Wikis: networks, groups and the third way

Last weekend I took part in the RecentChangesCamp – a three day open space conference for people interested in wikis and related topics.

I met some new and old wiki-people, which some of them I may soon start to call my friends. I saw several interesting demos and had some quite nice discussions about wikis in education, wikis in informal, nonformal and formal learning.

I am today more convinced than ever, that wikis are soon taking over in classrooms around the world. More and more teachers are starting to see the wiki-platform as the fastest and the most comprehensive web technology to support collaboration in and outside their classroom. When some teachers have made something successful with a classroom wiki, others will follow. At some point use of a wiki will becomes more a norm than an exception. I think, sooner than we think, a wiki in a classroom will be as common appliance as paper and pen: if there isn’t one everything else you try to do in the classroom becomes pretty useless.

This is good news for the whole “e-learning field”. When these children will grow-up and enter to higher levels of education they simply will demand wikis in their classes. Only area that is left for the “learning management systems” (still remember the term?) will probably be distance (training) courses and corporate training. Wiki-way of doing things simply represents many values that are important in teaching and learning. For instance the issue of vandalism, and the ways to take care of it, is … well, you know … pretty educational.

If you are a teachers you may simply go to the wikispaces.com and start a wiki for your class. It is worth of it. Why I am promoting Wikispaces and not some other wiki hosting service? Wikispaces-service is already working closely with educators. For K-12 education use it is completely free and free of advertising. Their wiki is easy to use with a simple interface and pretty good discussion tool. There are some things I would like to be different in the Wikispaces. At least, two things: (1) In the discussion tool there could be an option to use some knowledge types. (2) In education the matter of language of instruction is extremely important. To make Wikispaces more useful in the non-english speaking world the user interface elements should be translated. Teaches do not want to spend time to translate for their students the widgets like “Join this Space” or “Recent changes”. Time spend to this is out of the actual things one should do in a classroom.

Wikihow is not a new project, but for some reason I have been ignoring it for some time. Also it is not something that people would widely discuss or make references to when talking about “open educational resource” (OER). I think the reason why I have ignored it, is simply the issue that the self-help / how-to manual culture have been very strange for me. It is still strange for me, but when now reflecting the idea of having “a collaborative writing project to build the world’s largest, highest quality how-to manual”, I see that it is actually close to something I consider to be the most valuable genre of open educational resources. I am even kind of ready to claim that the Wikihow is THE most valuable collection of Open Educational Resource we have today online. For instance, comparing Wikihow to something like MIT Open Courseware may sound silly, but if you are honest what kind of information is globally more valuable: manual explaining how to fix your bicycle or Physics I: Classical Mechanics? Both are great and important, but if you think about their value for us all – about 6 billion people – I am pretty sure fixing bikes will win the classical mechanics. So, if there is anyone interested in to translate and localize OERs to other languages and cultures, maybe you should have a look of the Wikihow, too.

Writing new how-to manuals on topics relevant for people living in challenging conditions would be a great project. For instance how to get a job probably works pretty well everywhere in the world, but why not encouraging or even paying for someone to write such articles as “how to use TransMilenio in Bogotá” or “how to have a garden in urban slum”. Before you say: “why don’t you do it”, let me explain that I actually did, but it looks that the Wikihow does not support Unicode, and I failed when starting a title where there is á -character. I am not going to write an article with the title Use Transmilenio in Bogot, because I do not know a place called “Bogot”. Uhh… Anyway, Wikihow is a great OER site.

From the Wikihow comes also very interesting new Mediawiki extension. It’s called
Import free images. It “allows users to import properly licensed photos directly into their wiki from flickr”. With the extension you can have in your Mediawiki installation a search that will find you e.g. images that are licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license and import those you’ll find useful in your own Mediawiki installation. This kind of things, that are making the free content to move from one service to another are really important to reach the world where free content is truly reusable.

