Using Wikis as Learning Tools

The social Web is characterised by the richness of interpersonal experience users enjoy when they use its tools and services. It is this shift in emphasis and a repurposing of the ‘old’ Web spaces into shared environments that is shaping the new digital territories in which the information age is redefining itself. It is this new dynamic which the ‘digital natives’ the so called ‘Net Generation,’ are colonising. We have noticed a distinct migration from text to hypertext and then towards hypermedia, and we now observe a relentless progression from reading to reading/writing/participation made possible by open architecture tools.
Wheeler, S.  (2009) Learning in Collaborative Spaces. Encouraging a culture of Sharing.  Connected Minds, Emerging Cultures. Cybercultures in Online Learning.


Wikis are Web 2.0 applications designed specifically as collaborative environments. In some respects, they can be seen a ‘communal’ blogs, which can be open to the public, or limited to members of a specific group. Wikis support learning communities well, given that sites are available at any time from anywhere and because they can be freely edited by members of the specific wiki community. Wikis are often used by researchers who are located in different locations, providing a common resource on which to co-create knowledge and share data and ideas. The idea of community members being able, or perhaps even obliged, to edit one another’s work, is key for effective collaboration, although, as we shall see, this is not always the case.

Wikis have a number of features which provide added security. Amongst these is the ability to ‘roll back’ to previous versions of posts and, if necessary, to set them as current. These features are especially useful in socially authored public wikis like Wikipedia, which are open to abuse by vandals. Wikipedia, remains one of the most popular internet sites, despite concern about the validity of some of its content. Other popular wikis are listed here. Citizendium is a new project by one of the founders of Wikipedia, Larry Sanger.
This paper concentrates on the use of wikis in educational settings, where their features offer the facility for them to be used to set up interactive environments to scaffold collaborative learning (Wheeler, Yeomans and Wheeler, 2008). However, while wikis are designed for working collaboratively, they are not necessarily used as such, be it in education or other fields. Wheeler (2009:4) makes the point that “wikis can be exactly what their masses of users wishes them to be”,  so we see them used as e-portfolios, content delivery platforms as well as collaborative learning platforms in education and other fields.

From early on, social software has been regarded as having great potential for active learning. Wheeler (2009:5) highlights a strength of  wiki applications as the ease with which students can work together to create content – “generate, mix, edit and synthesize subject specific knowledge” – and share it within a “openly accessible digital space” . Grant (2006:2) describes social software as having “the potential to support and structure communities where individuals can come together to share, learn, create and collaborate” and believes that “wikis offer enormous potential to learning.” Boulos, Maramba and Wheeler (2006) highlight the strengths of the anytime, anyplace nature of Web 2.0 applications  for supporting ubiquitous learning and, according to Ebersbach, Glaser and Heigl (2006 – in Wheeler, Yeomans and Wheeler (2008:987)) “social networking and social software are proving to be fertile terrain within which communities of learning coalesce.”

A major feature of Web 2.0 is that of user generated content, sometimes described as the wisdom of the crowd, at others as the ignorance of the masses. Attitudes to this vary and Wheeler (2009:5) points out that the idea “sits a little uncomfortably in the minds of some teachers.” This was clearly illustrated in April 2007 when the then Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, was criticised by Larry Sanger, the co-founder of Wikipedia, for praising the site which he regarded as broken beyond repair. This notwithstanding, it has been pointed out that Wikipedia, for all its faults, ” is at least as accurate as Encyclopaedia Britannica” (Wheeler, 2009:6).

What should also be noted is that information posted on blogs and wikis is known by the creators to be viewable by the millions of people who have access to the web. This awareness of their membership of and social presence on the web leads to a greater sense of responsibility with respect to what is posted, and how it is presented. Wheeler, Yeomans and Wheeler (2008:987) refer to the work of Jacobs (2003) which suggests that applications like blogs and wikis “encourage “deeper engagement with learning through the act of authoring, simply because the awareness of an audience, no matter how virtual and tentative, encourages more thoughtful construction of writing.”

