A wiki is a collaborative authoring environment that can be used to reach certain pedagogical objectives, in particular when the underlying pedagogy is social constructivism. This learning theory asserts that learning occurs by reconstructing knowledge in social activity. Wikis can be used to support group activities, peer and tutor reviewing and knowledge creation and sharing activities. Some people would say that these are the ‘affordances’ of wikis. The learning artefact is usually a collectively authored text. Sukaina Walji provides an excellent overview on wikis in a FAQ format on her blog.
Many practitioners would argue that wikis help developing important skills with students, such as working together in a team, developing argument and consensus and writing skills (e.g. Mak and Coniam, 2008). Minocha and Thomas (2007), for example, write: “The students’ accounts show that collaboration enhanced their learning on the course through clarification, re-interpretation and re-assessment, and reflection.”
Ruth and Houghton (2009) distinguish five main characteristics of wikis:
- Collaboration: individuals acting together to develop shared knowledge;
- (Co-)construction: individuals acting together to produce knowledge and their products (in flux);
- Different ways of learning: individuals acting together as equals – sometimes an expert, sometimes a novice, rather than in competition;
- The authority of ‘the’ expert is undermined;
- A different philosophical underpinning, more oriented towards constructionism.
Detailed empirical accounts of the use of wikis give a more nuanced view of a potentially useful tool if embedded in sensible learning activities. Some issues that are mentioned include:
- For a successful collaborative writing activity students must be able to formulate constructive criticism. Some students may find it hard to criticize or change other students’ writings, other may engage in destructive criticism.
- Students who are not familiar with each other, for example in an online course, may find it difficult to engage in wikis (Schroder et al, 2008), as necessary levels of trust have not been developed. Initial online socialisation activities could help to address this issue.
- Assessment should be well considered, and preferably include both an individual and a group score. If individual contributions are marked, students may hurry to be the first to post a contribution, as it’s often easier to be first.
- Wikis reduce the flexibility of learning, as collaborative writing requires students to work on the activity and reach a conclusion in a relatively short time period. (Minocha and Thomas, 2007)
- Students may place higher status on teacher postings. This means “a danger the learning environment might revert to a novice-expert interaction with little peer interaction, as in didactic face to face teaching.” (Ruth and Houghton, 2009, 13).
Wikipedia is invariably hailed as the ultimate wiki example. However, Jaron Lanier puts question marks with the reliability of the online encyclopaedia. Tumlin et al (2009) point out that entry creators (‘Wikipedians’) are in general aware of the limitations of Wikipedia, but that users tend to overestimate its authority.
Lanier considers Wikipedia and by extension wikis as tools that reduce rather than stimulate creativity (‘hive mentality’). It’s the difference between collaboration (with a focus on consensus, shared objectives) and cooperation (sharing and promoting individual creations and viewpoints), which is also highlighted by Downes. Lanier suggests to his readers:
“If you put effort into Wikipedia articles, put even more effort into using your personal voice and expression outside of the wiki to help attract people who don’t yet realize that they are interested in the topics you contributed to.” (2007, 15).
I believe wikis are an interesting tool that teachers should explore and evaluate whether they can be useful in the class. However, whether students will collaborate, construct knowledge together and learn in a different way (characteristics of wikis) depends in my opinion less on the tool than on the design of the activities. You don’t need wikis for collaborative learning. A word processor, Google Docs or even a piece of paper will do. On the contrary, if the introduction of a wiki is not embedded in an intelligent learning design, the only result might be that students divide the work and that everyone writes his/ her part in the wiki without much collaboration or peer review.
- Mak, Barley and Coniam, David (2008) ‘Using wikis to enhance and develop writing skills among secondary school students in Hong Kong’, System, 36(3), pp. 437–455.
- Minocha, Shailey and Thomas, Peter G. (2007) ‘Collaborative Learning in a Wiki Environment: Experiences from a software engineering course’, New Review of Hypermedia and Multimedia, 13(2), pp. 187–209.
- Ruth, A. and Houghton, L. (2009) ‘The wiki way of learning’, Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 25(2), pp. 135–152.
- Tumlin, Markel, Harris, Steven R., Buchanan, Heidi, Schmidt, Krista and Johnson, Kay (2007) ‘Collectivism vs. Individualism in a Wiki World: Librarians Respond to Jaron Lanier’s Essay “Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism”’, Serials Review, 33(1), pp. 45–53.
- Schroeder, A., Minocha, S. and Schneider, C. (2010) ‘The strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of using social software in higher and further education teaching and learning’, Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 26(3), pp. 159–174.
- Lanier, Jaron (2010) You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, 1st ed. Knopf.