Wikido: Exploiting the Potential of Wikis

Marieke Guy reports on a one-day workshop, held in Birmingham in November 2006, which took a closer look at the potential of Wikis for educational institutions.

The 'Wikido' [pron. 'wiki-doo'], as I have come to refer to it affectionately, was held at Austin Court, Birmingham on Friday 3 November 2006. Its organisation by Brian Kelly, UK Web Focus, was as a direct result of feedback and discussions carried out by the Web Management Community at the Institutional Web Management Workshop 2006 and on the JISCmail web-support list. It was therefore interesting (and encouraging) to see so many delegates from communities in addition to that of Web management attending. The 80 delegates included members of IT Services, library and information services and the research community. Initially I wondered whether the mixture of delegates reflected the dearth of knowledge in these particular communities. However a show of hands established that one third of the delegates already used a wiki in their working environment and over the course of the day it became apparent that this was a fairly wiki-savvy lot who really wanted more than just an introduction, they wanted to know how to take wikis forward in an educational environment.

Austin Court was a really comfortable, relaxed venue. Wireless access was issued by scratch cards, no lottery prizes though, and coffee was livened up by exciting wrapped chocolate bars displayed in what looked like big, glass fish tanks. It seemed a fitting setting in which to think about using new technologies to create a community space.

All materials from the event are available from the workshop Web site [1], photos of the event are available on Flickr [2].

Morning Session: Wikis: What Can They Provide?

The morning session got rolling with a quick introduction to the day and scene setting by co-chair and organiser Brian Kelly. He also explained that there were a couple of remote participants who were listening to the talks using Skype. They could also view the slides which were on the Web in Slideshare.

The morning's session was to cover user needs for Wikis and consider what they could provide to support us in our institutions.

Wikis and Collaboration: Approaches to Deploying Wikis in Educational Settings

The first plenary was presented by the other co-chair, Steven Warburton, e-learning ICT manager at King's College London. Steven, having a wealth of experience in the implementation and evaluation of learning technology, took a very e-learning-focused look at wikis. He began by asking if wikis truly require a paradigm shift given that they are a relatively old technology. He outlined the move away from the cognitive model of pedagogy to the more recent socio-constructivism approach that emphasises the social nature of learning. This shift along with recent socio-technical and cultural changes, such as the rise of Web 2.0, has been the tipping point. Steven then asked if wikis can be put to effective educational use and fit into the current e-learning world. It seems they can. Their pedagogical potential lies around a number of key truths noted by Renée Fountain. These include: wikis maximise interplay, they are democratic, work in real time and promote negotiation, they permit collaboration and enable complete anonymity. One particular area of interest for Steven is the theoretical implications of 'communities of practice' and 'networked collaborative e-learning' which can use wikis to promote a democratic engagement with learning where students can operate both as consumers and producers of knowledge. Steven then went on to consider what wiki-based educational activities might look like and consider some of the issues that might need addressing such as the tensions between individual and group and how we can support strong community formation. He concluded by saying that to get wikis to work we need to display trust and let go. In the words of Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, "The basic thing I think makes it work is turning from a model of permissions to a model of accountability".

