[iDC] "All our wiki are belong to you"

Axel Bruns a.bruns at qut.edu.au
Thu May 4 09:00:46 EDT 2006

G'day !

Trebor asked me to add a few reflections on blogs and wikis in teaching, so
here I am... By way of background, I'm co-coordinating a largeish project
here at QUT which is trialling blog and wiki systems in various teaching
environments (large to small units across various disciplines); we're using
Drupal for the blog system and MediaWiki for wikis, with a potential to move
to Confluence (as a significantly more powerful, but proprietary, wiki
solution) some time soon. I'd love to point you to the sites we've set up,
but right now they're mainly available only internally, so it won't make
much sense, I'm afraid.

There are a few things which have been mentioned in the discussion so far,
and which I'd like to add some comments on:

1. Blogs vs. wikis:

I don't think the question of which one is 'better' is particularly
relevant, or useful. Both technologies can be useful tools in different
teaching contexts, and it's simply important to make an informed choice as
to which may be more appropriate for any one case (in in which
configuration). I'm sure it's no news to anyone that the key difference
between them is usually the underlying organisation of information (temporal
in blogs, spatial in wikis), and the answer to which one should be used can
often be found right there already. So, blogs can be useful for ongoing
personal/group reflection, or for the incremental development of skills /
gathering of information / provision of feedback; wikis can be useful for
compiling information and ideas in an ad hoc form, with informational
structures emerging as information is being compiled.

2. Levels of openness:

This is something we've struggled with (in the case of both blogs and wikis)
as well. Especially with large groups, total access to all information for
all visitors can be confusing ("how do I find students in my unit"; "why is
this person replying to me") and intimidating ("I don't want my personal
reflections to be visible to all visitors"); the more competitive students
are also reluctant to post information to their blogs for fear that lazier
students will appropriate their work for their own assignments. 

Currently we're trialling an extended permissions system within Drupal,
organised through its in-build taxonomy functions: students are asked to tag
posts relating to specific units with those unit codes, and only current
students within those units can access that content. Additionally, there are
also generic 'public' (available to all visitors) and 'private' (available
only to the originating user) tags, as well as a number of other tags which
can be limited to other groupings (staff, interest groups, etc.). It's also
possible to apply multiple tags, of course - this could be used to make a
unit-specific post available to all (but we're still working out the

Yes, this does to some extent go against the spirit of openness in the
overall blogosphere, but it's proven necessary to help collate content that
relates to specific units or groups, and eases students into exposing their
thoughts and work to a wider audience.

In the case of our wikis, a similar approach applies, but here it's usually
individual unit wikis which are either entirely internal, entirely open (but
editable only by authorised users, or use a two-step process (internal
during the editing phase, then published to the wider Web). When we move to
Confluence, we will be able to apply more specific permissions which will
also help. And again, the point here can't simply be a doctrine of openness
at all cost, but rather it's important to use the available tols as fits the
teaching situation.

3. Group collaboration:

Given the ongoing development work in the blog environment, it's too early
to say much here, so I'll focus on our experiences with wikis: success here
has been very dependent on the size of groups. We've had considerable
success with small to medium groups collaborating in developing wiki
knowledge bases: some colleagues have used wikis for example in language
units (German and French, respectively, with the wikis also using these as
interface languages so that they become immersive language experiences), and
this has worked very well. One exercise for language students was to
build/update a wiki on Berlin as a place of commerce, for example, and this
has been very successful - also for the staff member teaching the unit, who
rapidly progressed from virtually no experience with wikis to using them
very expertly.

My own experience in developing an online encyclopedia of new media terms
and concepts (which I also discussed in my paper with Sal Humphreys for
WikiSym 2005, at
http://snurb.info/files/Wikis%20in%20Teaching%20and%20Assessment.pdf, and in
my interview with Trebor one year ago -
t_speake.html) has had mixed results so far, and I'm learning more about the
level of instruction students need for this purpose - in earlier semesters
I've allowed students a great deal of freedom in choosing topics for their
entries, and this has produced a wide range of quality in the content
produced; in the future I'll be more rescriptive in what should be covered
in the encyclopedia. The point here is that we don't have the luxury of a
very wide contributor base, contrary to the Wikipedia which can cover some
fairly esoteric topics without losing coverage of key topics - in a unit of
150 students, run once a year, we need to make sure that their work is
covering the key topics before it moves on to less crucial ones (for
example, at present we have an entry on 'cultural imperialism', but no entry
for 'email' - that's not acceptable for our purposes).

Another problem is the maintenance of content across the semesters. For some
of our wikis, that's not a problem - where they're used simply as a
collaborative authoring environment, they can be wiped at the start of each
semester. But where later semesters build on what's already there, students
must rapidly become familiar with what's already there, learn how to improve
on or expand it, and also continue already established frameworks (naming
and formatting conventions, taxonomies, etc.) - that can be a tough ask in a
short timeframe. As Trebor suggests, the use of stricter content templates
and other guidelines might help here, and I'm looking forward to trialling
Confluence in this regard, too...

Anyway, that's about where we're up to. Sorry about the braindump here -
look forward to any comments.

