Web Focus

Wikis Get Users Talking at MIT, Johns Hopkins

In many ways, college campuses are an obvious implementation for a wiki tool. The decentralized nature of the technology and its ability to allow a wide range of individuals or groups to contribute ideas into a single area through Web browsers make wikis simple and compelling for higher education uses.

As a Web 2.0 technology--so-called because users can pitch in to collaborate on content--wikis may be a great tool for higher ed, but who is using them successfully, and how? To find out, we spoke with technologists at two schools--MIT and Johns Hopkins University--who have years of wiki experience. Both use a wiki product called Confluence, from Atlassian, a global software company based in Australia.

One interesting note about both schools: Despite original intents, administrative uses of the wiki tool outweigh academic uses.

MIT, which has been running Confluence for about three years, has several thousand users and a couple hundred classes using Confluence in some way. Academic uses range from urban studies to the Sloan School of Management; from a team developing an electric car to a committee on intellectual property. Despite all that, according to Carter Snowden, senior developer in MIT's information services and technology department, administrative uses of Confluence outstrip academic ones--contradicting what he initially thought the tool would be used for.

He hasn't found wikis a challenge to set up or maintain, Snowden said--the product has been easy enough to use that little user training or support is involved. "Confluence is pretty reliable; set it up and it runs itself," he said. "There's not a whole lot of worry about things going down." MIT has procedures in place when a user requests a new shared "space" in Confluence, which can be done by a designated person in the information technology department. Add-on scripts written at MIT make creating a space and assigning a space administrator a straightforward process even for a non-technical person.

Confluence did require some customization, Snowden said. For example, the product makes group members public automatically; MIT wanted to keep names private in some groups, so IT services created a macro to handle that. Snowden's group wrote some special authentication code as well, so that access to Confluence could incorporate the personal certificates and single sign-on technology that MIT incorporates to allow access to the Internet and applications.

A compelling feature of Confluence when he selected it several years ago, Snowden said, was its ability to handle user permissions. "We could see that it would work with our grouping system, and we'd be able to set permissions so that one person can view, another can view and edit, another can add attachments, and one group can administer the space," he explained. Now, a number of other wiki tools offer that capability as well.

Although Confluence has proved easy to use and maintain, Snowden cautioned that Web 2.0 tools in general can throw users unexpected curves by their very nature. Expect calls to the help desk, he said, simply because the tools don't always work quite the way users expect them too. "A wiki is a Web 2.0 kind of world," he warned. "People just aren't used to things that don't quite work the way they want them to...  Things aren't necessarily perfect, and can change quickly."

Geoffrey Corb is  director of student systems and educational technologies at Johns Hopkins. In that position, he moves technologies from idea to production--a perfect position to shepherd a wiki tool into the school.

Johns Hopkins has been using Confluence since 2004, when it was a new product--and wikis were a fairly new idea. The open culture and decentralized nature of academia lends itself well to wikis, Corb suggested. Having said that, he admitted that the initial vision at Johns Hopkins for using Confluence "failed miserably"--an idea to establish a wiki community to support a group of universities that were deploying the same student information system. Despite that start, the wiki has in fact flourished in another use at JHU--supporting one of the university's student information systems.

Despite that initial setback, Corb is now using Confluence in a different project related to one of the university's student information systems. This project uses Confluence as a simple way to provide online help to users. Eventually, Corb hopes use a wiki to allow administrative users to contribute to and augment the system's online documentation--using it to create collaborative help screens, in effect.

Although a number of courses at Johns Hopkins take advantage of wikis, the heaviest use occurs on the administrative side, as with MIT. "The lion's share of its use has been in support of administrative activity," Corb said, "but there is certainly interest [on the academic side.]" One reason for the lighter-than-expected academic use, he suggested: Many academic tools now include some sort of collaborative functionality that professors and students use instead, although they are usually more threaded discussions than true wikis.

Uses of Confluence at Johns Hopkins include plenty of IT project management, Corb said, such as meeting notes and agendas, documentation of development activity, threaded discussions of projects as they progress, and as a vehicle for collaboratively authoring policies and procedures.

"The thing I find most effective about Confluence," Corb explained, "is the ability to very quickly just create a page, or if you prefer, a news entry or a blog posting, with an idea. So I can say, I have an idea--I wish that I had something that did this ... and here's what it would do.... As soon as I do that, it shows up in the dashboard of everyone who has access to the space when I created the page. They might click on it out of nothing more than curiosity, and then start contributing to my idea. And before you know it, you have this snowball effect of creative innovation happening, from mundane topics to exciting topics."

Users range in capabilities from technical to non-technical, Corb said, but the rich text editor that Confluence added to the product more recently--making it easy to create large and bold text, for example, without writing code--has made it easier to use. "We saw a spike after [Confluence] introduced the rich text editor."

About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at lbriggs@lindabriggs.com.

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