photo (42KB) : Figure 1 : Steven Warburton and his Web 2.0 slide

Figure 1: Steven Warburton and his Web 2.0 slide

Wikis and (Meta)data Rich Environments: a Model for Scholarly Publishing

The second plenary was given by Henry Rzepa, Professor of Computational Chemistry at the Department of Chemistry, Imperial College, London. Henry had a stab at 'eating his own dog food' (i.e. 'practising what he preached') and actually gave his presentation using a wiki [3]. Henry's talk sought to persuade the audience that wikis are an excellent medium for enabling both students and researchers in 'data -rich' subjects to collaborate and communicate in a sensible manner. In order to do this Henry advocated the use of semantic wikis, or wikis that allow the insertion of metadata and 'learn' from this metadata. Henry felt that these semantic steps are leading us in the right direction for human 2.0, an upgraded human created through advances in nanotechnology. He demonstrated the MediaWiki wiki currently used by his own Chemistry students to carry out research. Mediawiki has a growing number of extensions available to it and Henry demonstrated some of the more appropriate ones for science students; for example, it is possible to have molecules rendered in 3D. Henry expressed the view that the wiki environment has potential for the scholarly journal. He asked the audience if publishers could either accept such models, or find a way to make money from them and also what would this mean for tertiary science/technical/medical publishers, who have traditionally held a monopoly on 'added value' publishing. Delegates' comments after the talk seemed to suggest that such an approach would not be a viable one given the issues concerning control over information.

Discussion Groups: Wikis: The User Requirements

After the coffee break (an opportunity for us to catch breath) came the discussion groups. Delegates were divided into 5 groups all looking at wikis from slightly different angles, considering:

  • the needs of users;
  • the needs of institutions;
  • the needs of students;
  • the needs beyond the institution;
  • the needs of wiki power users.

Each group was provided with Wetpaint wiki space on which to record their thoughts and answers to the questions. The morning session focused on the wikis that are already out there and considered whether they add educational value and stimulate new ways of thinking about learning and teaching or merely support established pedagogical approaches. The second set of issues considered were: who exactly are the users of wikis? how can user communities benefit from the provision of wikis?

The conclusions of the first discussion session were fed back immediately after lunch (giving people time get their wikis into an orderly fashion). The full text of the various discussions is available on the workshop wiki [4] but some of the most interesting thoughts included:

  • How do you get valid assessment from a wiki?
  • Can a wiki help with understand collaboration i.e who is contributing and why? Who owns the content?
  • How do you get staff to look at these types of technology? Amongst academics there is a reluctance to share. Academics talk about
  • lessons, but wikis offer no container constraint.
  • Do wikis offer more student ownership?
  • Is there a danger of wiki overload?
  • Are the problems being faced in respect of digital repositories the same for wikis?
  • More wiki case studies are needed.
  • What about control of the message at institutional level? Do we have enough confidence in our institution? Can we take criticism?
  • Wikis tend to attract a 'geeky' audience and could be dominated by a certain element, certain students will feel challenged
  • What about single sign-on and Shibboleth? To whom do you grant access?
  • Will all technologies blur over time? Or will technologies become more specific over time? We can't prescribe what wikis are to do, merely observe patterns of usage.
  • We need to bear in mind that technology should be secondary to learning
  • What about metadata? With wikis we need to get the right mix of usability and resilience
  • How can we encourage engagement?
photo (35KB) : Figure 2 : Networking at the Wikido

Figure 2: Networking at the Wikido

Afternoon Session: Wikis: Developing a Deployment Strategy

The afternoon session addressed ways in which organisations can deploy wikis that meet specific requirements.

Reflections on Personal Experiences of Using Wikis

Brian Kelly, UK Web Focus gave the first plenary of the afternoon, a review of his experiences over the past two years with a range of Wiki tools. His first attempt to use a wiki was at his Beyond Email workshop in November 2004. Brian installed a Firefox plug-in called Wikalong, a hosted service for annotating Web pages. The service allowed delegates to record notes on their discussions, annotate them and access them on their return from the workshop. His first encounter with a successful wiki in action was through reading and editing entries in Wikipedia. Brian established an entry on Rapper Sword Dancing. Brian and his team then trialled a number of different wikis - Twiki, MediaWiki, MoodleJot, Wetpaint, Writely - to get a feel for their different strengths and weaknesses. His final reflections centred largely on the apparent tensions arising over the choice of wiki to deploy. Should you consider technical features (such as the back end or whether it's open source) over user features (interface and ease of use)? Should you outsource, develop in-house, centralise or distribute? The answers lie in the needs of each individual institution.

