What is a Wiki?

By Giulia Ortoleva (TECFA)

What is a Wiki?

A wiki is one of the most renowned tools belonging to Web 2.0 (see above the Collaborative learning tools section).
A wiki is a web environment based on the idea of collaborating for the creation of a common and shared content among all the participants. It is organised in a series of interlinked pages, in an open and flexible structure.

Philosophy and functions

The name Wiki was attributed to the first site using this technology, by its author Ward Cunningham. It is derived from the Hawaiian term wiki, which means “fast” or “informal”.

A wiki is a web environment based on the idea of asynchronous collaboration. In a wiki, groups of people can participate in creating a common and shared corpus of knowledge. Contributors can create pages and edit text, as well as modify, erase and add text to a pre-existing draft, created by another contributor.

This characteristic distinguishes wiki from other Web 2.0 tools such as blogs, which are based on a text created by one single author, who can receive comments and suggestions by others in a dedicated environment. It also differs from forums where the discussion is organised around progressive additional interventions on the initial thread created by one user.

Wikis’ structure is completely open and flexible and its organisation depends on the organisation of the content. It is therefore negotiated among the participants. The platform does not provide any hierarchy to the information or the pages created. Wikis are therefore constituted by a series of pages, all at the same level. These pages are interconnected on the basis of their content, and path between the pages are created by the contributors.

Wiki pages are created and their text drafted directly in a web browser using syntax, created for this purpose, called wiki text. This syntax allows for easy use of the most common functions associated with wikis. Many wiki platforms offer a simplified editing environment (WYSIWYS), which do not require any knowledge of the wiki text syntax.

A key function of the wiki is the history. As multiple contributors can modify one page, it is particularly important to save a trace of all modifications made, as well as of their authors. The environment saves all this information and allows consulting and retrieving previous versions, when needed.

An example of known and used wiki environment is Wikipedia. Wikipedia is represented by a number of different encyclopaedias in different languages, allowing for anyone to contribute new entries or enrich the ones already existing. Wikipedia is constituted by a very structured community, with its own rules, specific roles and advanced procedures to verify and discuss the content.

Wiki in education

Wikis offer three main characteristics making it particularly suitable for educational purposes:

1) The multi-users edition. Various users can create and modify texts and decide the connections and paths between the pages. In this sense, they can establish paths throughout the content of the wiki.

2) The history function. Thanks to this function, all modifications of the pages are saved, along with the identification of the user, and can be retrieved

3) The discussion page. Each wiki page has a discussion tab, where participants can discuss asynchronously and provide comments and suggestions to each other1.

Various studies have been conducted in order to observe the impact of wikis used in the educational context. These studies showed, for example, that wiki-based activities, requiring collaborative writing and sharing, encouraged a higher level of cognitive engagement, as well as a deeper emotional commitment with others. Collaborative writing activities reveal an interesting potential if a series of recommendations are followed (see article Writing together)

On the other hand, some characteristics of the wiki tool can be particularly challenging in education. It has been observed how the completely flexible and open structure of wikis could be critical. In order to provide an effective use of this environment, it is crucial that a well-defined and functional structure is created and maintained by the participants.3

The effective use of a wiki platform can also be influenced by a number of participants’ personal traits. Users need, for example, to feel confident enough in their technical skills to be able to start using the tool, as well as to overcome technical difficulties they may encounter. A lack of interest or time to devote to this environment can also be detrimental to the usefulness of wikis.

Finally, maintenance is to be addressed by ensuring someone, either a peer or an instructor, will take the role of the leader of the environment, encouraging participation.

The features of the wiki make this tool particularly interesting for the development of communities of practice, where users can discuss, share information, and create common documents4. The organisation of communities of practice is particularly interesting in an educational context. This can be crucial, for example, in situations of vocational training or when the learning activity aims at developing applied competences.

One example of a pedagogical scenario based on the use of a wiki is given here.

References : 

1 Hadjerrouit, S. (2014). Wiki as a collaborative writing tool in teacher education: Evaluation and suggestions for effective use. Computers in Human Behaviour, 32, 301-312.

2 Biasutti, M. (2011). The student experience of collaborative e-learning university module. Computers & Education, 57(3), 1865-1875.
Cole, M. (2009). Using wiki technology to support student engagement: lessons from the trenches. Computers & Education, 52, 141-146.

3 Donnelly, D. F., & Boniface, S. (2013). Consuming and creating: Early-adopting science teachers’ perceptions and use of a wiki to support professional development. Computers & Education, 68, 9-20.

4 Chao, Y.-C. J., & Lo, H.-C. (2011). Students’ perception of wiki-based collaborative writing for learners of English as a foreign language. Interactive Learning Environments, 19(4), 395-411.
Wichmann, D., & Rummel, N. (2013). Improving revision in wiki-based writing: Coordination pays off. Computers & Education, 62, 262-270.

Wiki platforms

A wiki runs using a wiki engine, software allowing creating the wiki environment and maintaining all its functions. Currently, a large number of wiki engines are available (more than 300 according to this list: http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?WikiEngines).

All wiki engines globally have very similar characteristics, based on the main principles associated to this type of environment. However, some differences can be observed in the specific functions offered by each software, or in the way the functions are operated.

Among the most common engines, we can cite Mediawiki, a free open source software. Originally created for Wikipedia, it is now used for a number of sites (for example the site Edutechwiki).

For the use of wikis in an educational context, a particularly interesting service is offered by Wikispaces. This service, created specifically for students and teachers, allows for the creation of private wikis (accessible by selected groups – as classes for example) and is available in a number of languages.

The main features of Wikispaces are:

• It does not require any web knowledge: pages can be drafted or modified without any knowledge of web syntax. The use of various fonts and colours is also very simple.
• It is used through a web environment: there is no need to install the software on a server. Since it is hosted elsewhere, it does not represent a charge for the system.
• It has an automatic backup system: there is rarely a loss of data on the platform (even when not correctly saved). The only constraint is that two people cannot simultaneously edit the same page.
• It is possible to create as many wikis as needed, therefore one for each activity, for each class or for each year, according to the needs.
• Wikispaces offers a series of educational functions, specifically designed for the use in schools (group projects for example).