> -----Original Message-----
> From: idc-bounces at bbs.thing.net 
> [mailto:idc-bounces at bbs.thing.net] On Behalf Of Trebor Scholz
> Sent: Saturday, 29 April 2006 02:55
> To: IDC list
> Subject: [iDC] "All our wiki are belong to you"
> (Perhaps we can move beyond the survival and remix culture debate. 
> The discussion about malleability of culture and hybridity is 
> one vista point of the current new media landscape. 147 
> million American adults responded to a poll by the Pew 
> Internet & American Life Project identifying themselves as 
> Internet users. Today, the Internet is a place where you can 
> go bowling together. People engage each other on a massive 
> scale. Apart from the commons as site of peer production 
> there is also a novel distributed aesthetics that emerges. 
> Many netizens upload content.
> This, I¹d argue, is a participatory turn in culture that is 
> noteworthy.)   
> What constitutes the art of engagement with regard to 
> quotidian uses of open access environments like wikis and blogs?
>  Wikis are widely used in university settings today. 
> Conference wikis allow presenters and attendees to add and 
> edit content before and after the event. Wikis allow 
> geographically separated collaborators to collect ideas and 
> work together on documents. There also other useful tools 
> such as SubEthaEdit for this purpose. 
> Wikis can serve as a personal notebook and are useful for 
> student journaling in order to develop a writing proficiency. 
> Such writing exposes degrees of understanding of knowledge 
> and can establish the habit of regular reflection. Peers and 
> instructors can jointly review the writing.
> Wikis are contributions to the Access To Knowledge (A2K) 
> movement: they contribute knowledge to the commons. 
> Commitment to scholarly work, John Willinsky writes, carries 
> with it a responsibility to circulate that work as widely as 
> possible: this is the access principle. ³Wide circulation 
> adds value to published work; it is a significant aspect of 
> its claim to be knowledge. The right to know and the right to 
> be known are inextricably mixed.²  
> Class room reports about the hands-on experiences on the 
> ground, however, are missing.  In the course ³Death, Data, & 
> Desire² we used a MediaWiki this semester. 
> <http://wiki.critical-netcultures.net/wiki/index.php/Main_Page>
> It is common wisdom that without a degree of closedness wikis 
> get quickly spammed. We kept our course wiki closed during 
> the semester to have a safe environment for experimentation 
> and the development of ideas. But in the end it was important 
> to open it. The potential of wikis goes far beyond single 
> author editing. Do you know of exemplary course wikis that 
> are 1) cooperatively assembled and 2) really push the 
> properties of the medium? How does the wiki structure work on 
> our thoughts? Where are exemplary wikis that put that format 
> to full collective use in the described context? 
> The meaningful orchestration of group uses of wikis does not 
> have many references yet. The potential is the integration of 
> several successive courses in one wiki in which students can 
> build on each other¹s findings and connect to one another. 
> They can create reflective linkages among their works and texts.  
> When developing and maintaining collaborative student 
> knowledge repositories,  structure matters. Wikis are easy to 
> edit collaboratively but can create monumental mess when used 
> by a group. A sea of links and submenus will suffocate even 
> the last bit of content. We found that the creation of 
> templates became an important step in the use of the course 
> wiki. Without the uniform use of templates, information would 
> get flushed down the sink of the database. Apart from 
> templates, the structure of each page turned out to be 
> clearer if most information was
> kept on one page, using MediaWiki automated indexing feature.   
> <http://wiki.critical-netcultures.net/wiki/index.php/Al>
> <http://wiki.critical-netcultures.net/wiki/index.php/
> Socially_Networked_Video>
> Several commercial incarnations of wikis understand this issue well:
> many wiki farms offer a clear templated structure. Clients 
> can set up a free wiki that is not password protected in any 
> way, which makes them useless for any serious, long-term use. 
> Like with open source software you pay for the bottle while 
> the water is free. The convenience of prefabricated templates 
> gets people through the door. 
> Weblogs, in comparison, are useful teaching tools but we 
> found that they are inferior to wikis in many respects. An 
> advantage of blogs is that commenting on each other¹s work is 
> straightforward. It is easy to see who comments on whose 
> work. Assignments here included a compulsory length of post, 
> number of external links per post, and comments.
> However, content gets swallowed by the blog hinterland and 
> despite tag clouds and monthly archives, blog interfaces do 
> not offer comprehensive and clear access to the content 
> contained in a blog¹s database.
> Contrary to the famous net phenomenon we say: ³All our wiki 
> are belong to you.²
> Trebor
> References:   
> All your base are belong to us
> <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_your_base_are_belong_to_us>
> A2K Wiki
> <http://research.yale.edu/isp/a2k/wiki/index.php/Main_Page>
> PbWiki: the world¹s biggest commercial wiki farm 
> <http://pbwiki.com/about/>
> Subethaedit-- collaborative work forum
> <http://www.codingmonkeys.de/subethaedit/>
> Seed Wiki
> <http://www.seedwiki.com/wiki/seed_wiki/seed_wiki.cfm>
> A comparison of wiki platforms
> <http://pascal.vanhecke.info/2005/10/30/free-hosted-wikis-comp
> wiki-farms/>
> Download page MediaWiki:
> <http://www.mediawiki.org/wiki/Download>
> OpenMute
> <http://3d.openmute.org/modules/wakka/OmOneGettingStarted>
> Willinsky, J. (2005) The Access Principle. The Case for Open 
> Access to Research and Scholarship. Cambridge: MIT. 
> Benkler, Y. (2006) The Wealth of Networks. How Social 
> Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. Cambridge: MIT. 
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Dr Axel Bruns                 a.bruns at qut.edu.au - http://snurb.info/
Media & Communication    Musk Ave, Kelvin Grove, Qld. 4059, Australia
Creative Industries Faculty              Z2-202, CIP - (07) 3864 5548
Queensland University of Technology                CRICOS No.: 00213J

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