Evaluating Wikis: A Case Study

In the final plenary of the day Phil Wilson, Web Software Developer, University of Bath, outlined the Wiki evaluation work that took place at Bath. Phil explained that the team at Bath had decided to set up a wiki originally intended only for internal use by IT services to co-ordinate their work. The team's brief had been to create something that had a flexible permissions system, could hook into IT services authentication, had a WYSIWYG interface, could be hosted by the Bath University Computing Service, would allow wiki farming and would require very little effort. Initially the team looked at 5 different wikis: JSPWiki, MediaWiki, Confluence, JotSpot (which has now been aquired by Google) and Xwiki. After some research, use of wikimatrix and a little testing, Confluence came out on top. Confluence, a proprietary solution produced by Atlassian, has a very useable API and does a great job of supporting multiple wikis. Phil's concluding remark was that if you were truly serious about taking on a robust, flexible wiki then you needed to pay out with hard cash.

Discussion Groups: Deployment Strategies

The second discussion session of the day involved working on a Wiki strategy for institutions and considering the pros and cons of the approach. Possible options for delegates to consider were:

  1. to create a large-scale enterprise Wiki service for use within an institution.
  2. to adopt a distributed and decentralised approach, in which departments, ad hoc groups, individuals, etc. may choose their own preferred Wiki tools, which could be installed locally or use of free or licensed externally-hosted services.
  3. to make use of Wiki functionality provided in other enterprise tools, such as Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs), Blogs, etc.
  4. to undertake in-house development of a Wiki service.
  5. to do nothing, either because: effort is limited and priority is given to other areas; or a view that Wikis are of marginal relevance to the institution.

Most groups could recognise the benefits of different approaches but few felt able to commit to one approach at this stage, at least not without IT services on board! It was evident that a choice would be highly dependent on the culture of individual institutions, with some favouring open source while others always required an institutional stamp.

One of the key requirements in the context of migration was that the wiki service must provide routes in and out to avoid lock-in. Most concluded that at this stage there are two main players emerging in this respect: MediaWiki (the wiki behind Wikipedia), which is open source but suffers from its flat file structure, or Confluence, the commercial solution advocated by Phil Wilson.

photo (49KB) : Figure 3 : Elaine Swift and Matt Thrower, University of Bath

Figure 3: Elaine Swift and Matt Thrower, University of Bath

Conclusion

The Wikido was a thought-provoking day and an interesting opportunity to explore some of the bigger-picture issues relating to wikis. Delegates seemed to be in agreement that wikis do have a part to play in education and learning, but what this part is exactly has yet to emerge fully.

For me, as the writer of this trip report, I feel obliged to say that the use of wikis has actually made writing this article more difficult in one way... Quite often on return from a conference you just have your own notes to consider; but because of the use of wikis to record the discussion session's feedback I actually had the delegates' entire stream of consciousness to wade through! Obviously this can be an advantage, but it does raise a few questions. Is it overload? Do we want everything to be recorded and shared? Who is to say that 6 months down the line we might wish we had not said 'X' in our discussion group, but now it has its place in Web history? And how can one person consolidate all these thoughts into a single piece of work? Collaboration is the very essence of a wiki but collaboration doesn't come easy. Arguably I should have written this article in a wiki - then I might have had a little help with it!

References

  1. Exploiting the potential of Wikis: http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/web-focus/events/workshops/wiki-workshop-2006/
  2. Flickr Photos from the event http://www.flickr.com/photos/24358121@N00/sets/72157594363137090/
  3. Why Wiki: http://www.ch.ic.ac.uk/wiki2/index.php/Main_Page
  4. WIKI Workshop's Wiki http://wiki-workshop-2006-11.wetpaint.com/

Author Details

Marieke Guy
Interoperability Focus
UKOLN
University of Bath

Email: m.guy@ukoln.ac.uk
Web site: http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/

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Date published: 
Tuesday, 30 January 2007
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