The basic definition of a "wiki," a term based on the Hawaiian word for 'quick',
is a simple web page that can be created or edit without having to know HTML or
how to use special software. What makes wikis controversial and hyped -- is
that their pages are often open to editing by the public. The most oft cited
example of such a wiki is Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia that has recently come
under fire for publishing inaccurate information.
For people (of a
certain age?) who are accustomed to the old publishing paradigm in which
information is written, published, and maintained in a controlled process, the
usefulness of wikis may be difficult to understand.
As consumers, we wonder
why anyone would trust information that is editable by the masses and has no
single person in charge of vetting it for accuracy, style, and other editorial
standards on which we've come to rely (the Wikipedia controversy proves our
point). As writers, we are uncomfortable with joint authorship, hesitating to
give up control of what we've written.
But, let's face it, we're not the
targeted audience for wikis or most "social computing" technologies. Students
are another story, and, fortunately for them, some of our faculty peers have the
vision to turn the perceived weakness of wikis into pedagogical strengths. These
innovative instructors are exploiting the ease of use and openness of wikis to
facilitate collaborations and to turn students into knowledge creators instead
of passive information consumers.
Probably the best known example of an
academic wiki is the Romantic Audience
Project created by students and a professor at Bowdoin to collaboratively
study poetry. A more local (UC San Diego) academic wiki that is making a splash
is "How Stuff Is Made," which was inspired by the "How Stuff Works" web site
that, you guessed it, explains how an array of products work. HSIM ( www.howstuffismade.org ), in
comparison, goes behind the scenes to document the "manufacturing processes,
labor conditions and environmental impacts involved in the production of
Natalie Jeremijenko, a Visual Art faculty member at
UC San Diego, began the HSIM project for multiple pedagogical reasons. She
wanted to encourage her engineering and design students to think more critically
about the manufacturing process behind consumer goods. She also thought the use
of wiki-based assignments would deter plagiarism as well as encourage students
to use higher standards when evaluating evidence.
For the HSIM site,
Jeremijenko has her students visit factories --from fortune cookie bakeries to
a Toyota Prius plants-- and observe how products are made. They then post photo
essays about the manufacturing process to the HSIM site. Many of the students
then contact the manufacturers and invite them to read -- and even edit -- these
Jeremijenko finds educational value in wikis because they can be used
to get students involved in actively creating knowledge while holding them
accountable for the information that they publish. Wikis also allow for
reflection on the writing process itself, providing a window into the revision
But Jeremijenko will be the first to admit that, as with using any
new technology, there are some growing pains. One issue with wikis is security.
Hackers like to exploit the weakness in such tools. Jeremijenko says that on
several occasions the campus servers hosting her wiki project were taken offline
by network administrators concerned with security issues.
But security should
become less of a concern soon, as wikis are now being bundled with (or being
made available as plug-ins to) course management systems, such as Sakai,
Blackboard, and WebCT. This integration with common instructional tools might
encourage other faculty to throw caution to the wind and enter the topsy-turvy
world of wikis.