Wikis in Higher Education

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Wiki Overview

A Wiki is a kind of collaborative website in which multiple users can add and change the content. At its simplest expression, a wiki is a web page that anybody can edit. The spirit behind the original wiki idea is that any user of the World Wide Web could now read and write at the same time using their web browser, therefore simplifying the web editing process. Figures 1 represents a traditional web page editing and publishing process, where the author pushes content to a passive crowd of internet users. On the other hand, Figure 2 illustrates what a wiki web page is a page that is readable and editable by every user.

Traditional Web Page Wiki Page
Figure 1: On a traditional web page, an author pushes content to visitors of a particular page<ref>Grenier, Brian (2007), Wikis in the Classroom, El Paso Independant School District, [Online], visited 26/10/2007.</ref>. Figure 2: On a wiki page, the content can be read and edited by any visitor.

*Images courtesy of Creative Commons

The Wiki Tool gives users the ability to create a Wiki that is dedicated to a particular course or project site. Members of that site can monitor, update and edit the content of the wiki. The Wiki Tool also allows users to add images, link wiki pages to other documents, and view the change history of the wiki. The website owner can control what permissions the members have, including access, reading, writing, editing, etc.

Original Definition

Like any respectable open-source technology, the community of pioneer users has set some ground rules of what can truly be called a wiki:

  • No authorship allowed: A wiki is owned by its community, meaning that anybody who posts something on a wiki must let it go, even if it means that the next user will erase or rephrase everything that has been posted. It is a democratic tool which enables collaboration<ref>Barton, Matt (2004), Embrace the Wiki Way!, Personal Blog, [Online], retrieved 10/25/2007</ref>.
  • Simplified markup language: Wiki markup language is easier and more automated than HTML. URLs are linked automatically. Creating an internal link creates a new page without further programming<ref>Lamb, Bryan (2004), Wide Open Spaces: Wikis, Ready or Not, EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 39, no. 5 (September/October 2004). Page 38.</ref>. In other words, Wiki language is the most naked embodiment of the Hyperlink concept<ref>Various authors (2007), Why Wiki Works, [Online], retrieved 10/25/2007.</ref>.
  • Focus is on content, not on format: Most wikis look like very plain HTML pages. The quality of a wiki is in its content, not in the way it looks<ref>Turnbull, Giles (2004), Talking to Ward Cunningham about Wiki, luvly, April 6, 2004.</ref>.
  • Version tracking: The history of every single tiny change of every wiki page is available to anybody, which means that a page can travel back in time to a previous state at any moment.
  • The structure is defined by the community: There is no need to create a wiki architecture from the get-go or to have a group leader who imposes a way of organizing content. Wiki rules will emerge from consensus when needed.
  • The community is the watchdog: If the community is engaged in the wiki and because of the version tracking feature, getting rid of erroneous entries and graffiti (made consciously by vandals) is fast and efficient<ref>Shirky, Clay (2003), Wikis, Graffiti, and Process, Many‐To‐Many: Social Software, August 26, 2003. /20030801.shtml</ref>. Therefore, there is no need for any kind of security procedure or for a user registration process.

A lot of wikis are currently working very efficiently by following these “anarchic guidelines”. But as usage began to explode, a lot of people saw a huge potential for other usages, particularly in the corporate world, where accountability, copyright respect, and privacy are all required.

A Looser Definition Of Wiki

Beyond the strict definition described in the previous sub-section, there is a whole universe of possibilities on how to use wikis. Not everyone will agree that these hybrid wikis are true wikis. Figure 3 shows the multiple features that can make a wiki a better fit for specific contexts.

