean that users of the wiki will need to register for a username and password to edit the wiki.

pbwiki is the external wiki host that I have used myself. You can get one for free, but it doesn't contain the functionality to back it up, so you might need to either do this manually or think about paying. 1 wiki hosted for 1 year would cost about £70, or if there was funding and enough potential users and institution wide licence would be about £600.

If you want to explore other wiki hosts, have a look at WikiMatrix's Choice Wizard to see lots of different wikis that could be right for you.

If you want to delve much deeper into the world of wikis:

  • Listen to: a few episodes of Wikipedia Weekly to hear what goes on behind the scenes in the Wikimedia community. There's a bit of waffle at the start of these but bear with it it'll aid your understanding of processes in a very large scale wiki.
  • Read: Wikipatterns which contains advice about running wikis with different purposes, what to do and what to avoid.
  • Read: How Wikipedia Works which is an in-depth explanation of everything that goes into making Wikipedia work.

Finally, note that there are other ways to create collaborative documents that might be more suited to your needs than a Wiki. Online tools like Google Docs and CmapTools (for creating concept maps) might work for you.

[image by one laptop per child]

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