What's a Wiki?

Basically, a wiki is an editable web page. Traditionally, a web page was created by one person (or entity) and viewed by many people. I could make a web page for my computer applications class, and the students and their parents could go to that page and read the information that’s there.

On a wiki, the web page essentially looks the same, except they can (maybe) edit it. The first wiki was developed by Ward Cunningham in 1995. The name comes from "wiki wiki", the "quick" shuttle busses at Honolulu airport.  The content of a wiki is very easy to supplement or correct.

This is a great application for collaboration. For example, I’m toying with the idea of putting tech documentation on a wiki. I can put the "BBHCSD Email User Guide" and the "Wordpress Getting Started Guide" and all of the other instruction sheets I’ve created into a wiki. Then, others can add their own documents, make links between ideas in them, make corrections to mistakes I’ve made, and build a genuine knowledge base.

I’ve been paying attention to a wiki project taking place over at WorldBridges. They’re talking about the possibility of using wikis as replacements for textbooks, and they’re interested in starting in northern Ohio. They could approach this in many different ways, and they’re currently trying to hash out the best way to use the technology. They’re hoping that they can provide a resource that is continually updated, allows teachers to share resources and ideas, and enables students to construct some of their own learning. It sounds like a promising project.

All right. Yes. You’ve heard about the whole Wikipedia/John Seigenthaler thing. Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia created as a wiki. Anyone can contribute items, or make corrections to existing items. It’s free to use, and currently has 934,000 articles in English. The problem is that some of them contain errors. Take, for example, John Seigenthaler. An entry on Wikipedia was created in May, 2005 that falsely linked Seigenthaler with the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy. After four months unnoticed, Seigenthaler was alerted to the item, and a significant controversy ensued.

Ultimately, the person who made the changes to Seigenthaler’s entry lost his job and apologized for his prank. Wikipedia instituted new policies for updating content that provides greater accountability for contributors. And lots of people started questioning the reliability of wiki entries. Nature magazine determined that wikipedia is almost as accurate as Encyclopedia Britannica. In their sample of 42 scientific entries, Britannica had one mistake per 185 words, while Wikipedia had one mistake per 279 words. At the same time, Wikipedia provided more than twice as much information on the 42 items.

There have also been several informal studies of Wikipedia’s accuracy. Most conclude that Wikipedia is about as accurate as traditional print sources.

So…. we know what they are now. How do we use them in the schools? Are they a useful tool for students or teachers? I’ll probably be setting up a wiki sandbox on delta, if you’re interested. Let me know.

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Author: John Schinker

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