I often make a comparison between Bill Gates’ tendency to demo new products without telling us when they’ll be available for purchase and Steve Jobs tendency to tell us that new products from Apple are available “today!” – not so much to be critical, but to illustrate a point about the online world. “Today” is central to the growth of technology because the tools and services you can use today are the ones that will have the greatest immediate impact on your work. They’ll also better prepare you to be agile and adopt the newer, better services available in the future. As web communication and collaboration tools evolve, the distinction between them has become subtle at the outset, and greater as the use deepens, like a fork in the road. Blogs and wikis might not seem that different on first glance, because they both enable communication of information by a person or group of people, and provide a platform for feedback. Blogs do it in the form of comments, while wikis do it by letting users directly edit the contents of a given page.
This is where the distinction becomes more apparent. For example, businesses are increasingly using wikis to allow users of their products to write documentation, and the result is better, more comprehensive documentation than a product manager or engineer could write. A blog wouldn’t work as well for this, because direct editing of pages is necessary for users to alter the same text when correcting errors, improving clarity and flow, and adding new information. A blog would be useful for announcing a new product, and the comments feature would allow people to react to the announcement by posting questions, asking for further details, etc. A wiki wouldn’t work so well here, because the text of the announcement needs to stay stable in order to communicate accurate information to as many people as possible. The same general principle applies to education – blogs are a better communication tool when you want to get information out to people, and want to enable feedback, but keep the original text intact. Wikis are better when you want information to be touched – and enhanced – by as many hands as possible.
- Easily create simple websites Typically when students are asked to create web sites as part of a class project, they have to rely on the chance that someone in a group knows how to make a web site, or that some sort of training is available. The wiki eliminates both obstacles, because it provides a ready to use site with a simple user interface, ability to easily add pages, and simple navigation structure. This allows students to spend more time developing the content of the site, instead of trying to learn how to make one. The simplicity of the wiki syntax, or language for formatting text, inserting images and creating links, means students spend less time trying to figure out how to make the site do what they want.
- Project development with peer review A wiki makes it easy for students to write, revise and submit as assignment, since all three activities can take place in the wiki. A student can be given a wiki page to develop a term paper, and might start by tracking their background research. This allows the teacher, and peers, to see what they’re using, help them if they’re off track, suggest other resources, or even get ideas based on what others find useful. Next, the student can draft the paper in the wiki, taking advantage of the wiki’s automatic revision history that saves a before & after version of the document each time s/he makes changes. This allows the teacher and peers to see the evolution of the paper over time, and continually comment on it, rather than offering comments only on the final draft. When the student completes the final draft, the teacher and peers can read it on the wiki, and offer feedback.
- Group authoring Often groups collaborate on a document by “pushing” it out to each member – emailing a file that each person edits on his or her computer, and some attempt is made to coordinate the edits so everyone’s work is equally represented. But what happens when two people think of the same idea and include it in different ways in their respective copies of the file, or when one group member misses an agreed upon time to finish their changes and pass on the file to the next member? Who decides what to do? Using a wiki “pulls” the group members together to build and edit the document on a wiki page, which strengthens the community within the group, allows group members with overlapping or similar ideas to see and collaboratively build on each other’s work. It also allows all group members immediate, equal access to the most recent version of the document.
- Track a group project Considering students’ busy schedules, a wiki is very useful for tracking and completing group projects. It allows group members to track their research and ideas from anywhere they have internet access, helps them save time by seeing what sources others have already checked, then gives them a central place to collectively prepare the final product, i.e. write and edit a group paper or prepare the content of a powerpoint or keynote presentation.