Learning and Teaching with Wikis

© Annette Devilee
Masters of Learning Science and Technology, University of Sydney

31- October - 2006

Introducing the Wikiback to top

Wikis are Web 2.0 software which allow people to collaborate and share information online.  Web 2.0 software works through a web browser, turning control and ownership of web content over to the user, offering open participation and social networking.  These web publishing tools require little in the way of technical skills, allowing the user to concentrate on the content and the collaborative process (Boulos et al., 2006). 

The wiki was first developed by Ward Cunningham in 1994 and installed on his website in 1995 for the purpose of collaborative, open-source software programming (Ebersbach et al., 2006).  

A Wiki is a freely expandable collection of interlinked Web “pages”, a hypertext system for storing and modifying information – a database, where each page is easily editable by any user with a forms-capable Web browser client.     (Leuf & Cunningham, 2001, p. 14)

A wiki allows anyone with a web connection and a web browser (such as Internet Explorer, Netscape, Firefox, etc.) to modify the content of a page.  This makes the wiki a simple, user friendly platform for collaborative writing. 

A Wiki page contains an Edit button/link that will open a form where editing or comments can be made on the existing page.  Formatting text is done with wiki markup (a simplified version of HTML) such as an extra blank line for a new paragraph,  _underlined_, ’’emphasized text’’, ’’’strong text’’’,
----  horizontal rule, etc.  A word with embedded capitals (CamelStyle) saved in an existing wiki page will create a link to a form for creating a new page.  Adding pictures, movies or sounds can be achieved by including the URL of the file. 

Wikis offer open collaboration, on a simple cross platform tool, with people who may be co-located or in distributed locations, working synchronously or asynchronously. 


Wikis for the Construction of Knowledge back to top

Ward called wikis “the simplest online database that could possible work”.  The free online encyclopedia Wikipedia demonstrates the potential for this innovative database technology.  Currently there are more than 1.4 million articles in the English-language version alone.  Each article has been created collaboratively.  It has become a collective knowledge repository (Fountain, 2006), an open source of information, rivaling commercial encyclopedias. 

Wikipedia differs from commercial encyclopedias by the use of the Neutral Point of View (NPOV).  This means every article in Wikipedia is expected to present both (or the many) sides of an argument.   Commercial encyclopedia articles usually contain the writing of just one informed writer. A Wikipedia article goes through an evolutionary process towards the consensus view of the many writers.  The construction of knowledge becomes a collaborative effort to reach consensus

This collaborative process of building group wiki resources,  reflects the dynamic, ‘always improvable’ nature of knowledge which can help to “prepare learners for successful participation in the new practices of creating knowledge.” (As Lankshear et al. (2002:24) cited in Bruns et al., 2005)  A wiki enables activities that will involve learners in the construction of personal and collective knowledge (Boulos et al., 2006).


Learning with wikis back to top

In 1999 Jonassen et al 1999 introduced the concept of computers as mind tools

Mind tools are computer-based tools and learning environments that have been adapted or developed to function as intellectual partners with the learner in order to engage and facilitate critical thinking and higher order learning. (Jonassen, 2000, p.9)

Jonassen Peck and Wilson (1999) argue that technologies should be used as “knowledge construction tools that amplify learner’s abilities to construct knowledge for themselves” (Jonassen et al, 1999, p.152).  The wiki can be used as a semantic networking tool, a way to construct meaningful connections between topics, ideas or concepts.  A semantic network is composed of nodes (such as wiki pages ) with meaningful links (hyperlinks) connecting them.  A semantic network of wikis can help learners to organize their ideas and to convey that organisation of ideas to others (Jonassen et al, 1999, p.165).  They stress that it is important for teachers to allow students to construct their own semantic network once they have taught the students to use the semantic networking program. The wiki can be used as a networking program allowing the students to actively participate in the construction of a collective knowledge repository. 

