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.

UBC's Experience
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 completed.
  • 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 open.

About the Author

Brian Lamb (brian.lamb@ubc.ca) is project coordinator at the Office of Learning Technology, University of British Columbia.

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