Early contributors to the debate identified wikis as providing a space for ‘communities of practice’ to, inter alia, develop solutions to common issues and shared problems and to expand knowledge and improve practice. (Godwin-Jones, 2003). Usability issues were also discussed early on. Desilets, Pacquet & Vinson (2005) showed that even young children could make effective use of the platform to author stories collaboratively. Not surprisingly, the biggest challenges for children were hypertext and link creation management issues.

Grant (2006) analysed collaborative group writing at secondary school level in the context of what Bereiter and Scardamalia (2003) say about the need for communities of practice to have intentional goals of learning if they are to produce new knowledge. The knowledge building networks model emphasises “collaborative activity” in which “learners take responsibility for their own learning goals, identifying the problems and gaps in their understanding” and making decisions about how to solve problems which arise by developing and sharing explanations and ideas publicly with peers and by offering critiques and alternative explanations. (Grant, 2006:3)

Grant’s findings suggest that the students do not automatically understand the nature of collaboration and the kinds of things they needed to do when co-authoring stories. Thus, Bereiter and Scardamalia’s criteria for knowledge building networks were absent. Students did not take responsibility for their own learning goals, review each other’s work, identify gaps in their knowledge of a topic or find ways of making the different topics relevant to each other. The main reason for this was that they ‘imported’ existing school practices in which ‘discourse’ was seen as individualised written assessment. Grant’s recommendations are that students be inducted into new social working practices by introducing them to an existing wiki as new members, providing an environment in which they can learn about the affordances of the platform and about the existing culture of sharing, collaboration and negotiating meaning.

These findings are not uncommon, given the traditional individualistic values which students have grown up with. A classic example is the reluctance to have others edit one’s work, or to critique and edit the work of others as members of an online community of practice. Only one member of the Grant’s group edited the work of another member and was maligned for doing so.

Wheeler, Yeomens and Wheeler (2008) and Wheeler and Wheeler (2009) found a similar reluctance, with students tending to protect their ideas as their own work, and although happy to post their contributions to a wiki for other members to read, were resistant to having their contributions altered or deleted by other group members, or to edit the work of others. It seems clear that accepting that one’s work is not sacrosanct and that others have the right to edit and improve it is a big step. Clearly, sites like Wikipedia would be much poorer without this understanding.

Cole (2009) describes an interesting action research project involving third year information systems students. Cole attempted to promote student engagement by getting students to use a wiki as a platform to create a “module level knowledge repository” consisting of “meaningful course content suitable for assessment” (page 143). Half way through the course, no work had been posted. An open-ended questionnaire revealed four main constraints – pressure from other courses (29%), issues about ease of use (37%), self confidence (19%) and lack of interest (20%).

Cole’s findings were that:

  • so-called digital natives do not know everything about information technology and a good level of ‘instructional scaffolding’ is required when working with applications like wikis
  • a significant number (19%) of students are reluctant to publish web-based material for peer-group review
  • There must be a balance between cost (time invested in learning and using new technology) and benefits (engagement, interest and improved learning.)
  • it is not enough to add a wiki into a course with traditional content. Course content needs to be explicitly redesigned around wiki use
  • student motivation for using social technologies appears to be linked to their perception of fun (active postings with friends) and consumption (individual browser behaviour)
  • Technology needs to support pre-existing educational behaviour rather than attempt to import behaviour from other domains. Essentially, education exists in a consumer culture where altruistic acts are devalued and individual efforts rewarded.
  • While technology may be fun, fun is determined by the user and students do not appear to view popular social technologies in an educational context as enjoyable or useful.

In a study at Plymouth university by Wheeler, Yeomans and Wheeler (2008), four groups of volunteers from the 1st, 2nd and 3rd year cohorts of the Bachelor of Education course used wikis during classroom sessions to store and edit work from their research exercises and as a forum for discussion. Students posted their views about the use of the wiki during sessions and also completed a post module questionnaire via email.

