Embrace the Wiki Way

By: Matt Barton on: Fri 21 of May, 2004

What the heck, you may ask, is a wiki? Why would I bother to learn about a technology with such a silly name?

For those who would read on, though, I will try to explain what makes wikis so exciting and useful for doing that little thing we do, namely teach writing.

First of all, what is a wiki? Well, you could begin your explorations by reading this definition at Wikipedia, the famous online wiki encyclopedia. To make a long story short, wikis are simply websites that erase the boundaries between authors and readers. A wiki can be changed by anyone who bothers to change it. Just click EDIT and hammer away. Simple. Quick. Democratic. Wiki.

Let me guess what you are thinking: What is to prevent such a website from anarchy? What if someone deletes my material? How do wikis protect an author's work?

Answers: Nothing. They don't. Nothing. They don't. A good preface on every wiki page would be, "Abandon all authority all ye who enter here." Leave your romantic conceptions of authorship at the door, thank you. Wikis will not help a writer discover her subjectivity. They will not help a writer develop a personal voice. They will, however, enable collaboration and teach us all something very important about what a true democracy is all about.

So, if wikis elide all claims to authorship, offer no protection of material, and allow any 5-year old child or racist bigot to edit a page, what good are they? Well, let us explore why so many wikis are able to flourish in the well-fertilized fields in which they are sown.

For one thing, wikis are not really as vulnerable as you may think. They are at least as well-protected as your home. Now, I beg you to consider: Is your home really invulnerable? Couldn't a small group of hoodlums take it into their minds to vandalize your home? How is that you are able to drive a car at all, since anyone with a fifty-cent pocketknife could slash your tires wherever you park it?

You may say that the police are there to prevent such things. However, I'm looking out my apartment window now at my tiny little Mazda Miata. There are no uniformed people about. However, there are some neighbors. Hopefully they would notice if someone was deflating one of my tires and do something about it.

Wikis work under the same model. In Wikipedia, authors can choose to "subscribe" to a wiki page, which means they are notified via email when anyone tries to change a page. They are free, of course, to re-visit the page and investigate. If someone has written something disagreeable, it's a small effort to change it back. You see, wikis do not only save one version of a page, but every version. Each time a user saves a new version, the old version is stored in a database where it can be accessed by examining the "History" of the page.

Thus, while wikis by default display the top layer of each page, one can easily dig down into the underlying layers and examine the sediment there. What one finds is that highly controversial topics (like abortion) are often loaded with hundreds of layers, whereas boring topics like "comma usage" are typically left alone after three or four changes.

In short, wikis are protected not by code, or by law, but rather by the participation of an active wiki community. If you are proud of your entry, you will feel compelled to see what's up if you receive a notification that the entry has been changed, and "roll it back" if it's obvious the page was vandalized or rendered less intelligent.

Okay. So I've described wikis and answered the obvious question about their security. Now, let us explore how wikis can be used in the composition classroom.

First, let us ponder a few potential wiki applications and decide if they are viable:

1. A wiki novel project. Joe will write his entire novel in a wiki. He will then seek to publish it with a commercial publisher.

Doomed to failure. A novel is not a collaborative project, and Joe will probably get upset if someone starts changing his text. Furthermore, will it really be his novel if other people make changes to it? This is NOT a suitable project for a wiki.

2. A wiki portfolio. Jackie will create her writing portfolio in a wiki, adding to it all throughout her college career.

This is a particularly bad choice for a wiki application. Jackie's personal information should probably not be online anyway, more the less in a format that allows anyone to edit it. Imagine the fun her roommates would have if they knew Jackie was going to use this portfolio as a resume for a new job? This is NOT a suitable project for a wiki.

3. A wiki reference guide. Hubert's hobby is making model aircraft. He thinks it'd be nifty to create a wiki to help other hobbyists and learn something himself.

This is an IDEAL project for a wiki. Hubert can invite everyone he knows to visit and contribute to this tightly-focused wiki. Most hobbyists will probably have special information or advice that could easily be organized and edited to build an effective and highly useful wiki.

4. A wiki directory of helpful websites. Gretta wants to build an annotated bibliography of all websites dedicated to philosophy.

This is another great use for a wiki. Gretta can't possibly build this list by herself. However, by setting up the wiki, inviting her friends, and advertising, Gretta will likely see a flourishing wiki built around this idea. What's better is that later users can delete links if the target sites have gone down. Thus, it is a self-maintaining wiki.

5. An argumentative essay wiki. Freddy wants to build a wiki that argues that motorcyclists should have to wear helmets on the road.

This may not be the best use for a wiki. After all, what if the American Organization of Motorcyclists Who Hate Helmet Hair learn about this site and decide to delete it all? Freddy would spend all her time rolling back pages and working to keep the rhetorical slant. Freddy will probably need to make the wiki more general or less slanted--perhaps a wiki dedicated to fashionable or creative motorcycle helmets would be more successful.

So there are the potential wiki applications. As you can see, projects that emphasize authorship or require protection are not proper wiki applications. They may work anyway, but the other projects are more suited to the wiki environment.

So, what would be some innovative uses for wikis in the composition classroom?

1. Any class project with a reference or encyclopedic format. Instructions, manuals, glossaries, and the like are all excellent wiki applications.

2. A class or group project with a bibliographic format. Students could gather websites related to a topic, then annotate, rank, and organize them.

3. A letter or statement presented on behalf of the class. These documents occur often enough in the business world, where the "on behalf" basically means that everyone involved signed off on a draft. On a wiki, such a project would offer everyone a better chance to make a contribution.

4. A handbook or textbook. Students could build a guide to correct punctuation and evaluated as a class. Thus, every student would have a stake in the project and likely benefit from the instruction it contained. Students are also familiar with "textbook" English and its avoidance of personal-sounding prose.

5. Any other project that does not require specified authorship or protected documents. Wikis are authored by communities, not individuals.

Now, with all this said, let me posit that the wikis I have been discussing are "true" wikis. We might define a "wiki continuum" in which the left post was constituted by these free, anyone-can-edit wikis, and the right post was constituted by private, password-protected wikis.

You may say, "Well, I want to use wikis in my classroom to help students write five paragraph essays." So, you setup the wiki so that no one but the individual student can modify her wiki page. Furthermore, you make the site unavailable to the public by using a password and registration system. Bam. Now you can offer students protection and a feeling of authorship. Cool, huh?

WELL...Why use a wiki? Why not blog instead? Why not use a discussion board? Any content management system worth its PHP would allow you to do these things easier, more effectively, and more securely than any wiki software.

You see, the further you get from the ideal wiki I described above, the further you get from the "wiki way" and the very features that make wikis exciting in the first place. Therefore, quit trying to make wikis do what you could do under the old paradigms, and try instead to think of ways to use "pure wikis" effectively.