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The Power of Wikis in Higher Ed

Over the last six years, Stewart Mader has staked his career on the power of wikis. Mader had worked with wikis for several years and become fascinated by their power and potential before addressing wiki adoption initiatives as part of the IT department at Brown University, becoming fascinated by their power and potential. On the day we spoke, he had just left a two-year position as a wiki evangelist with Atlassian, an Australian-based software company that offers a wiki tool called Confluence. Mader has now returned to working as a wiki consultant, where his company, Grow Your Wiki, focuses on organizational wiki adoption.

Mader maintains a blog and other information on wikis at his Web site,

In this first half of a two-part interview, Mader talks about powerful ways to use wikis in education, content ownership issues, and how wikis tend to be used--and why.

Campus Technology: Specifically, how can colleges and universities use wikis to enhance learning?
Stewart: In higher ed, there are really three ways I think a wiki can be useful: teaching, research, and administration.

The usefulness in teaching comes from two things. First, teachers can work together using a wiki to write curriculum and lesson plans for courses, to develop assignments, and so forth. If you have multiple teachers teaching sections of a course and they need to teach from the same materials, they have a central hub to which they can collaboratively contribute material ... and then from which they can teach and keep all their sections.

For students, wikis are beneficial primarily as a collaborative tool for things like group assignments in courses. When I taught a chemistry lab years ago, I used a wiki to have students write collaborative lab reports. [Before the wiki, I had] 30 students in a lab where each student does an experiment and writes a report. You get 30 reports and 30 introductions and 30 methods and materials and 30 conclusions and so forth. Grading and evaluating that work becomes more about just getting through the pile on your desk than about really providing students in-depth feedback.

And for the students, I don't think they learn as much that way because they're focused on getting the thing done and turned in on time, and they're just repeating the same process over and over.  

So one of the ways I used the wiki was to take a group of 30 students, split them up into six groups of five, and as they did an experiment, have each of those groups work much more like they would in the professional world. Teams would work on research projects, and when they wrote their report, each student was responsible for a different section. Student A would write the Abstract, Student B would write the Materials and Methods, and so on. For Experiment 2, roles changed, and Student B wrote the Abstract, and Student A wrote Materials and Methods.

The outcome for me was instead of getting 30 reports, I was now getting six reports, so I was able to spend much more time on those reports, reading what the students had written and giving them a lot more constructive, substantive feedback. For the students, they weren't slogging through with these repetitions every week. They were now trying out writing different parts of the report. Obviously, you're going to be stronger with some sections than another, so that means one week it might be a little easier you  and that's fine because next week, you're going to work on the section that's a little more difficult and you are going to be able to really focus and refine your technique on that.  

That's just one example, but that's the kind of thing a wiki can do in teaching. It can really allow instructors to focus on fewer, more in-depth assignments or products that are results of highly collaborative work by students.

The other benefit that comes out of that, especially with group work, is you can see what students are doing as they are doing it.... You can help students to keep a project on course towards success, versus derailing because there are problems in the group that you don't know about until the end of the project, when they come to you with a substandard result and start complaining about how members didn't pull their own weights.

Instead, you know what is going on, and you can see from the interaction they are having and the contribution of material in the wiki. If you see one person is noticeably absent from any contribution, you can talk to that person and say "Hey, are you having trouble with the tool, or are you having trouble with the assignment?" You can fix something like that in the first or second week, versus the twelfth week of the semester, when hope is lost.

CT: In terms of permission for the content, are there issues that need to be considered there?  If everyone in class contributes something to a group file or project, are there ownership issues?

Stewart: The issues with wikis are not all that different from issues you'd have with a course management system.

In other words, if you have already defined a computing policy that includes something about your institution's use of Blackboard, you already have a fair amount of what you need of you're going to add a wiki into the landscape. One difference obviously is if you've got, for instance, students creating a group project. Let's say they are creating a paper collaboratively. I don't think the wiki changes the idea of ownership in any significant way because if those students wrote that paper without a wiki, they'd still be turning in the same end product. Each student would write a different part of the paper, they'd combine it, and they'd submit a final product.

I think the wiki brings that issue to the forefront a little bit more than older ways of doing things because you see the revision history of a wiki page, so you see the number of contributions a student made. You see the amount of content they added in each contribution, so those things are more visible. But in the end, I think, if the instructor wants to take the final project that their students have made and publish it on a public Web site--let's say the students made videos and the teacher wanted to put them up on YouTube--I think their teacher will still need to get permission from the students to do that.

It's the same as if they wanted to include their papers or their poetry, say, in a published anthology.

CT: In another recent article on wikis, I looked at how Atlassian's Confluence wiki product is being used at both Johns Hopkins and MIT. One thing that came out of those conversations was that, interestingly, the wikis were being used more for administrative purposes than classroom purposes. That surprised even the people who had rolled them out. Do you often see that happening with wikis?

Mader: Well, administrative use is the third of the three major uses I see in higher ed.

It all depends on how the wiki is rolled out on campus and how well informed people are that it is available. Also, are there people who are willing to make a commitment or experiment with the wiki in different uses?

For an instructional technology or teaching excellence department, I think it is also depends on making sure that [potential users] are well aware of how wikis work and what can be done with them, and that they engage with faculty to inform them that it's available, but also to help them get started with uses that can change the whole dynamic and tempo of a course.
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