The move toward social constructivist pedagogical models, initiated by researchers such as Piaget and Vygotsky, makes the wiki a potentially useful educational tool.  The wiki can provide the medium by which learners communicate and negotiate in their efforts to reach a shared understanding of a problem (Bruns, 2005).  Fostering this form of collective cognition “can be conducive to solving problems too complex or demanding for an individual” (Lund, 2006).

The asynchronous, public nature of wikis generally leads to well considered writing in terms of content and structure (Goodwin-Jones, 2003).  Knowing that there is an audience for their writing motivates students to attain a higher quality of language and expression (Fountain, 2006). 


The CoWeb Example back to top

At Georgia Tech, Mark Guzdial has developed a cross platform, open source wiki project that has been adopted by teachers all over the world (Lund & Cunningham, 2001).  It has features such as editing the page, locking or unlocking the page, or viewing the history of the page.  Changing the presentation is as simple as providing other templates and graphics.  It uses *any word or phrase* markup for creating new wiki pages (instead of CamelStyle).  It is easily adaptable to the needs of the school and has easy backup mechanisms for recovery from malicious or more commonly, accidental damage.  The present version of CoWeb allows access to all previous versions should recovery be needed.  It also tells users if they try to overwrite a more recent version and prompts the user to merge the two versions.

Rick et al. have found CoWeb to be a popular and useful tool for collaborative work with low infrastructure costs (p.11).  Most significant are the cultural barriers to collaboration which will be discussed later.


Building Social Capital back to top

Cunningham’s primary motive in the development of the Wiki software in 1994 was to create an open collaboration space for a community of software developers.  Brown & Campione had introduced the concept of a community of learners in 1990 and Lave & Wenger had used the term community of practice in 1991.   By the 1990s Computer Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL) had emerged.  Scardamalia and Bereiter had also developed ‘Knowledge Forum’ software as a database for knowledge building communities.  The introduction of these ideas and the potential for social interaction made available by computer networks provided fertile ground for Cunningham’s ideas.  

Teaching with any CSCL environment such as wikis, requires a cultural shift for everyone involved.   It is important for the teacher to build trust in people and trust in the collaborative process (Fountain, 2006). The formation of social networks and a sense of connectedness comprise what has become known as social capital.  It is necessary to build social capital if wikis are going to work as a learning environment.  In order to develop social capital within a group the qualities of tolerance, reciprocity and trust need to be fostered so they become the normal accepted standards.   One needs to be tolerant of the differing contributions each team member can make, ensure communication is made in the same way we expect to be treated, and believe in the kindness and competence of the other team members.   Making these standards explicit to students may help to build social capital within a community of learners. 


Toward a Pedagogy for Wikis back to top

When introducing wikis the launch activity should be motivating, easy and quickly achievable, with little emphasis on the quality of the writing (Notari, 2006).  A good place to start is with Who’s Who page where students create their own home-page within the course site to introduce themselves to their peers (Guzdial et al., 2001, p. 22).  This can function as a non-threatening way to introduce the technology and at the same time begin community building. 

Requiring students to then make a comment on someone else’s home-page can act as an icebreaker, encouraging social interaction (Augar et al., 2004).  Notari (2006) stresses it is important to develop a communication and comment culture right from the beginning.  This comment culture encourages active participation (Lund, 2006), helps students construct personal knowledge and helps breakdown the sense of individual ownership of wikis.  Reading the contributions made by others helps “to better understand the respective other point-of-view and background” (Reinhold, 2006) while making comments on the contributions of other learners can also enhance meta-cognitive capacities (Notari, 2006). 

It is important to create a well-defined and well-structured wiki site if the collaborative process is to be successful (Lund, 2006, Reinhold 2006). 

In academic settings, scaffolding has proved important in guiding student users in how to post material and what to post where. (Leuf & Cunningham, 2001 p. 325)

The least successful wiki site is one the teacher just tells the students to make then never gets involved.  Novices need some guidance and structure to begin with.  The teacher must act as a designer of the learning activities and the environment then guide the students in the use of wikis (Lund, 2006).  The teacher should set the stage, trigger, initiate interactions, stimulate, monitor and guide online as well as offline activities conducive to learning (Lund, 2006; Lamb, 2004).  The support needs to be flexible and knowledgeable, catering for collective cognition as well as individual cognition.

