Sunday, October 29, 2006

Why Use Wikis?

I’ve heard about the Wikipedia. Sometimes students even use it for a reference. But, what’s a wiki? Are wikis used for anything else? And why do they have such an unusual name? I decided to do some research to learn more about wikis.

What is a wiki web site?

A wiki ( is software which we can use to easily create web pages, add content, and maintain these pages using a web browser. Working on a wiki page feels like working with a word processor.

A unique feature of wiki pages is that you may choose—if you wish—to allow others in addition to yourself to edit them. You may create a list of persons each of whom has permission to edit… or you may allow everyone to edit… or you may allow no one other than you to edit, if you wish.

BTW, the word “wiki” comes from a Hawaiian word for “fast” or “quick.” So, a wiki is a web site—designed for a special purpose—which can be created and maintained very quickly.

Which wiki sites are interesting or useful or…?

A variety of collaborative writing projects exists that takes advantage of the ease of using wiki software.

The Wikipedia ( is the best known of the wiki projects. This encyclopedia has versions in English, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and other languages. The English Wikipedia ( contains more than 1,400,000 articles covering the areas of the arts, biography, geography, history, mathematics, science, society, and technology. It even has a reference desk where volunteers serve as virtual librarians.

Those involved in writing wikiHow: The How-To Manual That Anyone Can Write or Edit ( want it to be the largest how-to manual in the world. It is a free resource for solutions to problems we encounter in everyday life. wikiHow’s more than 13,000 articles are written mostly by volunteers.

The EmacsWiki ( deals with eMacs, of course. The contents include learning about, downloading, installing, and customizing eMacs. Also included are programming eMacs, bugs, and wish lists.

Wikitravel ( is a free travel guide. Persons throughout the world have written more than 11,000 articles for it. Areas covered include Africa, Asia, Australasia and Oceania, Europe, Middle East, North America, South America, Central America and Caribbean, and others.

WikiNews ( is a free news source written by volunteers.

Wiktionary ( is a dictionary in English. It contains synonyms, antonyms, and more. Over 297,000 entries are currently available.

Wikibooks ( consists of free textbooks that can be edited. Currently there are more than 1,000 books.

Wikiversity ( is a site to create and use free learning materials and activities.

Wikispecies ( is a free directory of species including Animalia, Plantae, Fungi, Bacteria, Archaea, Protista, and others.

Media files can be stored in the Wikimedia Commons ( Topics currently included are nature, images, society, sound, science, and video.

Why might educators be interested in using wikis?

Wikis are 21st-century tools which are
• easy to access
• easy to edit
• accessible to groups
engaging and motivating and
• appealing to multiple learning styles.
Wikis have an authentic purpose and an authentic audience.
They allow students to connect with peers and experts.
Wikis maintain a history of a document’s revisions and include the ability for the editor to revert to a prior version.
Both students and teachers can use wikis for group work and they can be used to communicate to others.

Are there any possible problems using wikis in education?

Mark Warner (in the conference presentation mentioned later in this article) lists information literacy concerns, inappropriate content due to multiple editors, intellectual property issues, fraud and identity theft, and stalkers and predators. These concerns should sound familiar. They are, for the most part, typical of concerns for any type of web publishing. As with any web publishing which involves students, appropriate measures should be taken including education about protecting personal information and using permission slips.

What are some ways to use wikis in education?

Some teachers have their students develop class projects on a wiki. Collaborative editing and peer review are easy for the students. The teachers can view successive drafts of the projects and comment throughout the process.

Group authoring works well with wikis. There is no lag time from one author’s comments and revisions to those of another author. All the authors have equal access to current versions of the document.

A wiki is a convenient spot for members of a group to keep track of their activities and resources as they work on a common project.

These and other ideas for using wikis in education are discussed at

If you go to, you can view a presentation from a k12onlineconference held in October 2006. The speaker, Mark Warner, shares three wikis that are being used by educators—two to help elementary teachers plan classroom activities and one that a secondary language arts teacher uses with his students—and then Warner explains how to use WikiSpaces, a site which hosts wikis. The movie is a full conference presentation, so it’s long… but, it’s very good.

What do I do next if I’m interested in trying a wiki project?

I’ll share some specific ideas for getting started with wikis in a subsequent article.

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