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In praise of wikis (and of Spring)

Originally published 07/04/2007 during H807.

Image: prunus blossom

I had used wikis a little before starting this MA, but only as a tool for sharing project management documentation, not for developing projects. So when I first used a wiki for collaborating with fellow learners on H808, it felt very new – and frankly, hard. For someone acculturated to what Ferris and Wilder call the “print paradigm” (Ferris and Wilder, 2006) it takes a while to acclimatise to an open editing environment in which authors cease to have authority over text. Yet this ceding of control is of course is the whole point: wikis transfer authorship from the individual to the group, and wiki users must therefore be teamplayers, not stars.

Wikis are inherently communitarian. As Ferris and Wilder suggest, they rediscover some of the strengths of a pre-literate, oral approach to information-sharing in which knowledge is communally-owned (Ferris and Wilder, 2006). While derived from print culture, wikis enable an admixture of oral culture features such as instant feedback, textual fluidity, group-sense and participation: what Walter Ong called “secondary orality” (Ong, 1982). In an educational context these features can help to catalyse learning comunities in which learners are enabled to share the construction of knowledge – developing a sense of common purpose, collaborating with and learning from each other, taking ownership of the work, and becoming more active, reflective learners.

Wikis only work if users participate. They therefore depend on people’s basic willingness to help out, to be useful members of the community. A recent Observer article profiled one of Wikipedia’s thousand-odd unsung volunteer administrators who devote much time, energy and expertise to maintaining the standard of entries and protecting their integrity against cybervandals – motivated simply by wanting to play a constructive part in something they are proud of (Kleeman, 2007).

Wikis emphasise an evolving rather than an imposed structuration. Instead of being planned in advance, organisation of wiki content gradually emerges through successive contributions, from what initially appears to be chaos. (Interestingly, most wiki applications go some way towards automating this process by having new subheads trigger the generation of a table of contents.) John Udell’s reconstruction of the two-year evolution of a Wikipedia article on the ‘heavy metal umlaut’ at http://weblog.infoworld.com/udell/gems/umlaut.html illustrates this process of emerging structuration very well. It means that wiki users need to develop a tolerance of mess, in the confident expectation that it will eventually give rise to meaning.

A related point is that wiki users need to aquire some basic markup skills. As a result, learning to use the wiki application – deploying simplified hypertext markup, constructing TOCs by adding headings, creating new pages simply by mashing up some relevant words, and creating links between associated content – is an experience rich in learning not just about the design principles of the world wide web in particular, but also (I would argue) about the creation of transparent, meaningful structures in general.

Finally, the openness of wikis means that they are open not just to constructive use but also to abuse by the malicious and the misinformed. But although this is the aspect of wikis most often criticised in academic circles it can also be seen as a strength, since it means that wiki users have to be able to distinguish between good and bad information. For students in the internet age, information literacy is arguably the most important skill, equipping them to differentiate between what is reliable and what is not and to make sound judgements about the provenance and accuracy of information. Such literacy is best learned not by reading the polished, authored articles in Encyclopaedia Britannica, but by grappling with the multiple voices and conflicting viewpoints of Wikipedia.

….

Ferris, S, and Wilder, H, 2006. ‘Uses and Potentials of Wikis in the Classroom’. Innovate 2 (5), available online at http://www.innovateonline.info/index.php?view=article&id=258
(accessed April 11, 2007). Published by The Fischler School of Education and Human Services at Nova Southeastern University.

Kleeman, J, 2007. ‘Wiki Wars’, Observer, March 25 2007. Available online at
http://media.guardian.co.uk/newmedia/story/0,,2042423,00.html (accessed April 11, 2007. Free registration may be required.) Guardian Unlimited.

Ong, W J, 1982. ‘Orality and Literacy’. Routledge: New York.

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  1. Electronic text 1: the return of orality « JohnsBlog

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