Wiki FeaturesContinuum Image.png
Figure 3: The Wiki Features Continuum<ref>Inspired from Lamb, Bryan (2004)</ref>

*Images courtesy of Creative Commons

Typical Usage of Wikis

Wikis are used to support a large number of different activities. Here are some of the most common ways wikis are used:

  • Brainstorming: When starting a specific project or a creative process, participants are invited to add items and thoughts on a wiki. They are also asked to link all these random thoughts and concept together in order to stimulate creativity.
  • Group project: A wiki can act as a private intranet for a specific group project so all participants can communicate, share resources (including texts, videos, spreadsheets, links, etc.), and write a report or a book together.
  • Meeting support: An agenda for a specific meeting is posted on a wiki and participants are invited to consult and edit it prior to a meeting. The wiki is edited during the meeting to include was discussed. Participants can later use the wiki to post missing information or follow-up items. This technique is also very useful for training, presentations, and birds of a feather sessions during conferences.
  • Make lists: From a list of best restaurants in town to a glossary of terms used in a specific field of expertise, a wiki is a great way to organize this kind of content. In the same spirit, wikis can also be used to build an online repository of relevant documents or FAQs.
  • Collections of links: Wikis can be used for social bookmarking. They give to all participants the possibility to post, comment, group, and classify links of all nature or in a specific field of expertise.
  • Writing a collective letter, position, statement, web content: When writing something that is intended for an official legal instance, to clients, to upper management or to the general public, a wiki is an excellent tool to reach a consensus, define key ideas, and write down the content to be clear and non-offensive.
  • Building a group portfolio: Any organization can use a wiki to post past projects, testimonials from clients, history of the organization, etc. This kind of portfolio is a powerful marketing tool.

Wikis vs. Other Tools

While there are a number of similarities between wikis and other web tools, there are also some significant differences. Table 1 presents the similarities, the differences, and the most common usages of blogs, discussion boards, instant messaging, content management systems, and knowledge repositories in comparison with wikis:

Table 1: Similarities and differences between wikis and other web tools
Tool Similarities Differences User Actions in Tool
  • Member of group posts information
  • Other members edit current information
  • Other members add links to resources and new wiki pages
  • Group-driven
  • Needs loyal audience and motivation to reach goal
  • Asynchronous communication
  • Strong authorship (depends on reputation and notoriety of author)
  • Chronological
  • No versioning
  • Author posts a message
  • Visitors post comments on messages
Discussion board
  • Group-driven
  • Asynchronous communication
  • Mostly chronological
  • Cannot edit already posted content
  • Usually moderated
  • Usually restricted to registered users
  • Member posts a message
  • Members build argumentation over previous message in thread until consensus
  • Member starts a new thread
Instant Messaging
  • Messy by nature
  • Synchronous communication
  • Short-lived (usually not archived)
  • Based on network of individual
  • Focus on limited number of questions
  • An individual needs a quick answer from another individual within his/her personal contacts
Content management system
  • Web page editing using browser
  • Limited markup language usage
  • Content-oriented
  • Asynchronous communication
  • Versioning available
  • Content is controlled by organization
  • Uses HTML to program
  • Workflow-driven
  • Member posts a new page or edits an existing page
  • Webmaster approves, edits or rejects post
Knowledge repository
  • Group-driven
  • Content-oriented
  • Asynchronous communication
  • Versioning available
  • Somewhat imposed structure
  • Content and context are usually separated (metadata and file)
  • Very restricted access
  • Workflow-driven
  • Member searches for specific file
  • Member posts a new file in the appropriate folder
  • Member updates an existing file

The purpose of Table 1 is to show that wikis are a very flexible tool, but other tools might be more appropriate to achieve specific goals. Wikis usually work better for projects where individual authorship is not important.

Wikis in Education

Even though wikis have been around for a while and have a lot of early adopters in higher education, it seems they have not been used to their full potential for learning. One on the reasons that has been evoked in several articles is the fact that wikis are usually associated with the concept of actual work, and not learning, which is associated with the more formal and traditional classroom training<ref>Edmonds, Rob (2006, October). Up from the grassroots. E.learning Age,14-16. Retrieved October 26, 2007, from ABI/INFORM Global database. (Document ID: 1151038921). & Eric Lesser, Closing the Generation Divide: Shifting Workforce Demographics and the Learning Function, IBM Institute for Business Value, [Online], retrieved 29/10/2007.</ref>. There might be a bit of truth in that statement, but is doesn’t mean that wikis are not useful in education. This section will present some concrete hands-on examples that demonstrate the exact opposite.

