Succeeding Small: Wikis in Education

In some ways, wading through Wikipedia this week has felt like a search for the headwaters of the Amazon–messy, sticky heat shot through occasionally by breathtaking vistas and perfectly ordered minutia, accompanied all the while by the gnawing feeling of being right on the edge of civilization as we know it. But even relative facility navigating the digital and social jungle of Wikipedia doesn’t necessarily prepare one to successfully implement a classroom, club or family wiki.

As Danny Horn puts it in his article Tips on Developing a Wiki Community, “Small wikis aren’t the same as Wikipedia. Wikipedia has 43,000 contributors every month. Muppet Wiki has around 50 contributors. 43,000 isn’t just “50, but bigger”.

The droves of small wikis stagnating in various abandoned corners of the web attest to the fact that such projects require special care. When your wiki isn’t the size of a small city [like Wikipedia] but the size of a small office or even a large family, you need managers, or parents, not mayors.

Horn recommends several important departures from typical Wikipedia culture for success in smaller endeavors. All these recommendations can be summarized quite simply in the role he suggests for administrators of small wiki projects. First, he says the idea that people want to remain anonymous on the internet is just plain silly. Small wikis are more vulnerable to the ravages of edit wars, ignorant editing or just random vandalism. Everyone needs a user name, an individual identity, and the primary function of an admin is to welcome, orient, encourage and mentor contributors. In small communities, individuals need to feel valued, acknowledged–leave someone’s talk page blank for very long and you’re likely to lose them. And losing even one of 50 contributors can have a significant impact.

Based on these cautions, and my own somewhat less-than-fulfilling experience with class and small-group wikis, it seems a careful analysis of both the objectives of the project and the capacity of the core team would be in order to determine whether to build an independent wiki or contribute to the current gold standard. Is control of the content or the negotiation experience more important? Of what quality is the currently-available information? How broad is the potential audience? How relevant the potential contributions? How closely do the community goals align with Wikipedia goals? How many potential contributors are there? How active are the likely to be, and for how long? My sense is that often [though not always] contributing to the larger Wikipedia community has the potential to meet the underlying goals of educators, advocates, scholars and enthusiasts even better than an independent wiki project.

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3 responses to “Succeeding Small: Wikis in Education

  1. Here are some other articles I found really interesting:

    [Specific practical resources for wikis in the classroom]
    http://www.teachinghacks.com/?p=247

    [Slideshare presentation: 10 tips for successful collaborative writing]
    http://www.slideshare.net/jamesr/ten-tips-
    for-collaboration-audio/

    [Really well-organized scholarly article outlining instructional and technological issues and benefits of using wikis in classroom settings]
    http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdf?vid=7&hid=105&sid=6fb9a506-2210-4321-a398-45498f7a6448%40sessionmgr107

  2. I love this statement that “43,000 isn’t just ’50, but bigger’.” This is a point where quantitative meets qualitative – increasing the number of people on a wiki (or in a class; the transformation is the same) creates a qualitative change in how stuff works.

    I’ve often enjoyed saying that we don’t have pedagogical models that work for 10,000 people. The same is true for 300 people. Neither is just 30 students, but bigger. The saying that “everything past the third row is distance education” is completely true.

  3. I wonder what “critical mass” is required before wiki collaboration begins to really pay off. How do you think the structure/rules of the wiki/wiki community affect the resulting interaction?

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