Why wikis? What good are they?

Angie Hammons found a recent article in Campus Technology discussing the use of Wikis in the classroom. The article points out, in Angie’s words, that it is not enough to say to your students, “There is a wiki. Now go collaborate.” There need to be specific goals and timelines explained to the students as they begin to use the wiki.

One of the key aspects of learning is the ability to create a meaningful repository of knowledge in the students that they can draw upon at need in various situations:

Knowledge is not a distinct or quantifiable body of content; knowledge
is information that has become understood and applied in some sort of
meaningful context so that it can be “known” by the student. We often
test information recall in our courses but we do not always evaluate
knowledge development. The Wiki can help in this process of moving
information towards useable knowledge.

In other words, the wiki can serve as a way for the instructor to gauge how students are implementing the knowledge they are learning. As the wiki manager, the instructor can offer feedback and corrections to any content the students create in the wiki, without being overly intrusive or negative towards the students. Students can review the changes that are made by the instructor since wikis implement a version control mechanism that allows the users to track the history of changes made to a wiki page.

Implementing a wiki also leads to an increase in the collaboration skills of the students in a course. In recent years, there has been a very, very strong trend to include collaborative learning projects into courses. When students enter the workforce, they will need to be able to work together with other people, often from very different backgrounds, in order to accomplish a task. This often takes the form of writing projects such as reports, memos, and other interoffice communications. I know in Educational Technology, we often get together to work on various written documents to ensure that not only are we accurately capturing information in written form, but also that all parties with a vested interest are fairly represented in the final document.

A concrete example of collaborative communication is all of the announcements that are sent out from the EdTech office. At least three people have reviewed each announcement before it is released. Each person is also given the opportunity to suggest any revisions (and is encouraged to explain the revision, if necessary).

We also use a wiki in our office, as do several other functional groups in IT. The wiki allows us to produce flexible documentation that may change over time. For instance, we put our classroom technology maintenance documentation on our wiki. If we modify or upgrade our technology, then we can easily revise the documentation to reflect any changes in maintenance procedures. We also have the benefit of reviewing the history of changes in case we need to “roll back” to a previous set of documentation. In fact, all of the documentation for users of our Numerically Intensive Computing (NIC) cluster services is contained in a wiki. This is largely driven by the fact that the NIC environment is changing continuously as it grows and develops to meet our users’ needs.

One of our professors on campus even used a wiki to engage in a collaborative research project with colleagues at another institution. He needed some way that everyone involved in the research project could view and modify documents pertaining to the research grant and the wiki offered an acceptable solution. He also uses wikis in his courses to that his students can collaboratively create knowledge with students at another institution engaged in similar learning processes.