A few years ago Wikipedia was academia’s bête noir, now almost everyone uses it, including academics and students. It’s the biggest, best and most used knowledge base in the history of our species. But few know about the many wikis that are used for learning around subjects, courses, and projects, the wiki workhorses. Fewer still know about the wikis on the web around people’s hobbies and enthusiasms. The world of Wikis is far more diverse than Wikipedia alone.
Wikipedia – the start line not the finish
The impact of Wikipedia on learning is incalculable. Too often attention is drawn to the idea that it creates a ‘cut and paste’ culture of plagiarism. This has a grain of truth but didn’t we always walk up and down library shelves for books, then do the same thing? For me the great advantages are the speed and convenience of getting to something as useful as a Wikipedia page as a starting point. For most it is the first door you open to knowledge on a topic, a reasonably short and structured introduction. Once through, you can move out of that room and explore the edifice that lies behind by following up citations, links, images, videos, articles, academic papers, books and so on. Wikipedia is the start line not the finish.
Wikipedia and knowledge
With Wikipedia, the printed encyclopedia industry was dead. It is not just its size that matters. It completely screwed the paper encyclopedia industry because it was dynamic, easily updated and made distinctions between levels of knowledge: certain knowledge, knowledge that needed citations and knowledge that was open to discussion. Any epistemologist will tell you that knowledge is not a fixed entity but a moving feast, affected by new research and new findings. Some, such as Quine, go as far as saying that all knowledge is corrigible and therefore subject to potential revision. Wikipedia doesn’t pretend to be absolutist, it knows that what it knows should be open to scrutiny.
Wikis in learning
There’s lots of talk in learning about collaborative skills but action is rarer. A wiki is a strongly collaborative medium that forces people to be collaborative. More than this, it teaches you to be collaborative within a set of rules, where negotiation, decision making and eventual agreement are necessary. It also forces you to reflect on the very nature of collaboration in terms of the roles of individuals within a process.
It also teaches good writing and editorial skills. A good wiki must be pitched at the potential audience, have a consistent voice, be concise, accurate and error free. It may also teach good research skills in terms of quality links and precise citations. There is an in-built peer-process at work here, as contributors have to critique the contributions of others.
The advantage of a wiki over a blog is the structure, menu and navigation of a wiki is easier for a wide range of interested users. Then there’s the widgets you can add embed in educational wikis, such as calendars, videos, slide shows, polls, and spreadsheets. There’s even a Wiki on how to use Wikisin education, with loads of resources, examples and discussions.
A Wiki is content focussed. It works when a group of people want to create content around a topic. This can be a group of experts, teachers, trainers or lecturers who want to collaborate to come up with an expert perspective on a specific subject, project, course or institution. Here’s an example on using blogs for learning, another in ICT resources for teachers. They exist at all levels in education from primary schools to Universities.
When a Wiki is used to build a course or course materials, it has the advantage of containing relevant content, links, reading lists, exams and so on, which can be updated when necessary or when a new member of staff joins. Some have even used Wikis as alternative to the more common VLE, as they are extremely open, flexible and updatable.
A group of students can also be set the task of building a Wiki as part of their learning. For students there’s a double dividend, the content as well as the skills acquired in contributing collaboratively to the wiki. You really do get to grips with as a subject when you have to write about it for use by others in a collaborative environment.
As all edits are logged, you can assess the collaborative contributions by different students, identify non-contributing students, identify lack of evidence, need for citations and suggest suitable directions. Peer review assignments can also be handled through Wikis, where specific students are assigned to review other students work.
You can, of course, get students to contribute to Wikipedia, which always creates a buzz and sense of achievement. Wikipedia, or other Wikis, can therefore be used as an assignment tool, where students are asked to review a page(s) identifying weaknesses, a lack of citations and even implement improvements. Wikipedia even has a page devoted to this task.
One free resource, that has been a boon to educators, is Wikispaces, which has hundreds of thousands of educational wikis. It’s easy to get started with a topic based wiki, class schedules, homework, notices for parents, and showcases of student work and you can make it as private or public as you wish.
Wikis & informal learning
Never heard of Wikia? Astonishing though Wikipedia is, Wikia is just as interesting from a learning point of view. In this particular corner of the wikisphere, the sheer enthusiasm of fans for their subjects often spills over into fanaticism. It has over a quarter of a million communities on people’s passions, whether it be lifestyle, news, games, culture or entertainment. It is people doing it for the fun of it, the funhouse of the wikisphere, with a lot more detail for fans of a topic than a typical Wikipedia article. It was also started by Jimmy Wales and operates under a copyleft licence – free to distribute and modify.
Wikis are wickedly clever. Jimmy Wales should get a Nobel Prize for Wikipedia, as it is probably the most powerful learning resource ever created. Yet wikis in education are more than just reference tools for flat knowledge. Like blogs they are content-driven but more collaborative and structured than blogs. They offer a free way of publishing for teachers and students as well as a way of building collaboration, negotiation, research and editorial skills. The wonderful world of wikis is one of those technical surprises. It exploded unpredictably onto the scene and no one foresaw the scale of Wikipedia’s success or its dramatic impact on education.