I just read a fantastic article about wikis from the Educause Review (Sept/Oct 2004). Wide Open Spaces: Wikis, Ready or Not, by Brian Lamb, includes mentions about just about everything that I find so wonderful about wikis. He describes how groups of people have used wikis for such diverse purposes as research spaces, conference planners, course management systems, meeting agendas, and graduate-level courses:

What is most remarkable about these diverse outcomes is how they came about. In all instances, the users decided for themselves how the wiki would fulfill their objectives. Technical support and training was minimal: at most, one hour of instruction was needed, and in most cases, orientation was handled by a single e-mail. Even confirmed technophobes have grasped and mastered the system quickly. The structure of wikis is shaped from within—not imposed from above. Users do not have to adapt their practice to the dictates of a system but can allow their practice to define the structure.

That’s what I love so much! A wiki can become anything!!! It all depends on the initiative, interests, and needs of the group. You don’t need to have committees to determine the wikis structure and no one needs to say “hey, why don’t we include this!” It just develops organically as a representation of the interests of all those involved. Is there anything else so free and egalitarian in the online world? It just makes me feel so warm and fuzzy. :)

Lamb also brings up many of the common arguments against wikis. Many people argue that vandals and spammers can ruin such a free medium. I will admit that the wiki I created has gotten a good deal of spam. I went out of town for two days last week for my birthday, and when I got back, just about every page of the wiki (plus some pages that were created by spammers) was covered in spam. However, in many cases, other users of the wiki had already gotten rid of the spam (thank you!!!). I’ve since installed spam filters — which are not 100% effective — but I feel confident that if spam does get through, my fellow wiki community members will fix it. Just like in the Wikipedia, the community enforces behavioral norms, so that the wiki doesn’t become a disaster. It is self-organizing group behavior in action. More warm fuzzies!

Lamb describes how wikis are being used in academia, something I wish I’d read before I wrote the lecture I’m going to be giving at my interview on Friday. He brings up an important point about wikis in education. Sticking a wiki into the online courseware isn’t enough. In order to use a wiki in the educational environment, it requires the professor to give up some control:

This particular challenge bears resemblance to the one posed by constructivist teaching philosophy. To truly empower students within collaborative or coconstructed activities requires the teacher to relinquish some degree of control over those activities. The instructor’s role shifts to that of establishing contexts or setting up problems to engage students. In a wiki, the instructor may set the stage or initiate interactions, but the medium works most effectively when students can assert meaningful autonomy over the process. It’s not that authority can’t be imposed on a wiki, but doing so undermines the effectiveness of the tool. It’s a safe bet that wiki-like writing spaces will be featured in future course management systems—along with other “social software” tools and protocols such as weblogs and RSS—but if practices don’t evolve, the effects on student learning will be superficial at best.

(Just a sidenote: I cringe when I hear the word constructivist, because I had a prof in a distance learning class who used the word constructivist to describe his teaching philosophy when he really meant absentee — since he was barely involved in teaching the class. That is not the actual meaning of constructivist.)

While perhaps a scary idea to some professors, I think many educators would find that this sort of approach makes students feel far more in control of their learning and far more invested in the class. A distance learning class in which the professor “encourages” participation by forcing students to write ___ number of comments each week will result in writing that is lifeless and uninspired. Providing students with a space that is truly their own — and working to inspire students rather than coerce — will result in stimulating dialogue and original ideas. I found this to be the case in one of my distance learning classes where my professor required every member of the class to have a blog (not a wiki, but still a collaborative tool). We were basically allowed to write about any technology policy topic we were interested in. I wrote about Open Source software (in a blog called “Code Wants to be Free” — hee hee) and ended up writing in it beyond the end of the course because I felt so interested and invested. It was mine in a way that a discussion board on a class website never could be. And it’s the primary reason why I blog today.

If you have any interest in wikis or in the use of collaborative software in education, do check this article out.

[link via The Distant Librarian and The Do-It-Yourself Librarian]