The researchers report that, while comments were generally positive, the wiki activity did not suit the learning preferences of all students and that effective use of the wiki was limited. However, “apportioning responsibilities to each individual” (page 992) provided a structure which enabled all to contribute to the so-called knowledge repository. However, as each was contributing to a separate section of the repository (thus avoiding conflict between contributors), it was difficult to ensure that students read any of the content contributed by others and, as reported above, there was a decided reluctance to edit the work of others of have their own work scruitinised. In a separate paper covering the same research, Wheeler and Wheeler (2009:1) point out that students “appreciated the shared environment as a means of discussing their work” and believed that “their academic writing skills had improved through their formal participation in the wiki.”

A wiki project designed for pre-service teachers students (n=150) to create and coordinate a collaborative resource consisting of teaching and learning resources at Southampton University in 2005 provided other useful insight into how students work with wikis.

  • While the students were initially enthusiastic about the possibility of co-authoring a resource which would be to the benefit to them all, by the end of the course a good number (55%) had either contributed very little towards the project or nothing at all.
  • Of this group, most (60%) admitted that they made liberal use of the contribution of others.
  • When questioned more closely as to why they had contributed little, most (60%) stated that the process of finding a resource, then having to log in to the wiki, find the relevant page, open it, provide a hyperlink with a descriptor and then save, was too time consuming, especially when they were in schools. Others (20%) stated that they preferred to work by themselves, using browser bookmarks on their own computers, or in small groups using other methods to share resources.
  • A good number (20%) said that they had forgotten how to use the wiki (hyperlinking was the main issue) and some claimed to have lost their passwords.

Wiki are perhaps a little ‘clunky’ compared to other social networking applications.  However, the biggest issue was probably that the wiki was set up by someone else (myself) and ‘marketed’ to the group  as a public entity (this is our wiki, not mine).  In spite of initial training in how to use the wiki,  a good level of moderation and constant reminders to participate, a majority of the students never really embraced the resource, or felt that it was really theirs. Essentially, the resource was seen as useful while the process of participating actively was regarded as extra and non-essential work.

Wheeler (2009:7) has stated that it is inevitable that some students contribute more than others and that there will always be  social loafers. Furthermore, “in wiki and other online activity, it (social loafing) is sometimes easier to perpetuate.” Another useful point made is that wikis are group specific and are unlikely to be valued by future groups who “perceive no clear ownership” (page 7). I would suggest that group size also has an impact on participation. It is far easier for social loafers to hide in a large group than a small one and it is also more difficult to embrace a true sense of ownership in a large group.

Some reports reflect more positive results, with students using wikis in imaginative ways. Parker and Chao (2007:65) give details of a pilot study in which wikis were used as a platform for student project development in a software engineering course. While students in the course were initially required only to maintain a diary of individual and team activities, “they soon began to devise innovative ways of using wikis for project activities that were unanticipated by the instructor.” In addition to group diaries, wikis were used successfully for project planning, requirements management, ptoject tracking/progress reports, test case management, defect tracking and client notes.

Parker and Chao conclude by saying (page 67)

…educational institutions can offer immense value to their students by familiarizing them with the simple technologies that make collaborative networks possible. Today’s students will not only manage business innovations of the future, but in many cases will drive them. Rather than being limited to today’s skills, students must learn the skills of the future. Educators need to teach what wikis and other social software may mean to business, not just as a phenomenon, but also as a skill (Evans, 2006). By incorporating wikis into the classroom, educators can better prepare students to make innovative uses of collaborative software tools.

It is clear that there is a distinct difference in the way that contributors to large open sites like Wikipedia and small educational sites see wikis and their respective place and nature as contributors to them. It is also clear that those who have worked with educational wikis have had a mixture of results. Wheeler, Yeomans and Wheeler (2008:992) point out that “in classroom contexts, where students are familiar with one another, ownership appears to be an issue.” Here, the issue is the one of having one’s work scrutinised and edited, something also found by Grant (2006). My own work at Southampton, using a somewhat different wiki, suggests that much of the reluctance to contribute was due to a lack of real ownership, coming out of a situation where students were urged to contribute to a wiki which had already been set up. This is likely to have made them hesitant about buying into the process of contributing to the resource.

