Unreliable information is worse than no information

informationI will never understand why so many people think that Wikipedia is OK to use for serious research on the grounds that it is mostly reliable. Mostly? Some years ago I posited the idea of a wiki timetable, in which people get to edit train timetables how they like. Some of the information displayed on the electronic noticeboards would probably be accurate some of the time. Useful, eh?

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Web 2.0 For Rookies: What is a Wiki?

A wiki can best be defined as a web page which can be easily edited. The emphasis here is on the word ‘easily’. It’s true that editing web pages these days is far easier than it once was. Programs like FrontPage and Dreamweaver have made it a simple task to create nice-looking pages without knowing much about HTML, the underlying coding that makes web pages work. Also, programs like these get rid of the need to have to design each new page from scratch. Nevertheless, there is still a certain degree of skill involved, and in any case, the problem with locally-installed programs like these is that anyone to whom you give editing rights has to be on your computer.

Enter the wiki, a special type of web page which can be edited by anyone no matter where they are. All they need is your permission, ie user rights, to be able to do certain things, and access to the internet. The question arises, however, why exactly might the facility  to edit a web page be of any use to anyone except yourself?

The answer lies in that magic word, ‘collaboration’. Placing stuff on a web page makes it easy for anyone to see it. Placing it on a wiki makes it easy for anyone to contribute. There are lots of ways in which you could use a wiki in an educational setting. For example, it really lends itself to collaborative writing, especially where the pupils doing the collaborating are in different schools or even different countries.

OK, you say: why not use a word processor? Well, for a start, sending a word processed file backwards and forwards between two people may be just about workable, even though it can be slow and clunky. But between three, four or more people? Forget it. The version control alone is a nightmare. In my experience, it doesn’t matter how much effort you put into making sure people save it in a particular way, someone will always find a way around it and save the latest version as ‘Fred’ or something equally useful.

In any case, being a web page, a wiki lends itself to including far more than text. For example, you can embed videos too, as can be seen on wikis like the Flat Classroom project.

In fact, the Flat Classroom is an example of a huge wiki which involves lots of people in several countries collaborating, and potentially editing the pages more or less at the same time. Although there can be a danger of someone’s edits being lost because someone else saved a different version at the same time, in the last five years that has only happened to me once. It’s highly unlikely, but the solution as always is very straightforward: save your edits frequently, and if you see that someone else is editing the file at the same time as you, leave it and come back later just to be on the safe side.

The most famous example of a wiki is Wikipedia, an encyclopaedia which has been created and expanded by anyone who wished to contribute (although some restrictions have been imposed recently because of false information being published, and no doubt genuine information being unpublished).

Another example is Wikibooks, which enables anyone to help create a textbook. I have to say I don’t much like this idea, as I prefer textbooks to be written by people I regard as experts, which is difficult to surmise from anonymous entries, and who can explain things well (I looked at an explanation of the concept of marginal utility, a term used in Economics, and thought it clumsy and not very informative; I realise that one swallow doesn’t make a summer, but I think it’s illustrative). Also, I am not sure why any autodidactic student would use a book created in this way when there is no guarantee that the information in it is accurate; I for one would not entrust my examination success to a wikibook, but perhaps that’s just me.

Whatever your opinion, it’s important to distinguish between the tool, in this case a wiki, and what it might be used for.

If you’re involved in drafting policy documents then wikis can be a great time-saver. I’ve been in the situation of having a Word document doing the rounds, and when twenty or more people have to be consulted, that approach can be a nightmare: give me a wiki any day!

An excellent book on this aspect of using wikis (amongst others) is Wikified Schools, by Stephanie Sandifer, which I reviewed in Computers in Classrooms.

An important way in which wikis lend themselves to this sort of work is that they automatically record a history of changes, so you can always go back to a version which was, if I can put it like this, several changes ago. I especially like Wikispaces because it has a discussion facility, so you can discuss the changes which have been made, or which are being proposed.

So can anybody view or edit your wiki pages  ad infinitum? No, because in at least two wiki applications I know of you can choose whether or not to make your wiki visible to the public, and whether or not they can edit it, and to what extent. These applications are generally free to use, but having extra facilities such as keeping your pages completely private, or being able to assign different levels of rights, sometimes come at a premium. You can also lock the file to prevent further editing.

Examples of wikis include Wikispaces, which I’ve already mentioned, which has a great free version for school use, PB Works, ditto and Google Docs, with Google Wave for all on the horizon.

Finally, don't forget to check out the other articles in this series by looking in the alphabetical index for 'Web 2.0 for Rookies...'.