Wiki as a Community of Inquiry
I am a huge fan of wiki technology, and not just because WikiPedia is such a great resource. Wikis have many great things going for them: they make a virtue of simplicity; they distribute authorship across a community; they make linking content into a natural part of writing rather than an afterthought; and they are adaptive in a way that most software can only dream of.
I've been using wikis—really living inside them—for a number of years now. Some of my own wiki history is recounted in Using Wikis in the Classroom, a conference presentation I gave last year on my use of wiki in teaching. The short story, though, is this: the more wholeheartedly I pour my own teaching and document management needs into wikis, the better I like them!
Update (12/07): See my presentation slides here .
Ward Cunningham, the developer of the original WikiWikiWeb (over 10 years ago now) called wiki an example of "the simplest thing that could possibly work," which is itself a key virtue in a school of software engineering practice known as "agile development." Cunningham came up with the wiki idea from his team's use of good old 3x5" index cards in group design meetings. While arranging cards on a table in order to represent the model of a system, there would inevitably be a blank spot that someone would point to and say "and we need a thing here that does x" -- the ability to refer to a piece that hadn't been written or designed yet is the key to the way wiki works: making a link to a wiki page that doesn't yet exist simply presents you with the opportunity to name that page and write it later, and when you have, it is already incorporated in the overall wiki. This makes for rapid, easy development that is equally quick and easy to revise later.
Wiki also makes a virtue of simplicity in eschewing features—bells and whistles that usually complicate software and interfaces unnecessarily. Most wikis allow you to read, write, make links, and search. And that's about it. When you strip out a lot of preconceived "features," the result is software that is incredibly simple to manage. In fact, by keeping everything in the space of reading and writing, adminstrative tasks effectively become editorial ones. "Information architecture" becomes the experience of managing a system of names—the names of pages are the basic unit of organization. Compare the experience of managing most websites.
The other great thing is that a wiki is collectively authored by a community of people; what defines that community of people is interest in the material and the committment to participate. A characteristic of most wikis, especially big ones like WikiPedia and Cunningham's WikiWikiWeb, is that they almost actively discourage the individual authorial voice in favour of an emergent tone and discourse shared by everyone who participates. It is this virtue that makes wikis so useful in learning settings. In the 1980s, a lot of high-end educational research went into designing learning environments that would support collaborative inquiry, something that wikis do so very well.
Asked about the difference between blogs and wikis, Ward Cunningham once commented that "the blogosphere is a community that might produce a work. Whereas a wiki is a work that might produce a community"—a framing that I think gets it the right way 'round.
The MPub cohort of 2005/06 and I created the current version of the Thinkubator as a wiki (previously it had been a web forum, and a content management system). One major difference between TKBR (which is easier to type) and most wikis is that we took the graphic design seriously. The result is that it doesn't look like most wikis. If you come at Thinkubator from the front end, it looks more like a discussion forum or blog platform. In fact, both of these 'genres' are supported in TKBR, but really, it is composed of nothing but wiki pages. Everything is simply an editable page. What provides the thematic structure is simply a mechanism where newly created pages attach to previous ones; for example, this page was created from the PUB802-07 page, so it appear to be part of the PUB802-07 area. But you'll note it's also part of Organizing Principle, which is my own 'blog'. It could be attached to any number of other pages as well, simply by making the linkages.
Starting last year, I asked the MPub cohort to put all their PUB802-07 work into TKBR: presentation notes, papers, comments, and questions. The result, last year, was a wiki of more than 400 pages... just an astounding collective work. In fact, a big question arising was whether to keep it and expose it to this year's class. Ultimately, I decided not to; instead, you get to start from scratch and build your own; the idea is that you get more out of writing and building the thing than by browsing or reading what's already there.
This year, I have no interest in re-designing or re-creating TKBR (I would like to update the images, though. Jenn P. can't be the poster child for TKBR forever!), as I'm really happy with the architecture we have. Rather, I'm interested to see how much usefulness we can wring out of it. So if you have ideas for things you'd like to do, let's do them.
There is a [help]? page on this wiki which will give you some basic info about how to compose and format wiki text, how to make links, and basic stuff like that. The organizational features, like blogging in TKBR and assembling themes, are works in progress, which we can talk about and modify as we like.
... --sarah, Wed, 10 Jan 2007 15:49:17 -0800 reply
Some slides from a talk I gave --jmax, Wed, 12 Dec 2007 10:49:51 -0800 reply
John - beautiful slides --gmm, Wed, 12 Dec 2007 21:40:03 -0800 reply
love the black/green on pink - very nice! which class were you talking to? and if it was a public forum how come you didn't post the event on the bator? i totally would have come down for a viewing/discussion of wikis and in particular our awesomely wonderful bator!!
John - beautiful slides --jmax, Wed, 12 Dec 2007 22:37:40 -0800 reply
Thanks, Ger... it was to a group of instructors, actually. I had spoken to a wider group of post-secondary types at BC Campus earlier this fall, and that led to the ECIAD event. So, no, it wasn't a public thing.