Taking a Walk on the Wiki Side
A pilot project by the University of British Columbia utilizing the online
environments known as “wikis” began modestly, but an enthusiastic
response across campus has rapidly increased the scope of its use. The radical
simplicity and versatility of wikis has encouraged individuals and groups to
develop novel uses for the technology, producing impressive results with minimal
resources. However, the very qualities that make wikis so successful as a grassroots-oriented
pilot can also create corresponding challenges as the project grow. It will
prompt difficult decisions about suitable use by the institution and users.
The term “wiki” (the Hawaiian word for “quick”) is
applied to many systems with wildly varying features. Any user can edit the
content of the page through a Web browser—authoring software, permissions,
or passwords are typically not required.
University of British Columbia’s pilot began on a small scale, with an
instance of the UseMod wiki system (http://www.usemod.com) installed to support
individual use and experimentation within the university’s Office of Learning
Technology. UseMod runs under UNIX or Win32 with either Apache or IIS, and the
code is in one Perl file with all configuration variables readily accessible.
Wiki adoption at the University of British Columbia has since grown spontaneously.
The quick access to the authoring interface and the simplified mark-up language
invites participation and experimentation by just about any user, and the resulting
spirit of adventure has resulted in a diverse array of applications:
- Jim Sibley of the Faculty of Applied Science Instructional Support at UBC,
links wikis into its WebCT authoring environment so that course design teams
can quickly and collaboratively build reference lists, course outlines, brainstorm
instructional strategies, and complete systematic questionnaires.
- The Career Services unit is using wiki pages to prepare content for a major
site redevelopment presenting job postings and career education. Authoring
can proceed without waiting for the technical framework of the site to be
- Teresa Dobson, assistant professor of Education at the University of British
Columbia is using the wiki space in both her teaching and research. Her graduate
course on technologies for writing employs the wiki to support collaborative
experiments in composition, and as a prompt for reflection on the nature of
online writing and reading.
Pilot to a Enterprise Application
An enthusiastic response presents its own challenges as the technology becomes
more widely adopted. As users apply wikis more commonly in their practice, they
increasingly come to depend on them. A power failure on campus rendered many
Web servers inaccessible over a weekend. Though data was backed up and there
were no lost pages, students who had projects stored exclusively on their wikis
experienced considerable anxiety with deadlines looming.
Technical quirks of wiki systems, indicative of the often anarchic programming
communities that have developed them, also need to be considered. Different
wiki systems may store content in distinct ways—resulting in significant
programming challenges when migrating material from one system database to another.
As with any new technology, there’s bound to be growing pains as wiki
adoption grows in academic settings. But there is no denying that the simplicity
and flexibility of wiki environments offer tantalizing possibilities along with
the challenges. Just like the spaces they foster, the future for wikis is wide
Brian Lamb (firstname.lastname@example.org) is project coordinator at the Office of Learning
Technology, University of British Columbia.