Reviewer: Kate Reber

Technology of Focus: Wikis

Wiki is more than technological tool; wiki is a culture. My research turned up a handful of different definitions for the term “wiki.” For the purposes of this inquiry, I am focusing on the definition of wiki as a website that users can edit. Wiki can also be used as shorthand to refer to specific sites that are wikis, like Wikipedia, the most recognizable wiki. I also came across articles and websites that use the word wiki to refer to the software used to create and support wiki sites. Unlike blogs, which have a single author, wikis are maintained by communities. Sometimes the communities are closed (within an organization or within a group of registered members), but often wikis are open to the general public.

Wikis have many possible uses in an educational setting. The most obvious use of wikis in education is student research. Whether we like it or not, students are doing more and more of their research online and they are likely to come into contact with wikis. Wikipedia is itself a hot-button issue, particularly among educators. As Wikipedia has gained in popularity (according to The New Yorker, it is the 17th-most-popular site on the internet) questions have arisen about accuracy in its articles and problems with bias which I will discuss later. In addition to Wikipedia, there are a dozen or so wikis under the Wikimedia Foundation (a non-profit organization) umbrella. These include a directory of quotes (Wikiquote) and a catalogue of all living species (Wikispecies), both of which have some inherent classroom relevance and usefulness. There are also directly educational Wikimedia projects like Wikibooks, which boasts over a thousand “free content textbooks that you can edit” and the Wikiversity, which calls itself “a community for the creation and use of free learning materials and activities” and is still in the early stages of its development.

In addition to the wide range of wiki sites already in existence, there are also many ways in which wiki technology can be used in the classroom. Teachers and students can create their own wikis to organize and present research or student work. The audience may be the class, the school, or the community-at-large. Likewise editing capabilities can be opened to any of these groups. Wikis are generally collaborative so they can be used for a wide variety of group projects, both as medium for cooperative creation, editing, and publication. Wikis can be used as part of writing lessons by enabling group editing or peer editing of individually-produced pieces. Teachers can use wikis to plan lessons collaboratively and share ideas.

There are numerous assets to using wiki technology in the classroom. Once a wiki is set up it is relatively easy to navigate and edit. Students can have the benefit of having an authentic audience for their work. Wikis are inherently constructivist: they are interactive, student-centered, and most importantly democratic. The collaborative community of wikis is often promoted as a highly democratic environment (there is even a silent majority of non-participating wiki users). Bringing this kind of emphasis on community and accountability into the classroom reconnects with the idea that public education serves a civic function. Wikis are a model of participatory democracy in action.

There are some immediate drawbacks of using wikis in the classroom. Some of these relate to the greater problems of implementing advanced information technology in the school setting. Teachers need to be comfortable with the tools they are using. Teachers also need to be prepared for the reality that their students may know more about a given technology than they do. This may present problems with wikis in particular, since they are by nature easy to manipulate. The fact that wikis are so susceptible to corruption and even sabotage presents its own cadre of problems. The problems of vandalism is infamous in wiki communities and most develop their own systems to regulate such problems.

Wikis like Wikipedia (and all of its related sites) often face questions about the reliability of their resources. Of course, the open and user-dependent nature of the information on these sites is a matter of concern. That said, there is also a very high degree of monitoring on sites like Wikipedia and articles are monitored for accuracy and neutrality. In fact, there are standards and protocols for addressing, disputing, and mediating concerns of this kind.

Teachers and their students need access to the internet to use and develop wikis. Most of the resources available for developing wikis are free. Some do require sophisticated knowledge of programming and website creation and management. Since I found wikis to be particularly complicated at first, I would also add time (and patience) to the list of supporting conditions.

Return to my Resources: Wiki Links or to The Main Page of this mini-wiki.

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