Perhaps more than any other technology, wikis embody the spirit of optimism and philosophy of the open web. The wiki — a web page that could be jointly edited by anyone — was a significant shift in how users related to the Internet. The web democratized publishing, and the wiki made the process a collaborative, shared enterprise. In 1998 wikis were just breaking through in education. Ward Cunningham is credited with inventing them (and the term) in 1994, as a means for software developers to easily collaborate and communicate. Wikis had their own markup language, which made them rather technical to use, although later implementations such as Wikispaces made the process easier. Crucially they were based in the web browser, rather than any specialist software, again illustrating the point that universality is generally the victor in adoption.
Wikis encapsulated the promise of a dynamic, shared, and respectful space, in some respects echoing the collaborative knowledge construction set out in Vannevar Bush’s (1945) original vision of “the memex,” and culturally representing the San Francisco, hippie-based philosophy of early web communities such as the WELL (www.well.com) — after all, they were named after the Hawaiian word for quick. Accountability and transparency are built into their operation, because users can track edits, roll back versions, and monitor contributions. This, combined with the ethos behind them, led to a wiki culture, characterized by beliefs in knowledge as a public good, the power of collaborative activity, an aversion to commercial and proprietary solutions, and a commitment to a strict knowledge production process. However, wiki culture is not without its own issues; for instance, there is a distinct gender imbalance in contributors to Wikipedia, and as a result the types of topic deemed significant (e.g., Graells-Garrido, Lalmas, & Menczer, 2015; Hill & Shaw, 2013).
The potential of wikis for education was immediately obvious. Students could work collaboratively on a document, not limited by space or time. The possibilities for this were seized upon in a number of ways. For instance, Guzdial (1998) developed a version of Cunningham’s original wiki to create the CoWeb, a simple-to-use wiki tool implemented across a range of courses. He identified several ways in which educators and students used CoWeb, which I’ll go into here.
A primary use of CoWeb was simply as a course website since it was easier to publish with at the time than many other methods. This barrier to publication and participation is still relevant; for instance, Brian Lamb, Alan Levine, and others have worked more recently on the idea of SPLOT, which stands variously for Smallest/Simplest, Possible/Portable, Open/Online, Learning/Living, Tool/Technology. Their argument is that publishing in the open web is powerful, but too many open web tools (for example, blogs) are seen as technical and specialist. The aim is to create simple tools, for instance using a form, that reduce the barrier to such publication. The SPLOT developers state two key principles: “Make it as easy as possible to post activity to the open web in an appealing and accessible way and allow users to do so without creating accounts or providing any required personal information” (http://splot.ca/about).
Educators often created a page where students could introduce themselves and hand in and review assignments. In some courses students would post their assignments when they were ready for grading, so students had an opportunity to see one another’s work and even comment upon it.
Students were asked to do collaborative writing projects selecting from a range of topics.
An anchored discussion is one based around an initial topic or document. Examples might be students studying for a final exam by posting and critiquing answers to sample questions, or students asking questions about an anchor assignment. There were student-generated versions of these also; for example, discussions around difficult topics or assignments.
PROJECT CASE LIBRARY
Students were given a space to post their assignments after grading, thus creating a project case library for exemplary projects.
In one application of the CoWeb, the involvement of junior and senior students on the same course, who didn’t get to meet otherwise, was the explicit goal.
A frequently used and student-generated website was a “Hot List” of pages that were particularly useful or on which there were active discussions.
CHOOSE-YOUR-PATH ADVENTURE GAME
In one class students created an adventure game about one of their assignments, like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book.
STUDENT INFORMATION PAGES
The CoWeb could be used as a place to post general information for others, relevant to the class or not.
Looking at this list now, I am struck by how radical and innovative many of these applications are. Social media, forums, and the LMS have replaced many of these functions — for instance, a student-run Facebook page may perform the role of student-anchored discussions — but the mixture here is an indication of all the changes possible when the control focus shifts. Far from seeming antiquated, a course implementing such approaches, regardless of the actual technology, would be seen as innovative now, and would no doubt face a number of institutional barriers to implementation.
