Technology Integration

Why Wikis Still Matter

Old school social media tool remains in play

October 18, 2011

Wiki is a Hawai'ian word meaning "fast" or "quick." As a technology platform, Ward Cunningham installed the very first wiki on the Web in 1995. That was two years before the word "weblog" was coined (and four years before that term was shortened to "blog"). Wikis predate Facebook and Twitter by roughly a decade. At sixteen years old, the wiki predates almost every other social media tool (other than email, of course, which historians of technology say turns 40 this year). Why then, in the face of rapidly changing technology -- all the new bells and whistles and Web 2.0 tools -- should we still use wikis?

The reasons to use wikis remain the same as ever:

1. Wikis are editable Web pages, demonstrating the promise of the "read/write Web."

2. Wikis highlight how knowledge is both cumulative and ever-changing.

3. Wikis can demonstrate to students that both writing and thinking needn't be seen as linear processes, as people can work on various pages and various pieces of a wiki project simultaneously.

4. Administrators can make wikis public or private, controlling not just who can edit but who can read them.

5. Wikis are easy to use, and their WYSIWYG interfaces can be an entry-point for learning HTML and CSS.

6. To edit a wiki, you don't need any additional software other than the browser.

7. Wikis track versioning, capturing the history of all edits so that who contributed and how they contributed can be tracked.

8. Wikis often allow for easy file- and document-sharing.

9. Wikis are transparent.

10. There are lots of free options, particularly for educators.

11. Wikis are collaborative, highlighting the concept that reading, writing and learning needn't be done in isolation.

Despite all the benefits of wikis -- from ease-of-use to collaborative workspaces, they're still viewed by some as confusing and unwieldy. No doubt there are some drawbacks to using wikis: editing in the browser can be disastrous if you happen to close the tab before you've hit the "save" button. There can be formatting issues, particularly if you try to export content into a different tool. Although one of the benefits of wikis are they require no knowledge of HTML, different wiki software often uses different markup language, something that can be hard to remember. And navigation of wikis -- both to set up and to, well, navigate -- can be frustrating.

With a wealth of other Web 2.0 tools, collaborative software, and content management systems to choose from, many argue that wikis are "passe." Some of the features of wikis can be found in other tools. There are group blogs, for example, and many apps now have the ability to disclose posts to limited groups of people or to the general public.

But in some ways, it just seems that wikis suffer from an image problem. It's notable, perhaps, that Google calls its wiki software "Google Sites" and not "Google wikis." But that might be changing, thanks in part to what seems to be a growing acceptance of arguably the best-known wikis: Wikipedia.

Harvard's Nieman Lab recently looked at the successes of Wikipedia, asking why that project was successful while so many other collaborative encyclopedias have failed. It posits several important elements of Wikipedia that make that possible: the focus of Wikipedia has always been on the creation of content and not on the behind-the-scenes technology, for example. Furthermore, "Wikipedia offered low transaction costs to participation, and it de-emphasized the social ownership of content." While these things are all features of the collaborative encyclopedia, they're also features of the wiki technology itself.

That's an important reminder of the ways in which wikis encourage participation of everyone as well as "the validity of contributions made for the collective good rather than the individual." Despite the new tools that have come along since the invention of the wiki, those are good arguments for why wikis still work in the classroom.

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