Teaching, Learning, and Other Uses for Wikis in Academia

All Users Are Not Necessarily Created Equal

By Jude Higdon
Project Manager
The Center for Scholarly Technology
University of Southern California

Like many academic technology groups at campuses around the country, the Center for Scholarly Technology (CST) at USC has been wrestling with how to implement various types of social software, such as blogs and wikis, in the classroom. Over the past few years we have found some very good uses for blogs, including peer-reviewed journaling, Just-in-Time Teaching (Novak, et al, 1999), and meta-cognitive reflective practice. While we hit a few stumbling blocks early on, we seemed to be coming to some level of sophistication and adoption with the use of blogs as tools for enhancing teaching and learning as we entered into the 2005-2006 school year.

Use of wikis in the classroom has proved more elusive. While we never like to advocate the use of technology as an end of itself, our group saw great potential in the affordances of the wiki for teaching and learning. Students co-constructing meaning in a democratized digital space has a certain social constructivist (Bandura, 1976) elegance. And yet we struggled to impart this sense of potential to our faculty collaborators. By and large, people didn't seem ready for the freewheeling, uncontrolled wiki environment.

As tends to be the case when we find that our ideas aren't taking root among our faculty, we decided to take a step back this fall and listen hard to find out what needs we could meet, rather than trying to drum up business for a solution to a problem that may not have existed. It took us re-conceptualizing our idealized notion of how a wiki could be useful to our faculty (and to our students), but in the end we did, indeed find regularly articulated needs that the wikis could meet.

The first step in this process was to determine what, in essence, a wiki truly was. While the mythology of wikis tends to center around the egalitarianism of the tool, as we looked closer we came to believe that that wasn't its defining feature. At its core, a wiki is a Web site that is fully editable from a Web browser. If you have that, you have a wiki; if you don't, you don't. This means that you must be able to add, edit, and delete pages, text, and hyperlinks right from your Web browser; no messy HTML, JavaScript, or FTP programs required. The wiki shares all of the non-linear affordances of standard Web sites. In this way, it is distinguishable from other types of social software, such as blogs, which are designed around the post, a timely entry that appears linearly, in reverse chronological order.

The social software purists out there are probably gnashing their teeth right about now, but I stand by this assertion. While there are some situations in which a democratized environment could work quite well, it is also the case that in some situations you want to limit some members' abilities to add, edit, and delete content from your wiki space, but still give them some rights in the space. In so doing, I don't think you've violated the tool, or made the wiki somehow not a wiki. To be frank, we found the democratized framing of the wiki to be unduly constraining; many of our faculty collaborators had extremely thoughtful projects that required varying levels of collaborative engagement among the wiki members that wouldn't have worked if everyone had full edit privileges. It was with this orientation, and through a series of pilot projects with various faculty members, students, and research groups in the Fall semester of 2005, that the CST identified the following six general approaches for how wikis could be implemented around campus.

Approach 1: Student Journaling
Instructors want students to journal for a number of reasons: to demonstrate writing proficiency, to expose understanding (and misunderstanding) of conceptual knowledge, to establish the habit of regular reflection, and to engage in meta-cognitive reflection, to name a few. The wiki allows students to journal for their own benefit, or for peer or instructor review.

Approach 2: Personal Portfolios
By enabling students to collect and organize digital assets such as course notes, images, Web resources, and PowerPoint slides, the wiki can help learners to make connections between and among those assets.

Approach 3: Collaborative Knowledge Base
In the more classic use of the wiki, groups can use the environment to create a shared knowledge base of information. This can be used to allow students to develop a project in small groups, to work on a small piece of a larger class project, or even to have students themselves create and maintain the course Web site.

Approach 4: Research Coordination and Collaboration
The wiki allows multiple collaborators who are separated by physical space to collect ideas, papers, timelines, documents, datasets, and study results into a collective digital space. Researchers can also use the space to store draft files for their papers: MS Word, LaTEX, or even writing directly into the Web pages of the wiki. Additionally, funders and junior researchers can be given "read only" access to all or certain parts of the space.

Approach 5: Curricular and Cross-Disciplinary Coordination
As departments become increasingly creative in their efforts to accommodate more students in a distributed/blended learning environment, curricular coordination among faculty and T.A.s gets increasingly important. The wiki allows for departmental personnel, instructors, and teaching assistants to organize common course assets, such as syllabi, office hours, and assessments, without having an endless email chain or difficult to schedule face-to-face meetings.

Use Case 6: Conference and Colloquia Web Site/Coordination
Many departments, schools, and scholarly centers at the university have academic conferences and colloquia. By allowing presenters and attendees access to add and edit content, the conference wiki can serve as a resource before, during, and after the event itself. The wiki can also be used by conference administrators as a means of organizing the event.

Of course, there are many other ways to use the wiki in an academic setting, but these represent the general categories of use that we've begun to see emerge on our campus. There are also features that I haven't addressed here that any wiki worth its salt will have. Syndication via RSS, for instance, is a major dimension of all social software, including wikis. As we look to the emerging uses of social software for teaching and learning, one of our big challenges will be to figure out how to leverage the affordances of syndication without compromising security of sensitive information. But we're taking one thing at a time. For now, by relaxing our idealized notion of what a wiki should be (and the implied pedagogies therewith), and by listening hard to our collaborators, we found a host of great uses for the tool that had before proved elusive to implement.

Bandura, Albert (1976). Social Learning Theory. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Novak, Gregor, Gavrin, Andrew, Christian, Wolfgang, and Patterson, Evelyn (1999). Just-in-Time Teaching: Blending Active Learning with Web Technology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Jude Higdon can be reached via email at higdon@usc.edu
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