Interview: The State of Wikis in Education

Arielle Pandolph, a graduate student in the College of Information Studies at Florida State University, contacted me to discuss wikis for a course project. She’s currently a student in Dr. Lisa Tripp’s Design and Production of Media Resources course. Arielle says:

Most of the students in the program will use the degree to become librarians (public, schools, medical, law, etc.), some will use it in museums or other settings.

If you’re interested to know more about this course, please visit the course blog and wiki. Both are excellent examples of how to use blogs and wikis to create a digital extension of the course, and a vibrant online community for students to interact between formal class meetings.

She sent me a set of questions on wikis and their uses in education, and here are my answers:

What is it that you do and how did you become involved in wikis?

I’m a wiki consultant and evangelist, right now working with Atlassian, makers of an enterprise wiki called Confluence. I also write this blog, and have written two books: Wikipatterns, a practical guide to improving productivity and collaboration in your organization and Using Wiki in Education, an online book on wiki use in education and research. I also founded, a community-edited collection of wiki adoption patterns – strategies for growing wiki use in various ways.

What makes wikis so great? How are they used?

Wikis are great because they’re flexible, easy to use, and don’t have a steep learning curve like a lot of technology tools. They have a very wide range of uses in education, business, social groups, etc. In education, some of the most common uses include:

  • Curriculum Development: A few years ago, I worked with a group of my fellow teachers to build the curriculum used in a chemistry course where multiple sections were taught by this group. By using a wiki we had less email – we all went right to the wiki to work on lesson plans, teaching notes, etc.It gave us a common source of information to teach from, keeping the sections better aligned with each other, which meant students could more easily study together with students from other sections since they were on the same subject matter at the same time.We were able to pass on the materials to the next set of teachers the following year, so that instead of reinventing the wheel, they could focus on revising & updating the material we created on the wiki, and making sure it was up to date for their students.
  • Group Assignments: When students work on group assignments, a wiki can give them a gathering point to post materials, share links, and work together to author a paper or outline a presentation. Since all the material is in one place, a teacher can more easily check their progress, offer feedback, and make sure they’re on track to produce a successful final product.
  • Syllabus: A wiki is great for preparing a delivering your course syllabus, and the best part is you can change it as the semester progresses without having to email a revised copy to your students, or print paper copies, etc. Changes are available on the wiki as soon as you make them.
  • Just-in-Time Teaching: Wikis can be particularly useful in supporting this teaching method in which a teacher gives students a pre-reading assignment before lecturing on a topic. Before the lecture, the students submit feedback about what they’re comfortable with and what they want covered in greater depth, and the teacher uses this to tailor the lecture to their needs. A wiki can be used to provide the pre-reading assignments, and as a place to collect feedback.

How does a wiki compare to a blog? What are their different uses?

A blog is a time-based, sequential publication usually authored by one person, whereas information on a wiki is assembled and structured by a group of people. A blog is very much an online journal, and a wiki is similar to a whiteboard, except that it records everything that’s written on it, and lets you see the history of revisions.

In education, I see a blog being used to deliver news and updates to a class, and a wiki being used to work on projects, assignments, and notes.

Are there different types of wikis? What different types have you seen?

There are several different types:

  • Fully Web hosted: pbwiki, Wetpaint, Wikispaces – nothing to install, monthly or yearly fee to use (some free to educators), easy for beginners
  • Open Source: MediaWiki (powers Wikipedia), MoinMoin, Twiki – requires local installation, free, often preferred by advanced users
  • Enterprise Wiki: Clearspace, Confluence, DekiWiki, Socialtext – geared toward organizational uses, fixed price per license or monthly/yearly fee to use, some require local install/some offer hosted version with nothing to install

What are the benefits of wikis and do you think they can be improved? What could make them better?

The biggest benefits of wikis are fast, efficient collaboration, recording tacit knowledge to make better use of it, collaboratively building projects, papers, and websites, and gathering input in an inclusive way. Students like them because they make group projects easier to coordinate, teachers like them because they can interact with students throughout the course of a project or assignment, see their progress, and give them feedback along the way.

As with any technology tool, there’s room for improvement. In terms of technology adoption, I’d say the most important improvement is spreading awareness of wikis so that more people understand the possibilities and use them. In terms of the tools themselves, improving data portability so that you can easily move from one wiki to another is an important improvement – some wikis are very good at this, but not all.

How have you seen wikis being used in an educational setting (either in individual classrooms, school-wide, or in school libraries)?

Here are a few uses:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Outside of the classroom, wikis are good for project management, better meetings, and reducing email.

Do you think wikis are being used to their potential in educational settings?

It depends a lot on the institution. Some schools, courses, and teachers are doing incredible things with wikis, but they’re not yet in widespread use everywhere.

What restrictions do educators face when using/setting up a wiki in a school?

There are two types of restrictions – technical and cultural. Technical restrictions are things like not enough computers in classrooms to make meaningful use of tools like wikis, and cultural restrictions are things like a school environment where teachers aren’t actively encouraged to make technology a part of their teaching, and supported with appropriate time, training, and resources.

Where do you see the use of wikis in education going in the near or more distant future?

I see use of wikis growing as more and more teachers learn about them, discover that they’re as easy to use as email, offer a lot of benefits, and bring them closer to their students, other teachers, and experts like librarians.

As this happens, I see wikis being increasingly used for curriculum development, and enabling collaboration and information sharing among students in different classes and schools.

What resources are out there to facilitate the use of wikis in education? Where can educators go to learn about, set-up, and use wikis?

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