Makin’ Wiki

What makes good wiki? It depends on what you want to do with a wiki, I suppose. Bill Ferriter’s (Twitter @plugusin) excellent wiki, Digitally Speaking, led me to his blog, the Tempered Radical, where he lays out five Wiki Roles for Student Projects.

He’s done a good job describing what needs to be done when a group prepares a good wiki page. But I have an issue with turning tasks into roles. I worry that this creates an illusion of collaborative work but hides the fact that there is little or no synergy in a division of labour. Delegation of duties amounts to one person, the group leader, multiplying his or her personal resources by using others to move things along in the direction he or she chooses. Ferriter is aware of this, I think, when he says,

One of the lessons that I’ve learned about wiki projects with kids is that the organic creation that defines Wikipedia doesn’t always work with middle schoolers!  […] If left to chance, that same unbalanced participation pattern becomes evident in classroom wiki projects as well. […] I’ve found that when using wikis as a group project to assess learning, middle schoolers need a set of specific tasks. Sometimes, shared participation is more important to me than individual exploration. (“Wikis.” Digitally Speaking)

I’m looking to use a wiki as a platform for building socially constructed knowledge, which is something different from both shared participation and individual exploration. When musicians play together in an ensemble, they make socially constructed knowledge. Yes, each plays his or her instrument, like the way each of Ferriter’s students completes a wiki role. But, if they are good, the musicians are doing much more than mecahnically plucking and blowing though the score. They each are telling the other musicians what the mucic means to them. On top of that, there is a give and take in playing off each other that parallels the dialogue, revising and editing that happens in conversation–or on a wiki page. A wiki page, it seems to me, is at heart a a record of a dialogue, out of which comes the truth, if it can be found, or, more likely, a better understanding of the problem at hand.

In setting things up for the project, I’ve drafted what I think are the Wiki Attitudes for Student Projects. They are, as I think may will recognize, the intellectual virtues, traits (very old ones) that support dialogue and critical discourse:

Patience. Building knowledge collaboratively takes time and patience. The point of working in a wiki is not to find an answer–you can often look that sort of thing up, or ask someone directly; the point is to come to a better understanding the matter at hand and that can take a lot of back-and-forth. A wiki can work something like a conversation, but one extended over time and space, where a group of people work together to make sure everyone in the group understands equally well.

Integrity. The wiki is a collaborativeproject and that means we ought to hold everyone–especially oursleves–the the same standards of argument, respect and good spirits.

Courage. Wikis are public documents, shared with many others, and it takes courage to speak honestly and openly on them. Sometimes we will have to stand our ground when many others are trying to push us off our position. Our ideas and comments will be open to critique and we need to be able to face that fairly and with a spirit of good sportsmanship.

Empathy. A wiki can generate many different, sometimes conflicting, ideas and opinions. Even if we do not agree with them, we must try to reconstruct accurately the arguments and reasons for opposing views. This is not to say all views are right. But, in imaginatively putting ourselves in soemone else’s shoes and looking at our arguments from their point of view, we can gain new insight and understanding of ourselves and our own ideas and beliefs.

Perseverance. Sometimes understanding comes easily; but when it does’t, we have to struggle through a lot of hard work.

Faith in Reason. Not all discussions on a wiki will be contentious; sometimes–often, we hope–they will be just telling good stories. But when issues do clash, a wiki tries to give the freest play possible to reason as the tool to resolve them.

Fairmindedness. All ideas presented in a wiki ought to be treated equally, that is without reference to our own biases or vested interests.


  1. Reply
    Bill Ferriter January 11, 2009

    Hey Brad,This is a brilliant piece. I particularly like the comparisons that you made between a good wiki and a musical ensemble as well as your “Wiki Attitudes for Student Projects.” In my work with kids and wikis, those are the kinds of mental skills and behaviors that they struggle with, that’s for sure.As far as using roles with wikis go, the only time that roles are used in wiki work with my kids is if I’m attaching a grade to the project. Like any group work assignment, kids left to their own devices when working on a shared task end up with a skewed workload—and that creates all kinds of drama when it comes to scoring!I guess the solution is to get rid of grades completely, huh?! That would fix the problem AND make our students more interested in learning and less interested in scoring.Good stuff, Pal.Bill

  2. Reply
    Brad Ovenell-Carter January 11, 2009

    Thanks for the compliment, Bill.You’ve raised a point we (at IPS) have spent a great deal of time going over and over and over, namely assessment and reporting.Currently, the bulk of student work is given formative assessment; so no marks, not even on our 1st term reports, but lots of anecdotal feedback (Google Apps is great here). A good idea I think, as formative work is where the learning happens. A summative assessment is something like taking someone’s pulse or temperature. It gives you important data, but it doesn’t tell you or the student what to do.So far this has worked well, although we have had to run several information workshops to bring the parents up to speed and it took the better part of the term to get the students to loose their acquired taste for letter grades. Generally, this has been received well by everyone: students, parent, teachers.To be honest, it never occurred to me to make a summative assessment of a wiki page as a better or worse wiki page. I see a wiki as a means to an end, say a deeper understanding of a novel built on some collaborative note-taking and discussion in a wiki. And I don’t see how we can fairly make summative assessments of means.Perhaps naively, I think that with practice (and some coaching, to be sure) good wiki will develop organically. In fact, most of what my students and I know about wikis comes from our first asking the question, How can we use the tools we have to come to a better understanding of whatever problem is at hand? and then going off and tinkering. This approach has been highly successful in our WikiEducator project and in a study of Frankenstein.Again, you’re right on the money, Bill: in my experience taking away grades does make the students more interested in learning and less interested in scoring.Brad

  3. Reply
    Peter Rawsthorne January 11, 2009

    Great post! Many relevant observations and ideas. I like the idea of rubrics to encourage participation. The idea being is the students (with guidance) create the rubric themselves about what it good OER wiki, what they consider good participation and how all this would be evaluated via the rubric. Once their is collaboration in creating the rubric it sets the tone. And the rubric is often referred to as the wiki project progresses. Its kind of like a contract that they were a part of writing.

  4. Reply
    Brad Ovenell-Carter January 12, 2009

    I think student participation in creating the wiki rubrics is critical. It changes the role of the teacher from that of (knowledge) giver to guide. Moreover, it makes learning dynamic and redresses the typical imbalance that favours product over process. It also moves kids toward some high level thinking–synthesis, analysis and evaluation–of both the data (the wiki and the content of the wiki) and the metadata (the rubric itself).Thanks for the comments, Peter.

  5. Reply
    Joe Fezzuoglio February 3, 2009

    Hey Brad,Thanks for the information on wiki’s. I am relatively new to the web 2.0 educational technologies. However, I was selected by my high school district to participate in the PLP Project with Will Richardson & Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach. I have been following Bill with VoiceThread and have done a couple VT with my health classes. I would like to take the next step in creating a class project within a wiki using VT. Ultimately, my goal is to work outside our school district with other health classes on a project. My administration will be looking closely at my class projects to approve more web technologies for my classes and through our school district. I was hoping to get some ideas from you about starting a wiki (which one) project for my health classes (4). I would like to create something in the topic area of STD’s, dating violence, or teen pregnancy. I am concerned about security, monitoring, and evaluating my students within the project. I hope with a little push I will be able to create a project that my students look forward to contributing in and learn from within my class and outside my class room.I hope this makes sense…ThanksJoe

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