Friday, March 16, 2012

Is a Wiki Really Useful in Education?


The term "wiki" comes from the Hawaiian word meaning "quick". In internet culture, the term is associated with the technology that creates collaborative websites, the most known being Wikipedia.

The creator of the wiki, Ward Cunningham, says that he wanted people who wouldn't normally publish their writing to find it comfortable doing so. People who have something to say often can't find the context to put it in writing. By allowing users to initiate and modify any page in a website is liberating, in the sense that it encourages the equal, democratic use of the Web and promotes content creation by regular people.

Starting from the idea that knowledge should be available for anyone, Wikipedia found an opportunity and went with it - soon becoming one of the most accessed websites and most commonly used sources of reference. It is now obvious that web articles for which you have to pay to read don't have any value -  although you might be willing to pay to read them yourself, you can't link to them - they can't be shared, so they don't make it to the spotlight, they don't go viral, they can't be discussed.

Some of the advantages of the wiki are that, although its nature is open, not everyone has the same level of access and some rules are applied at all times. In order to use the wiki, there is no need for additional software, nor is there a need for specialized courses in learning how to manage a wiki. It's also good to know that technical problems are minimal.

Wikipedia was launched in 2001, as an alternative to the traditional encyclopedia. First of all, Wikipedia is free to everyone and it can be edited by anyone. Anonymous users can add, delete or modify content according to their own knowledge. The costs are minimal - unlike paper encyclopedias - and information can be updated instantly. You can start a page and write anything you want in it.  Anyone else can come along and make absolutely any changes to it that he wants to.  On the newly created page, you can link to any other pages, and, of course, they can link back.

Being open to such a large number of readers and writers, it is not easy to keep all information completely accurate. You can see who added what to a certain article; you can discuss the process of writing the article. The point of view may sometimes be subjective, the article may sometimes share only part of the information. Since errors may still occur, Wikipedia is rarely accepted as an academic source. Sometimes, students can't tell which article is reliable and which isn't, and they quote Wikipedia like it's completely accurate. Nevertheless, it covers an immensity of fields, from history to pop culture, from scientists to starlets and so on. There are pages in virtually any language. The articles are linked to one another, cross referenced, keeping the reader one click away from even more information.

The development of Wikipedia was spectacular. By the end of the year when it was launched, it had around 20.000 articles. In 2007, it had more than 2 million articles, becoming the largest encyclopedia to have ever existed. In 2004, it was already available for mobile phone usage, thus expanding even outside its original basis.

When it comes to other uses for the wiki, people often get confused; mostly because they don't realize how easy it is for this structure to be used. At a smaller scale, the wiki is a version of the Internet, with things that are, at first sight, randomly placed. But a wiki on a certain project has every reason to be well organized. While a number of people add to a page, they may also use the "discussion" section of any page to comment and debate their work in progress. The leader or an endorsed person may look in the "history" section to see every single version of the page, as it has been edited by users. Can teachers take advantage of this tool?

The wiki is easy to use, open to the integration of multimedia content. The teacher can evaluate both the quality and quantity of the students' work. The wiki platform offers an audience to the learning process (the educators as well as other students) and a collaborative working space, where the students can create and share content. In the educational field, wikis can be used as personal portfolios or for the coordination of research. They make it easier to follow a group project; they allow a Frequently Asked Questions system for the students; they make a good debate and discussion environment.

Like most other web 2.0 tool, the wiki has the appearance of being reserved for entertainment or, at the most, for gathering random information. At a deeper incursion, we find that it has true educational value and can be used in schools as well as in company trainings.