It was, of course, the development of Wikipedia that saw the biggest success for wikis. Even now, when it is thoroughly embedded in our everyday lives, Wikipedia seems an unworkable idea. An online encyclopedia that anyone can edit should result in chaos. The disdain Wikipedia is held in by much of the traditional media is mainly because of the struggle to understand how such a process does not produce nonsense. It is the rigorous process of editing and focusing on verifiable knowledge that is perhaps Wikipedia’s biggest contribution, not the actual technology it uses. For content to be retained in Wikipedia, it needs to meet three criteria: neutral point of view, verifiability, and no original research (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Editing_policy). What Wikipedia brought to the fore is twofold: 1. The remarkable scaling and distribution of knowledge on many diverse topics across the global population; 2. The unpredictable and dazzling array of topics that could be generated by removing the very formal constraints on inclusion in an encyclopedia.
The amazing thing about Wikipedia is not that it sometimes contains errors, but how few of these errors exist within its 5.5 million articles (counting only those in English). Back in 1998, the revolution in encyclopedia was Microsoft Encarta — multimedia and delivered on a CD-ROM, it made the expensive, dusty volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica seem a thing of the past, almost overnight. And while Encarta certainly made encyclopedias more affordable, it was still essentially the same model — experts wrote the entries and the topics were determined by the publisher, so only the delivery format had changed. What Wikipedia demonstrated was that the format was only half the story, and probably the least interesting half. The real fundamental change was in the process of creating an encyclopedia that the new technology allowed.
Wikipedia is itself a useful tool in higher education. For example, there are online courses which encourage students to contribute and edit Wikipedia for topics relating to open educational resources (OER). The course develops skills in the history and values of Wikipedia, as well as practical topics such as the Wiki markup code and how to construct a Wikipedia article (Wikipedia, 2017). This has the dual outcome of increasing the number of Wikipedia editors and adding to the overall number of entries on a particular topic (in this case OER, but the same would apply to any topic).
Far more common is the use of Wikipedia by students in the normal course of their studies. Head and Eisenberg (2010) reported that over half of the students they surveyed were frequent Wikipedia users, even if an instructor advised against it. When completing an assignment, students frequently consulted Wikipedia at some point during their course-related research. Their reasons for doing so were to obtain an overview of a topic and to help them get started with a subject and references.
While Wikipedia may be embedded in the education process and can now be seen as the default knowledge source globally, the use of wikis themselves has waned somewhat. This is undoubtedly partly a result of the rise of other technologies such as Google Docs for collaborative writing and social media for interaction. But it can also be seen as symptomatic of a change in attitude towards the role of the Internet in education. With Wikipedia’s popularity, it might seem churlish to bemoan the fact that wikis failed to fulfill their potential. Nevertheless, that statement is probably true in terms of the use of wikis in teaching.
I saw Mark Guzdial present about CoWeb at a conference in 1998 and came back to the Open University as a new convert to the potential of wikis in education. But my enthusiasm ultimately did not materialize into the e-learning course, which we’ll encounter in the next chapter, being presented in a wiki. Inevitably issues about control and quality won out. Similarly, one might ask why aren’t MOOC delivered through wikis? That may not seem an obvious question, but wikis could be seen as a logical implementation platform. We will encounter MOOC later, but for now, consider that their initial aim was to utilize the benefits of large-scale student numbers in an informal learning context. Wikis might be interpreted as meeting these needs. It’s not necessarily that wikis as a technology have not fully realized their potential, but rather, the approach to ed tech they represent — cooperative and participatory — has been replaced by a broadcast, commercial publisher model. This tension between the potential of the open, experimental approach to ed tech, personified by wikis, and the model that came to dominance in the ensuing decade, perhaps personified by the LMS, will be a key theme to explore in the following chapters.