Examples and Advices from Literature and the Web

This section will emphasize the way wikis are used to generate value in education. It will start with very high level use of wikis for open knowledge sharing and finish with hands-on examples.


Wikipedia is one of the greatest popular successes of the internet age. As of mid-December of 2007, more that 2.1 million articles are available in English. All these articles have been written by the Wikipedia community, which is composed of web users like you and me. There is a raging debate going on regarding the value of Wikipedia for education, and this debate revolves around authorship and peer-review, two building blocks of our education system. A lot of educators categorically refuse any citation coming from Wikipedia, warning students to stay as far away as possible from that source, including numerous K-12 institutions and Lehigh University<ref>Olanoff, Lynn (2007). School officials unite in banning Wikipedia, The Seattle Times, November 21, 2007. Retrieved online on 12-20-2007.</ref>. Others see in that site a starting point to introduce the concept of the value of information, and set their student to check the facts on other sources (they use Wikipedia as a hub to start projects)<ref>Shareski, D., & Winkler, C. A. K. (2006). Are wikis worth the time? Learning and Leading with Technology, 33(4), 6.</ref>. Other initiatives are trying to bring peer-review and authorship back into online knowledge initiatives. Google announced a new project called Knol that will emphasize the value of having identified authors for each article, a process that would bring back the idea of reputation in online encyclopedias<ref>Regan, Keith (2007), Google's Knol Initiative - the Unwiki?, TechNewsWorld, December 14, 2007. Retrieved online on 12-20-2007.</ref>. Only time will tell if Wikipedia will preserve a respectable reputation as a knowledge source, but one thing is for sure: it has been a very successful venture so far. Wikipedia gave wikis a boost of publicity that makes them a widespread tool that is changing the way people communicate online.

Open Textbooks

A lot of interest groups believe that this enormous amount of money could be used in a more productive way, including, a Sun Microsystems initiative to gather K12 knowledge in an open format. Here are some other initiatives involving wiki textbook development:

  • Wikibooks: a child website of Wikipedia, Wikibooks already has an impressive collection of books written by volunteers about a lot of topics. They use the same wiki mindset as Wikipedia, which makes them as vulnerable to critics as Wikipedia.
  • The California Open Source Textbook Project: In order to decrease the cost of textbooks ($400M annually in the state of California) and avoid textbook shortage, the COSTP is partnering with Wikibooks to create free open source public domain K12 textbooks The California Open Source Textbook Project.
  • The Free High School Science Texts: South African initiative hosted on Wikibooks, all textbooks and resources are available in a wiki format online The Free High School Science Texts.
  • The Global Text Project: Initiated by two U.S. professors, the GTP has already helped universities in developing countries have access to higher education textbooks for free in the fields of Management Information Sciences (MIS) and business <ref>Foster, Andrea (2007). Software Group Gets Online Textbooks to the Developing World, The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 16, 2007. Pages A28-A29</ref>The Global Text Project.


E-portfolios are assigned websites were individuals post and reflect on their work. Even if some authors disagree about the value of using wikis for e-portfolios, it has been used for that purpose before and will probably be again in the future<ref>Barton, Matt (2004).</ref>. A wiki has the advantage of being organized by content, in opposition with a blog, which is organized chronologically (but both technologies can be used effectively as portfolios, depending on the importance of time sequencing). The idea behind e-portfolios is to give access to a simple enough web publishing system so that any student can easily post their work online. In that sense, wikis are ideal. Since portfolios are usually individual, there has to be some kind of security measure to make sure no intruder will start changing the portfolio of someone else. Instructors and external auditors can access any e-portfolio to assess a student progress, and a student can use his e-portfolio to self-assess his learning. Another interesting use of e-portfolios is as an institutional portfolio. Every unit of department could have a collective wiki space where they would post their accomplishments. This is particularly useful for accreditation purposes.

