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Technology Update: The Topsy-Turvy World of Wikis
By Paula Murphy
April 2006
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 ( ), in comparison, goes behind the scenes to document the "manufacturing processes, labor conditions and environmental impacts involved in the production of contemporary products."

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 essays.

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 process.

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.



How Stuff is Made (UC San Diego)

In Wikipedia's wake, two SIMS researchers assess the quality of online information, and find it strained (Berkeleyan)

Wide Open Spaces: Wikis, Ready or Not  (Educause Review)

Teaching, Learning, and Other Uses for Wikis in Academia: All Users Are Not Necessarily Created Equal (Campus Technology)

Reader Comments

Pedagogical motivation: are wikis good for students?
The issue u raise Paula--that the students are exposed to more feedback--is an important one. To emphasize, if the number of comments a student gets back on a traditional assignment/essay is, lets say, 10, on the WIKI platform, they see the 10 faculty comments for theirs and every other student (n), in the class with them, i.e. (n*10), and those who have done the assignment before (x(n*10)). So a student who would now see, if n=20(my current class size), and 8 other classes have posted their assignments, that is 1600 editorial comments they can access, as needed. And this does not require more work from the faculty. The scaling comes from observing peers, comparing strategies, learning how to learn. Will they? Is more better? This much more gives them meta information on the editing/writing process, to see if their mistakes are common, and different stylistic concerns. They can also see the different agenda's of different faculty, and how the faculty concerns with standards of evidence and structure, differ to the workers and designers concerns. They access this feedback as needed, as they are producing, or later as they are reflecting and reconsidering.

I see the other pedagogical advantages of WIKI in general and HSIM in particular as:
1) higher standards of evidence: students seem to be more careful when they know that the people they are writing about and quoting will see their work;
2) higher standards of production: students make it look better, bc they know it is more than the faculty who will see it. Their parents, high school friends, potential employers ....
3) producing for the information commons:. This is the most crucial issue, and introduces student to the idea that the academy is the guardian of the information commons, and the marketing information (on how stuff is made) differs from independent academic analysis, and from journalistic tropes of expose. When given the option to go off the auto-alert list (who needs more email?) every student in the last 3 years, without exception, has opted to stay on. Which suggests they feel some ongoing responsibility to maintain and perhaps improve their case study. Perhaps they feel invested in their contribution to the information commons? The most interesting part to me is that this multi year attention to a particular process (they chose it in the first place) also increases the chance that students will at some point contribute innovation or improvements to the manufacturing processes, labor or environmental issues they identified in their assignment.

Any faculty who are interested in incorporating this visual assignment into their course-we make it easy to participate in this experiment--or anyone who is interested in publishing visual essays on the encyclopedia can contact or

natalie jeremijenko, UCSD on 04/21/06 10:35 am

I love
I really enjoy the way the information is presented and the up to date content.
Gene Lamar Ellis - Programmer / Analyst II, UCOP on 04/25/06 04:12 pm

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