Haake et al. (2005) point out that it is difficult for untrained users to create good structure without guiding help and suggest the use of templates to define the structural elements within a wiki page.  A structure can be given by the teacher but later given over to the students to continue or change as they see fit.  

To assist students with the collaborative process Notari (2006) suggests the use of scripts.  The script gives the phases of the collaborative process and specifies how each student should collaborate to solve a given problem.    Each phase specifies the task that students have to perform, the composition of the group, the way that the task is distributed within and among groups, the mode of interaction and the timing of the phases. (Dillenbourg, 2002)

Intervention by the teacher should be withdrawn as students become more proficient and confident with the technology and the collaborative process.   James (2004) believes that “the participants need to be in control of the content- you have to give it over fully”.    Dillenbourg (2002) also questions how much control the teacher can exert in the collaborative process. 

The collective tensions created by wikis – for those who dare to risk living them – may radically alter pedagogical praxis.  Wikis’ collective, open structure redistributes the traditional (i.e. academic) knowledge-power nexus along non-authorative lines.  (Fountain, 2006)

The success of collaborative work with wikis lies in the provision of a safe environment the students can trust, where they “can assert meaningful autonomy over the process” (Lamb, 2004).  There is a balancing act of providing the support, guidance, and structure students initially need but giving students the autonomy to make their own decisions and personal contribution to the wiki site. 

Sweet spot of new technology,
Assemble guide and transform community,
Leave room for other’s innovation.   (Cunningham, 2006)


Applications for Wikis back to top

Wikis can be used for:

  • student journaling to encourage meta-cognitive reflection,
  • personal portfolios for the collection of digital assets,
  • a collaborative knowledge repository for everyone to share and edit,
  • research coordination, curricular and cross-disciplinary coordination
  • collaboration towards a common goal,
  • discussion or debate in the attempt to come to group consensus,
  • conference or colloquia Web Sites
  • collaborative writing of  agendas or the minutes for meetings
  • multiple views of assets by means of syndication and the aggregation of Web resources,
  • ongoing project management (Higdon, 2006),
  • writing a letter or statement presented on behalf of the class or a community.  (Fountain, 2006),
  • collaborative story telling in Primary School with children as young as  in grade 4  (Désilets & Paquet, 2005),

 The possibilities for using wikis as a platform for collaborative projects are limited only by one’s imagination and time (EDUCASE, 2005).  Giving the design of the collaborative space over to the users allows for the discovery of new learning contexts that may never have been considered by designers (Leuf & Cunningham 2001, p. 370).


Barriers to the Success of the Wikiback to top

Leuf and Cunningham (2001) consider user fear to be the greatest impediment to using wikis.  This is why developing trust is the first thing a teacher needs to address.

There is a long list of existing social teaching and learning practices that could prevent the adoption of this innovation.  These include a sense of competition that works adversely to collaboration, the fear of being stigmatized as confused or "stupid"  by asking for help (learned helplessness, Bruer, 1993, p. 19. cited in Rick et al. 2006), conflicting attitudes towards independent capabilities as opposed to collaborative  skills,  institutional requirements of learning outcomes and assessment (Bruns et al., 2005),  temporal restraints made by the “compartmentalization of subjects and their consecutively arranged slots in the school day and week”  (Lund, 2006), the availability of computers for classes in schools or the technical competence and confidence of teachers.

