Wikis and Education

Wiki means ‘quick’ in Hawaiian and is commonly used to refer to relational databases that allow for collaborative content creation and revision. These databases have some similarities to blog structures, insofar as they allow a group of people to comment on content, but are distinct from blogs insofar as they upset blogging’s authorial structure by letting readers make modifications to articles’ content. Whereas in blogs, readers can comment on content, in a wiki the readers can modify and come to ‘own’ the content. Wikis have been called the simplest kind of database, and this is (in part) due to ease of inserting and modifying content. All wiki’s use the following process for content generation: Edit >> Write >> Save. That’s it!

In situations where students are increasingly learning online, wikis can provide a space for them to work with one another to address/confront common problems and challenges. This can mean that a group of students use a wiki to write an essay so that they can all contribute to the project (and track each others’ modifications) without needing to find a time and space to sit down and talk with one another at length, to creating a set of class notes that reflect what occurs in lectures, to establishing a coherent content management system that lets students track how the courses they take throughout their academic degree interrelate with one another. In transitioning from analogue technologies and environments to digital wikis, students can (at least partially) overcome the challenges of space, scheduling, particular content retention, and tedious subject cross-references.

In post-secondary educational environments wikis hold a host of benefits, which I try to capture in the following list:

  • They enable students to contribute and share information amongst each other, develop comprehensive notes, can track and contest changes that their fellows make. It is important that both students and educators can track who is making what changes – it minimizes the risks of defacement, and (for TAs) means that wiki contributors can be contacted and scheduled for office hours if they are found to be persistently contributing incorrect content. Wikis give educators a way of seeing what students think, and when they see content difficulties that the majority of contributors are experiencing can either clarify content in class, the wiki or (perhaps preferably?), in the class blog.
  • It can be challenging for individuals to develop large amounts of content, but it is very easy for many people to make small additions to an article, which can lead to fully formed community documents. How many times have you seen a study group/note exchange, where one of the dominant issues that students have is getting together and working through material? Wikis can facilitate (thought not necessarily replace) student info-collection needs.
  • Quality control happens through peer evaluation – students learn from and collaboratively work with one another. The wiki they create has the potential to become a long-term resource that they can refer to over their academic career. Wikis that students develop can (potentially) be gradually opened up to other divisions of the college and university, with them ultimately being merged into a single wiki that is accessible across campus – this wiki would be made by student-experts, and perhaps be seen more positively than Wikipedia seems to be.
  • TAs could post reasonably brief outlines of class topics that INTENTIONALLY have some errors. Students are told that there are errors in the article and are asked to improve the document. If particular groups are responsible for cleaning up particular documents it becomes possible to evaluate the group’s ability to retain and apply the information they are learning in class.
  • Educators could build the basic outlines for wiki articles, and then see what content the students can add to it. This may seem somewhat random, but it allows the educator to establish the basic article hierarchy and then have the students apply what they learn – the students are responsible for generating the majority of the content, with educators only providing minor guidance. Wikis generated in this way could be used as study devices or, if an appropriate metric were developed, to evaluate students in an open online setting.
  • Assign sections of the wiki to students and have them contribute to particular areas of it. This could entail assigning groups particular weekly readings, with groups responsible for both summarizing and critically evaluating the articles, as well as finding a couple of articles that relate to the week’s readings. These extra readings would be linked from the ‘weekly’ article, with the students that found the article responsible for giving brief (250-1000 word) reviews of the articles they had chosen.
  • they offer TAs a place to structure their own thoughts, and have other TAs and profs examine lesson plans, action plans, or pre-developed questions and offer suggestions and insight.
  • Great way to bring guest speakers up to speed with what’s going on if the wiki is being used to develop class ideas.

Obviously there is a long list of possible benefits following from wikis, but the list is best summarized as follows: wiki’s allow transparent, collaborative, easy content aggregation and management, and can be used by students to teach one another and create a common digital resource. In a time where students are being told that Wikipedia is the devil, class-generated wikis let students take control of their learning and show educators the strengths of letting ‘amateurs’ develop and refine content.

There are, of course, some challenges that can arise when putting together a class- or college-wiki. I list some of them below:

  • There is the possibility of mass dissemination of grossly incorrect information.
  • The markup language may not be familiar to many students, and they may resist participating in the wiki on the basis of their unwillingness to learn the language.
  • If contributor/passive observer ratio is low then the benefits of aggregating people’s best insights is mitigated.
  • It is possible for data cocoons, amplification of errors, hidden profiles, cascade effects, or group polarization effects to occur as individuals isolate themselves from the wider world in favour of the wiki’s participants and content.
  • Vandalism – while Wikipedia can mitigate vandalism because of the number of people that observe the articles, in a class setting where very few people may be regularly monitoring the wiki, or where there is a determined attempt to weaken content, it can be challenging to minimize the damages.

I don’t think that any of the above challenged are insurmountable – in fact, I see the process of overcoming many of them as important to the weakening of the traditional teaching hierarchy. Educators may have to turn to technically oriented students to apply technological solutions to some of the above problems, and in other cases may need to work with students to develop a suitable normative approach towards wikis. Since each class holds a different series of particularities, and each series is likely to create and critique content in different ways, the educator cannot rely on a static approach to content management, but must work with each class to develop a system that is attentive to their particularities. This isn’t to say that, over time, educators will not come to recognize common patterns – they will – but that within those common patterns surprises can emerge.Wikis provide TAs in particular with a way of having seminar groups work with one another to meet common tasks – paper writing, exams, and disseminating related material. They can extend the class beyond class time, and let students that may not normally speak up in class to digitally participate with in class discussions. Moreover, for students that suffer disabilities that hinder their ability to easily engage with their classmates in verbal discussion, wikis offer an arena where their ideas can act as beacons of light for classmates that may not understand the material as clearly. Much as text-based web games broke down the distinctions between the physically challenged and those not so challenged, wikis (and all other predominantly digial textual tools) provide a way to again break down those distinctions.I’m admittedly in favour of wikis – I’ve yet to hear a critique of them that wasn’t either overblown, misguided, or flat-out wrong. That said, wikis have particular uses, and it’s important that educators evaluate how the digital tools is to integrate into their larger lesson plan before deploying them – it is important to know how a tool is to be used before picking it up and putting it into a production environment.