Wikibases and the Collaboration Index

On October 27th I attended a University Seminar presented by Mark Phillipson. The seminar was lively and well attended, and Mark managed to connect the culture of wikis with their open source roots.

Sometime soon I plan on elaborating on ways in which software, as a form of creative expression, inevitably expresses the values of the creators in the form of features. But right now I want to focus on the taxonomy of educational wiki implementations that Mark has identified since he began working with them.

Here is how Mark divides up the space of educational wikis

  • Repository/reference – eg Wikipedia
    • A website whose primary function is to create a repository of knowledge on a particular topic.
  • Gateway – eg SaratogaCensus
    • A website whose primary function is to collect, assemble, and present references to external sources
  • Simulation/role playing – eg Holocaust Wiki
    • A “choose-your-own-adventure” style simulation/game environment
  • ‘Illuminated’/mark-up – eg The Romantic Audience Projects
    • An environment that provides tools for detailed exegesis on primary sources, where the students are instructed to leave the source material unchanged, and create subpages with detailed commentary on supplemental pages.

I think this taxonomy is accurate, but doesn’t completely capture one of the most interesting educational implications of wikis – the process of creating them.

In particular, I can think of a number of variations on the repository/reference wiki, where the final products might all look similar, but where the “collaboration index” might differ substantially (for more on the popularity of the repository/reference, see Database as a Symbolic form, Manovich 2001).

Wikis are a very flexible tool, whose usage can vary from a personal publishing tool, to a simple Content Management System, to a collaborative authoring environment. Additionally, while wiki software doesn’t usually support the enforcement of a strict workflow, policy can be stipulated and adhered to by convention (like in Mark’s class, where the original poems were meant to be left intact).

Consider a few different applications of reference wikis in the classroom:

  • One way Publishing
    • A simple means for instructors to publish and organize information for their class.
    • Examples include:
      • Instructional handbooks, assignment “databases”, completed examples
  • Collaborative Mini-sites and/or subsections
    • Exercises where individuals or groups work on subsections of a wiki which are combined and referenced within a single larger site
    • Examples include:
      • Students dividing large assignments amongst themselves, each sharing their own results with the group.
      • A site like the social justice wiki where groups of 3-4 students each worked on a reference element of the site.
  • Collaborative Websites
    • Sections of the site where everyone in the community is supposed to be contributing content
    • Examples include:
      • Common Resources, Glossary of Terms, and the larger information architecture and organization of the entire site.
  • Portals and Meta-tasks
    • Also, consider that due to their flexibility, many wikis end up being repurposed beyond their original conception, and begin to serve as portals, where many meta-issues and conversations can take place beyond the assembly of the content itself. Some of these tasks include mundane administrative work, like students forming groups, coordinating assignments, taking minutes, and scheduling time.

While the end results of many of these collaborations might certainly all look similar to each other , perhaps the differences in the process by which this content is developed is crucial in capturing part of what is happening with wikis in the classroom.

This analysis probably also has implications relating to the archiving and the use of a wiki environment in a classroom over time. If the act of creating the wiki is central to what the students are supposed to learn from the exercise, then should they start with a fresh wiki every semester? How is the experience different when they are contributing to an existing system (or even have access to prior versions of the project)?

For more on this, see Mark’s comment’s on CCNMTL’s musings blog.

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