A Wiki as a Living Course Website

Heather James described an experiment she did with her students in a web design course. She created a wiki page for each in-class session, posted lecture material before the class meeting, did a quick review of last week's wiki page, gave a 10 minute lecture, and conducted in-class activities asking students to post their thoughts on the wiki<ref>James, Heather (2004). Aiming for communal constructivism in a wiki environment,, May 27, 2004. Retrieved online on 12/21/2007.</ref>. Following this pattern, a professor must post an outline of what has to be covered and lets students fill in the blanks with what they think is important, constructing a collective study guide or textbook. Heather James warns faculty members that showing too much structure beforehand might kill creativity from the beginning, so it is important to find the right balance between a white page and a fully directed wiki space.

The Theatre Arts Wiki

Geoff Proehl is Professor of Theatre Arts in the Theatre Arts Department at University of Puget Sound, Tacoma, Washington. In a short video, he showcased the use of a wiki to support the production of a play, from the interpretation of the original text to the costumes, stage settings, and actor’s movements<ref>Proehl, Goeff (2008). Geoff Proehl on the Theatre Arts Wiki, University of Puget Sound, posted on April 30, 2008. Retrieved online on 5/1/2008.‐proehl‐oberon</ref>. The use of hand-drawn sketches has been very helpful to stimulate creativity from his group. Look at his video: Geoff Proehl's Theatre

The STOLEN Principle

Dave Ford created an acronym to describe a process to follow in order to get better results when using a wiki. He called his process the STOLEN principle. Table 2 describes the key elements of the STOLEN Principle<ref>Foord, Dave (2007). The STOLEN principle Tick List, A6 Training and Consultancy. Retrieved online on 12/21/2007.</ref>.

Table 2: The STOLEN Principle for Using Wikis Educationally
S Specific Overall Objective
  • Clear objective for the wiki
  • Understood by all
  • Not a "general" area
  • Grading strategy, rubrics*
T Timely
  • Definitive times for different "stages" of use
  • Definite end point - even if left open after
O Ownership
  • People need to feel that they "collaboratively own" the wiki
L Localized objective
  • Some structure of what is expected
  • Starting points for editing
E Engagement rules
  • Who can edit
  • Which parts they can edit
  • Acceptable and unacceptable use
N Navigation
  • Clear navigation structure
  • Simple navigation

*This item has been added by the author.

A detailed description of each rubric is available online at The STOLEN Principle


Stewart Mader published a book in 2008 called Wikipatterns: a practical guide to improving productivity and collaboration in your organization<ref>Mader, Stewart (2008). Wikipatterns: a practical guide to improving productivity and collaboration in your organization, Wiley, Indianapolis. ISBN: 978-0-470-22362-8.</ref>. Even though this book is addressed to wiki users in general, its content is highly relevant to using wikis in education. The companion website of his book is also a wiki, and contributors from around the world are making this resource more and more complete. For more info visit: Wikipatters. He identified four categories of patterns (observable behaviors, attitudes, processes or actions) that strengthen or diminish the use and the usefulness of wikis: people patterns and anti-patterns, and adoption patterns and anti-patterns. It is important, before making the decision to use a wiki, to understand these patterns in order to design learning activities that make sense and leverage the power or your learning community.

Lessons Learned in Defining Wiki Usage in a Course

A wiki is a tool which can be used in multiple ways. It would be very misleading to define one best practice for using wikis in higher education, since their use will be different from one course to the other, depending on the professor’s teaching style and the course’s learning objectives.

Instructional Strategy

As a starting point, lit is necessary to define a pedagogical framework that can help understand the real value of wikis in education. Carmean and Heafner, under an EDUCAUSE initiative, defined Five Learner-Centered Principles for Deeper Learning. In order to have a better impact on the learner, the learning experience must be active, social, contextual, engaging and student-owned<ref>Colleen Carmean (2003), Learner‐centered principles, EDUCAUSE NLII, [Online], retrieved 11/12/2007.</ref>. It is easy to see that wikis have an excellent potential to help achieve all – or at least some – of these principles. Another framework that has been largely in use for two decades is the Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education by Chickering and Gamson. According to their findings, good practice in undergraduate education:

  • encourages contact between students and faculty,
  • develops reciprocity and cooperation among students,
  • encourages active learning,
  • gives prompt feedback,
  • emphasizes time on task,
  • communicates high expectations, and
  • respects diverse talents and ways of learning.<ref>Chickering, A. W., Gamson, Z. F., & American Association for Higher Education, Washington, DC. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE Bulletin, 3.</ref>

Keeping in mind these frameworks, how can your wiki activity help your students achieve the learning objectives you are setting for them? Which observable knowledge, behavior, attitude, or skill should your students be able to demonstrate at the end of your course? Which instructional gap are you trying to fill in with your wiki? How are you going to assess student achievement?

Control and Ownership Issues

Wikis are, by nature, open. Being open means that contents are, by default, visible to everybody. There are two issues here which have to be addressed: permissions and copyright.

Permission Issues

Figure 4 and 5 show the target audiences and the permission sets of two scenarios of wiki usage.

Scenario 1 Scenario 2
Figure 4: In this scenario, the wiki is visible to the entire web group, but is only edible by registered users. There are no anonymous contributions on the wiki. Figure 5: In this scenario, the wiki is not visible unless the user logs in. Most learning management systems and workplace wikis are set this way by default.

*Images courtesy of Creative Commons

Instructors have to think about the purpose of their wiki and the impact of having it public versus private. Some students might not like the idea of sharing their formative thoughts to the entire world, while other might want to be fully transparent. And some wiki pages might also be fully controlled by the faculty member only, or reserved to a specific group of students to discuss group-related issues that should not be visible to other participants. You are encouraged to refer to the wiki features continuum (Figure 3) to determine the kind of wiki environment that would suit your needs.

Copyright Issues

Is there any content on the wiki that cannot be shown outside the course community without infringing copyright laws? Some contents might be shared under fair use for educational purposes, but cannot be replicated or redistributed if the wiki is entirely public. Any participant can post content to a wiki, even students. If you plan to reuse the content which has been developed in a wiki for upcoming semesters, or to be published on the web somewhere, you have to make sure students are aware of that fact and that they agree to see their collective content be reused, remixed, and repurposed. Writing it down in your syllabus, making students sign waivers, and defining copyright in your wiki charter (see Understanding the Markup Language) are all valid alternatives. Discussing copyright issues and fair use with your students from the get-go will promote a proper use of your wiki throughout the course, or, at least, give the instructor ground for disciplinary actions if necessary.

Individual, Team, and Class Contribution

By design, a wiki is a collaborative space, owned and edited by anyone. But there are some circumstances which require more individuality, privacy, and ownership. A wiki can be appropriate in these situations, as long as the following conditions are met:

  1. Users are registered: It is possible to track changes and associate a user with them. That way, if a user changes a page or a section that is reserved to some other users, it is possible to revert that change or take some actions against that user.
  2. Content can be viewed by everyone: Most wiki tools don’t have a feature that hides some pages from a registered user, which means that even if a user is not allowed to make a change, the content is still viewable.

An example of a bad use of a wiki would be asking students to individually post their answers to an assignment that has a limited scope of answers. When a first student will have his/her answer posted, others might be tempted to have a quick look for inspiration. A drop box or an email attachment would be better strategies in such a case. It is very easy to create individual pages for each students or team spaces. The only thing instructors must make sure of is that students know where these "soft" boundaries are. This is definitely something that should be addressed in a wiki charter, if necessary (see Understanding the Markup Language).