Given the issues uncovered in recent research into students using wikis, it would seem that the applications, although offering a great deal of potential for collaborative learning, have limitations. However, these limitations probably have less to do with the application than with the social paradigms and individual values which impact on the perceptions of users. As Cole has noted, in our society altruistic acts are devalued and individual efforts rewarded. The adage about taking horses to water comes to mind, suggesting that all the conditions for success need to be present for wikis to work. Foremost amongst these is a real need by the user which is best satisfied by the use of a wiki. Much of the research reported on has been carried out using contrived situations, given that the researchers have been the ones to define the task, rather than the users. However, this does not mean that realistic situations for successful educational use do not exist. They just need to be found.

Some ideas for using wikis in primary schools.

Project work.

wikis are well suited to collaborative work, including shared writing and group projects. As such, they are excellent platforms for class, school, or inter-school project work. They support multimedia, which means that text can be supported by photographs, audio files and video. Different aspects of the project can be developed by different members and groups on different pages, which can then be cross-linked. A school wiki  could include details of the different classes, sports teams and results, examples of art work and descriptive writing and the school’s policies. The advantage over a blog is that the wiki does not have the hierarchical reversed journal type structure of a blog, making it easier to navigate.

Community projects are also well supported by wikis. A local community blog could be facilitated by a history teacher, whereby children are guided through the process of finding historical information about their community from books and the web. More importantly, members of the community can participate, by adding photographs,  movies converted to video and their memories about the way that the community has developed. The wiki could be supported by a Community Day, in which the older generation comes to the school to share their memories. Audio and video footage of these reminiscences could be captured by the children and added to the wiki.   A wiki of this kind could also be linked to local museums.

Wikis are also well suited to links with other schools, be they in the same country or abroad. This is an excellent way to share information about our cultures, using text, video, photographs or audio files.

List of References:
(Full bibliographical data is only provided for resources which are not hyperlinked.)

Boulos, M. & Wheeler, S. (2007) The emerging Web 2.0 social software: an enabling suite of sociable technologies in health and health care education.

Cole, M. (2009) Using wiki technology to support student engagement: Lessons from the trenches.

Godwin-Jones, R. (2003) Emerging Technologies.Blogs and Wikis: Environments for On-line Collaborartion.

Grant, L. (2006) Wikis in Schools.

Lamb, B. (2004) Wide open spaces: Wikis, ready or not.

Parker, K. & Chao, J. (2007) Wiki as a teaching tool.

Wheeler, S. & Wheeler, D. (2007) Evaluating Wiki as a tool to promote quality academic writing skills.

Wheeler, S. & Wheeler, D. (2009) Using wikis to promote quality learning in teacher training.

Wheeler, S., Yeomans, P. & Wheeler, D. (2008) The good, the bad and the wiki: Evaluating student-generated content for collaborative learning.

Wheeler, S.  & Boulos, K. (2008) Mashing, Burning, Mixing and the Destructive Creativity of Web 2.0: Applications for Medical Education.

Wheeler, S. (2009) Learning in Collaborative Spaces. Encouraging a culture of sharing. In Wheeler, S. (2009) (Ed.) Connected Minds, Emerging Cultures. Cybercultures in Online Learning. IAP-Information Age Publishing, Inc. ISBN 978-60752-015-3 (pbk).

Other resources.

Bruns, A. & Humphreys, S. (2005) Wikis in Teaching and Assessment. The M/Cyclopedia Project.

Wang, C. & Turner D. (2004) Extending the wiki paradigm for use in the classroom.

Wheeler, S. (2008) All Changing: The Social Web and the Future of Higher Education (a tale of two keynotes).

This article was first published on the Enhancing Learning and Teaching wiki.


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