wikis

E-learning with web 2.0


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- ► category - Wikis are perhaps the ultimate web 2.0 tool. They allow users to collaboratively create multimodal documents, and comment on and edit each other's work. Thus, they relate very much to the principle of collective intelligence. While some wikis have partly optimised their displays for mobile devices, dedicated mobile wiki services or apps are unusual (see Going Mobile below).

- ► what - Wikis are collaboratively authored websites. The image at left shows the logo of the largest and best-known wiki, Wikipedia. Note, however, that Wikipedia is just one example of a wiki: there are countless wikis, large and small, on the web, covering all kinds of subjects. Many of them have been set up by educational institutions, where they may be used with students of all ages, from kindergarten to tertiary level.

Fully public wikis, like Wikipedia, allow anyone, anywhere in the world, to make additions and modifications (with restrictions on pages covering sensitive topics, such as some international conflicts or biographies of political figures). Partially public wikis, like this E-language wiki, are publicly viewable but can only be edited by those with a password. Fully private wikis, such as those often used at school level, require users to have a password even to view the wiki.

- ► why - Wikis rely on the principle of collective intelligence and the notion that the product of collaborative work is often superior to what can be created by a single individual. Advantages for students include the ability to draft and redraft work collaboratively, with each contributor adding to and modifying the work of others. Nowadays it is also easy to embed images, videos, RSS feeds and other dynamic content. Wikis are the perfect platform for social constructivist and community of practice approaches, and they are ideal for promoting a sense of a learning community. Feedback can be received from the entire internet (with a public wiki) or class peers (with a private wiki).

Standard wiki functions, often shown as a series of tabs at the top of wiki pages, include:

  • discussion: every wiki page normally includes a discussion function, giving access to an asynchronous discussion board. This allows users to discuss the content of a given page.
  • history: this function allows changes to be tracked by users. The history function is a wiki's inbuilt security mechanism: if a page is vandalised or, more likely, if material is accidentally deleted, it is easy to undo these changes by going one step back in the history log. The same history function also makes it possible for teachers to track individual students' contributions to group projects, because each change (including the identity of the author in a system where users require a password) is logged.
  • subscribe: most wikis allow users to subscribe to an RSS feed so that they can be notified of changes made to pages they have chosen to watch.

- ► how - For a light-hearted introduction to the principles underpinning wikis, see Lee LeFever's video Wikis in Plain English. For a more extensive general introduction, see Wiki35. If you're interested in setting up your own wiki, see Russell Stannard's video How to make wikis or Nik Peachey's Creating a wiki. For ideas on how to use wikis in education, see Educational Wikis, or Nik Peachey's Using wikis with EFL students and Using wikis for teacher development. WikiIndex is a wiki about wikis - and includes links to wikis on a vast array of topics.

- ► where - Like blogs, wikis can be quickly and easily set up at no cost, though many wiki services work on a freemium model where payment is required to have advertisements removed or to access additional functionality such as increased privacy options. Some wiki services offer enhanced functionality to educators at no additional cost; it is simply a matter of registering a wiki as being for educational purposes.

The most popular wiki services with educators are currently Wikispaces (which hosts this E-language wiki) and PBworks (formerly PBwiki). Alternatives include Wikia, Wikidot and WikiFoundry (formerly Wetpaint). Some website services, such as Google Sites, now also offer wiki-style functionality. It's worth looking at a few wiki and website services before choosing which one to use. The WikiMatrix site, which makes it easy to compare wikis, might help you to make your decision. For tips on how to incorporate different kinds of multimedia functionality into Wikispaces without knowledge of html code, see Getting Tricky with Wikis.

- ► going mobile - Some wiki services, such as Wikispaces, have mobile-optimised versions which are displayed automatically when they are accessed from mobile devices. With the demise of Picowiki, there no longer appear to be any wiki services designed specifically for mobile devices.

- ► examples - As noted above, the most famous wiki is of course Wikipedia, which has versions in many languages. For an example of how a typical Wikipedia article evolves, see Jon Udell's screencast of the "Heavy metal umlaut" article. You might like to compare Wikipedia with an example of a moderated wiki such as the Encyclopedia of Life, launched in early 2008.

Examples of academic wikis include Lawrence Lessig's Anti-Lessig Reader, where readers are invited to critique his work. We are increasingly seeing wikis being used to add a collaborative element to authorship. A good example of a wiki used for organisation-wide communication and collaboration is the Smithsonian Library's Tech Services Wiki.

While many school-based wikis are not publicly viewable, some exceptions include: flatplanet (an environmental wiki collaboratively built by high school classes in Canada and the UK); Y11 Evolution (a biology wiki based at a Hong Kong school where students collaboratively 'wrote the textbook' in a Wikipedia-style format); and The 50 Greatest Rockers of All Time (based at a US school). For further examples, see Examples of Educational Wikis.

You can also see screen captures of a number of wiki projects on the student projects page of this wiki, including e-portfolios created on the Wikispaces platform.

- ► variations - Blikis, also known as blokis, fuse key features of blogs and wikis. While blikis were widely discussed for a couple of years around 2008-2010, little is heard about them nowadays.

To publish constant instantly online, without the need to set up a website, blog or wiki, try Check This.

- ► dangers - Collaboration doesn't just happen by itself: students need detailed instructions, and activities need careful scaffolding, in order to ensure wide engagement. Collective intelligence is not a predetermined outcome; collective ignorance is also a possibility, meaning that a teacher needs to keep a close eye on students' emerging ideas, and intervene if and when necessary. As with any group project, aggression and bullying can occur, so it's a good idea to set up rules of netiquette beforehand, ideally in consultation with students, and to have a moderator who keeps an eye on proceedings.

Most web 2.0 services, including wiki services, offer different levels of privacy. With young learners, or in contexts where learners reveal their identities, it may be best to make wikis entirely private. With older students and less personally sensitive content, it may be appropriate to make wikis partly or wholly public, so that they can be viewed by others and may even receive feedback.

- ► more - For academic and journalistic references about wikis, see the E-learning references page. You'll also find current information in the E-learning tag cloud.



Credits: The image above left shows the Wikipedia logo. I owe the Getting Tricky with Wikis link to Tricia Green, the John Udell link to Vance Stevens, and the wikidot link to Vanessa Varis.

Contact: There's no such thing as a finished wiki. Like all wikis, this one is a work in progress and there will be changes from time to time in organisation, content and links. However, don't let that stop you from contacting me at any time with comments, suggestions or questions.