By using a template, you create a zone between a blank page (which could lead to a usability disaster) and a pre-built autocratic structure (which could lead to fear of making mistakes or plain boredom). Most wiki tools offer the opportunity of modifying the default template page (the blank page that is presented by default when any user creates a new page). That default page is a perfect place to promote best or common practices in the wiki. If you want, for instance, your users to always put a title, a little description of what is on this page, and a navigation bulleted list with anchors for the sections of that page, you could create a default template that would look like the following (Table 3):

Table 3: Example of a default page
Wiki Markup Language Visual Output

h1 Insert the title of your page here

Wiki Template1 Image.png

__Description:__ Insert a short description of the content of your page here (around 200 words, maximum)

Description: Insert a short description of the content of your page here (around 200 words, maximum)

*[Alias of your first item | #First]
*[Alias of your second item | #Second]

Wiki Template2 Image.png

h2 First Item

Type your content here

h2 Second Item
{anchor }

Type your content here </nowiki>

Wiki Template3 Image.png

Understanding the Markup Language

Some users get very frustrated of the fact that they cannot, in a wiki, format the information in the same way as in Word or in HTML. Simplicity has its cost. If your students want to add something fancy on a wiki, they probably need to build it in another tool and import it as an image, or link to a PowerPoint file they created. The goal of the wiki is to create mostly written content. This is what it is good for. Even though wiki markup language is pretty easy to use, some people will be reluctant to "code" a page. It is imperative to train your users to be proficient with the most common markup language, as a starting point. Sometimes, the Help file is not enough, or way too much.

Wiki Charter and Etiquette

A wiki charter is the equivalent of the syllabus for the entire course: it defines the usage, the expectation, the conventions, and the accepted behavior within the wiki. It is a code of conduct that can be set in stone from the beginning by the professor, or negotiated as the need emerges by the entire community<ref>This idea of a wiki charter has been inspired by Mader, Stewart (2008).</ref>.

The wiki charter can act as a code of conduct, a kind of contract based on the willingness of each participants to be a good e-citizen. Sometimes, the charter can define ways to use the wiki that go beyond the technological capabilities. For instance, teams can be assigned a specific set of pages to edit into and asked to avoid editing other pages, even though the wiki cannot prevent them to edit any of the pages.

Using the Wiki Beyond the Wiki

A wiki is a working space. It is an unpolished web page which can be edited by anyone. Content developed in a wiki doesn’t have to stay in a wiki. The wiki can be the process in its entirety, or it can be one or more steps in a larger workflow which leads to another kind of media.

Typical Usage of Wikis summarizes the strengths of wikis. You could, for instance, use a wiki to build a scenario for a video project, where the final product will be the video, not the wiki. Or you could have student post an individual assignment they did with a text editor on a wiki and use it to summarize the class’ collective knowledge.

Grading Strategy

Last but not least, since most students expect grades, they rarely work for nothing. The wiki activity might have extreme value in the eyes of an instructor, but if the grade associated with the expected effort is not worth it, your wiki might end up as dry as the Sahara. Table 4 shows the consequences of different grading strategies on student perceived learning value and faculty issues which are associated.

Table 4: The grade value continuum<ref>This continuum represents Mathieu Plourde’s perception of the topic, based on his own personal experience. This model might not apply to seniors or graduate students.</ref>
Grade Value None Small Significant High
Student No grade means not important. They focus their energy elsewhere. Most students will do it, but some might decide to skip the activity. A significant grade associated with the activity means that they cannot skip it without taking a hit. Means that each student will worry about his/her individual grade to pass the course or get their expected grade.
Faculty Issues with stimulating interest by showing the value of the exercise. Issues with stimulating interest of a critical mass, but will get actions from the best students. Issues with moderation or support of students. Issues dealing with individual attribution, grading, and teamwork because of conflicts between low and high achievers.

One thing that came up during the interviews is the fact that trying to grade students individually on their contributions is at best time-consuming, and at worst impossible. Unless there is an assigned space for every student where they can post -- which doesn’t make sense in a lot of ways in a wiki -- it is very difficult to see through something that is so intertwined. And even if you have access in your wiki tool to every edits made by a specific user, the reality is that some students might work in group and have a scribe, someone who makes all the edits under his or her name. How can you assess participation levels in such an environment?

It is better to assess the final outcome of a wiki instead of the whole detailed process. As a faculty member, you can assign your class or groups a task and tell them that you do not care how they do it, they are all accountable as a group for the final product (and deal with exceptions using an anonymous work assessment survey to detect slackers).


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