Learning with (and from) Wikis

Lately I’ve been intrigued by wikis – online content repositories that users can freely modify (expand, change, link, or delete entries). These can be published on the Web, or on an intranet or other network.

Wikis are most commonly used as community-created resources for reference (like Wikipedia) or collaboration. I’ve been getting interested in them mainly for their e-learning potential. I’m starting to like them immensely, even though they’re generally rather ugly (more on that below).

Sometimes we learn the most from our mistakes. Along that line, I just read an excellent piece about what one educator learned from a wiki that didn’t work so well…

See this May 21, 2004 Kairosnews weblog entry, “My Brilliant Failure: Wikis In Classrooms.” (Thanks to elearnspace for that link.)

The article’s author recently taught a six-week workshop in Ireland on Web site visual design. She used a wiki to display her presentations (which the class could edit), and also for exercises and student observations. The problem? The students simply didn’t get very involved in the collaborative aspect. So she mainly ended up using the wiki as a “pumped-up PowerPoint.”

Some particularly interesting excerpts from this article:

“What [most educators] don’t realize is that there is a great potential in this tool to be completely disruptive (in a good way) to the classroom setting.”

“..I used an instructionist and fill-in-the-blanks approach, whereas, what I would have rather have done is for the student to identify the blanks themselves, and build from there. In other words, it’s as if I had installed a blog, but only for myself to publish to the class, and allowed them to only make comments. To really use blog to it’s fullest potential, the participants need to be writing their own posts and making comments on each other’s pages. To really use a wiki, the participants need to be in control of the content – you have to give it over fully.”

“…Being so open, a wiki does not have any inherent properties that will instantly make a knowledge-building community. It depends not only on the software configuration –for example whether certain areas are locked or whether you make templates for layout – but also on the social norms and practices around the wiki. In a classroom setting, this means the practice of the teacher, and the interactions of the students.”


Speaking as someone who was nearly bored into severe mental oblivion by the New Jersey public school system and three years of Catholic high school, I love the collaborative, “knowledge-building” approach to education. I realize that it’s not for everyone – although I suspect that if more kids were introduced to this collaborative approach to education early, many of them might feel more engaged and energized by education in general. In my humble opinion, rote learning generally tends to dull minds rather than improve them.

But I digress…

In my opinion , the biggest stumbling block with wikis is that most of them have absolutely terrible user interfaces. They expose the user to far too much of the software’s inner workings. (For example, see this wiki’s category list.) They’re not very intuitive or usable. And they’re almost exclusively text-based, not very visual. Yes, you can get used to them without too much difficulty, but most non-geeks would have to push past considerable initial revulsion and awkwardness to get to that point. That’s a tall order.

I’d really love to see a wiki tool that offers an excellent graphical user interface – something that’s attractive, flexible, usable, and intuitive. Wiki tool developers should leverage the fact that when people think about connections and engage their creative functions, they’re typically using the right side of the brain more – the more visually-oriented part.

*** UPDATE JUNE 4: I may have found one wiki tool which at least begins to approach this goal: EditMe ***

…To be fair, for all I know there might be some very significant and sound technical reasons why wikis all have such ugly text-based interfaces. However, I haven’t yet found any good discussion of the topic, let alone demonstrations of such tools. Maybe they’re out there and I just haven’t found them yet, but so far I’ve pretty disappointed. I mean, you can do a lot of nice, user-friendly design with blogging software. Why not with wiki tools too? (I know the current design of this weblog is pretty bare-bones and ugly, but when I upgrade shortly to new blogging software that will improve.)

Many online tools (such as web browsers, media players, etc.) offer skins – customized styles that allow users to choose the “look and feel” of their interface to that tool. Can’t you skin a wiki? So far, the only attempt at that I’ve found is FlexWiki, which applies Cascading StyleSheets (CSS) to wiki technology – and that really only affects how the content displays, not the user interface.

I know this complaint may sound technical, but from the user’s perspective the non-intuitive nature of the typical wiki interface represents a huge general-acceptance barrier to a tool that otherwise might have a lot of popular appeal, especially for learning environments. If you want students to collaboratively tackle difficult, complex topics with creativity and enthusiam, the tools they use should not get in their way! Ideally, wikis should look as cool as they are.

I don’t mean to demean the efforts of wiki developers to date. I think many of these people have made fabulous contributions to this particular corner of the online content universe. They’ve come up with elegant systems for managing complex, interrelated information. And one can indeed learn how to use a wiki without too much difficulty. I just would like to see this concept taken to the next level. That’s all.

If I’ve overlooked some graphical wiki tools, please e-mail me to let me know. (Sorry, I’ve had to disable comments temporarily on this weblog until I upgrade to new software.)


  • Good basic article on Wiki: “What’s a Wiki?” May 9, 2003, by Sebastian Rupley for PC Magazine (republished in ExtremeTech)

  • Getting Up to Speed on Wikis,” by Jim McGee (May 29, 2003, McGee’s Musings weblog)

  • Wiki in action: Meatball Wiki. This wiki-based metacommunity (online “community of communities”) focuses on online culture – especially how people online come together naturally in groups. This wiki discusses topics such as the various types of Diffcult people who often represent threats to online communities, “trolling,” and “Group Think.”

  • Wiki Tools,” Dec. 30, 2003, by Neil J. Rubenking for PC Magazine. This article provides an overview and comparison of five popular Wiki farms (hosted Wiki services, which handle ths software side of things for you – great for non-geeks).

  • Credibility is a key concern for any online content, especially wikis – since any user can get in there and potentially spout off, lie, slander, or otherwise muck up the works. In his article Trust by Design, information architecture expert Peter Morville discusses how the wiki approach to knowledge-building can actually build trust. (Scroll down to the section, “The Wisdom of the Wiki.”)
  • Rethinking education based on the Wiki model: “Computer Support for Knowledge-Building Communities , an academic paper by Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter. It’s worth wading through the dense academic prose of this document to get to its rather revolutionary concepts. In particular, it discusses how the conventional approach to schooling actually inhibits knowledge building, and how new approaches coupled with new tools (like Wiki) might create a more engaging and effective learning environment.

  • Quickiwiki, Swiki, Twiki, Zwiki and the Plone Wars Wiki as a PIM and Collaborative Content Tool,” a very detailed (and rather technical) overview of the wiki landscape by David Mattison. (Information Today< April 2003)

  • Some articles comparing wikis to weblogs:

2 thoughts on Learning with (and from) Wikis

Comments are closed.

  1. Turning the Tide on Ugly Wikis
    Wikis are the buzz. Like Amy Gahran (Learning with (and from) Wiki), I have been quietly ‘intrigued” by wikis, while trying to get past the mind-bending thought of creating a web site that anyone, anywhere can change on you. And…

  2. We (the publishing company I work for) have free and paid-access websites. It would seem like wikis would be a better sell to managers above me to push offering a wiki in our paid access arena. With registration, bad seeds are controllable.

    And, that’s important since we still have flashbacks to the flaming that went on through our message boards and the time and energy (READ: $$$) that our non-profit had to use to keep them clean and healthy.

    I believe a wiki could be tricky, but if it’s sticky, then that’s be…um, great.