The success of wikis involves an “epistemological shift, from individually acquired to collectively created knowledge” (Lund, 2006).  To encourage collaborative knowledge building the shift needed is from viewing learning as the acquisition of facts to viewing learning as the construction of understanding (Rick et al., 2006). The total ecology of schooling needs to be addressed if we are to understand how technologies (may) affect and ultimately improve learning (Lund, 2006) “Changing an established culture is not easy; it takes significant time and effort. A new medium can play a meaningful role in that effort.” (Rick et al. 2006, p.24)  

The kind of “techno literacy” involved is intimately linked with the social practice of teaching and less with instrumental mastery of applications. This is very relevant when considering the wiki’s deceptively simple user interface but its profound potential for a collective epistemology. (Lund, 2006, p. 3)  

Fountain (2006) even goes on to suggest that the trust building necessary for the adoption of Wikis may be “too much of a challenge to ask of educators who already lack time and resources”.   Mattison (2003, cited in Schwartz, 2004) considers it necessary to provide support staff with programming skills to maintain the server, customize the software and create components.


Disadvantages back to top

There is no doubt that the potential for vandalism and mischief on wikis exists but the “surprisingly robust nature of collaborative sites” such as Wikipedia (EDUCASE, 2005) are evidence that they can and do work.  There are two ways to prevent the action of the “bad actors”: soft security and hard security. 

Hard security requires centralised administration of authentication to restrict access and provide backup of previous versions.  “Wiki enabled projects can provide various levels of site access and control to team members, offering a fine-tuning element that enhances the teaching and learning experience.” (EDUCASE, 2005)   

Soft security relies on the community to enforce order rather than the technology to impose restrictions (Lamb, 2004; Bruns et al., 2005).  The wiki is “based on the idea that people really can be polite and well mannered” (Leuf & Cunningham, 2001, p. 232) The use of soft security makes it important to have monitors to remove “inappropriate language, spam and incorrect or inappropriate content” (EDUCASE, 2005) should it be detected.


Sociological Implications of the Wiki.back to top

The simplicity and openness of Wikis encourage democratic use (Leuf & Cunningham, 2001, p. 15).  They are potentially democratic because every user has the same capabilities (Frenk, 2003).  The decentralized nature of wikis distribute power out to the masses (Bruns et al, 2005).  Ebersbach et al, (2006) see wikis as a possible vehicle for social change. The wiki offers a way for people to share information “without having to pass through a central authority.”  (Ebersbach & Glaser, 2004)   It makes wikis “especially suited to be used by social movements.” They suggest that wikis can be thought of as being emancipatory (Ebersbach & Glaser, 2004).

A wiki affords users to be an active participant in a collaborative process. Wikis allow anyone to become a collaborative creator rather than only a consumer.  This encourages “a new form of user who acts, in collaboration with other peers, as an active producer of content in the very act of consumption. “(Bruns et al, 2005)


Trendsback to top

A hybrid between wikis and bogs is emerging. The bliki  is a blog with wiki support.  They look more like a blog than a wiki because they display the typical blog attribute of showing reverse-chronological order, date-labeled, entries (Wikipedia, 29/10/06) but like a wiki, it allows editing by anyone. Bliki technology has not yet matured so the potential for education is yet to be explored and realized. 

The bliki is a novel integrative application binding two different forms of Web-based collaboration software (Boulos et al, 2006).  It is this type of innovation that Boulos et al., (2006) believe will eventually provide “coherent wholesome learning experiences” (p. .They suggest that the combined use of wiki, blogs and podcast applications as mind tools may yield the most powerful learning experiences (p. 3). The characteristics of simplicity, empowered users and bottom up organizations offered by wikis and weblogs (Lamb, 2004. p.48) have contributed to their popularity. However, they are not yet mainstream applications.   


Conclusion back to top

Many people are skeptical about the value of collaborative, open source software or encyclopedias such as Wikipedia.  However, as Rick et al. (2006) point out, “a new medium can play a meaningful role in bringing about change” ( p.24 ).   As Web 2.0 applications become more common, the social climate will change.  The combination of technological, epistemological, pedagogical and sociological changes work together to eventually change attitudes and practices.  

Although wikis and other Web 2.0 applications are becoming common place in Universities they are rarely used in primary or secondary Australian schools.  Schools will inevitably follow, but at their own pace.  Researchers and early adopters of these emerging tools, need to adapt or develop them, in the pursuit of to finding ways to enhance learning experiences in various settings.


References back to top

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