When talking with wiki-people they often say that they are editing wikis because they feel that they learn while doing it. Several studies have also reported learning to be the main motivation of open source developers to contribute and participate in open source projects.

Editing wiki is always informal learning, but hardly random. Most of the people are also aware of the learning side while editing: You recognize that you are learning while editing, because you are spending you cognitive surplus to do research, to think and formulate words, sentences, images or whatever media. Same time you are also engaged to community of other editors who are giving you feedback and comments. You may of course use your time for watching TV, which will also result as “learning”. The challenge of learning by watching TV is that in this case you are more often much more unsure what did you learn, if anything. Because of this you hardly ever found watching TV motivating, similar way as doing other thing where you are more aware of your learning. When editing wiki you are steering the activity. When watching TV – whatever how “educational” the program is – someone is trying to steer you.

Often I hear wiki-people saying that just editing wiki is the only right way to learn with wikis. According to them one should not formulize learning in anyways. They claim that if there is form it is not anymore a self-organized wiki-way of doing this.

I highly appreciate the “philosophy” of wiki-way. There is, however, now more and more interest to think how we could use wikis in a bit more formalized way. My solution is to move from the totally open and informal way of learning to the direction of “non-formal” learning – something that is between totally informal and formal learning.

The difference between informal and non-formal learning is that when informal is something that happens all the time, non-formal is intentional and organized, but still informal in many ways. An open space conference is a great example of non-formal learning situation: everybody are free to come, to speak or just listen, wear shorts or a suit. It is informal but with some form – shared interest and objectives, time and space – and rules to make it useful.

The move from informal to non-formal in wiki-learning is somehow reflecting the old discussion about networks vs. groups in learning. I strongly believe that there is a third way, beyond the network and group learning.

Any examples of this kind of activity in wikis?

Yes. With a group of 22 people we actively worked together for ten weeks in a Wikiveristy course/class called Composing free and open online educational resources. The form – including weekly program and assignments – was pretty much given by me. I made the first outline of the program, I selected most of the course reading, and designed the assignments. As it was in a wik a few other people also edited it – very few. More form to the process we have gave with Hans, my co-facilitator, by writing facilitators’ course blog and once in a while by commenting participants’ assignment posts in their blogs.

It’s been a lot of fun, but also a lot of work for all the participants. The drop-out
rate, from 70 to 20 in ten weeks, probably tells about it. So, how is this representing the “third way” beyond networks are groups?

With these people we got together as a network of people, through various connections. From the network of people we formed an open group to get some things done. Our objective was simply to learn together about open educational resources. Soon we may again “disappear” to the network, be in touch if we want to, and maybe one day again form another non-formal group when there is something we want to do together.

*) My “third way” concept does not have anything to do with the “Third Way” -political philosophy of Anthony Giddens and Tony Blair.

5 thoughts on “Wikis: networks, groups and the third way

  1. If you have the text of the article for Bogotá, please create the article under Bogota (no accent) and let me know, and I'll gladly move it to the right title. The English wikiHow has a title parser that got it wrong, but it can be overridden. You'll find there's an article titled Make Api Orureño, for example.You're right. I've learned a lot in wikis, both reading and writing for them. I'm an educator only by hobby (I volunteer as an English and reading tutor one night a week), so I probably don't have the right vocabulary for this, but believe there is another layer of learning that happens when a person synthesizes information in such a way as to put it into practice and again to explain it to others. A wiki has the mixed blessing of having an instant audience all the time. Unlike a class paper that is read perhaps by one instructor or grader, content added to a wiki is read by the community immediately and, over time, by the world at large. That means that content posted there has immediate consequences. One feature in wikiHow you may not have found yet is the Fan Mail. When you click Thank the Authors, it sends a message to everybody who has edited a page, placing it in the User_kudos: namespace. Some of the fan mail we receive is quite remarkable, from visitors who really did use the content or learn something. Remarkably, there has been relatively little abuse of this feature. It's a wonderful motivator, and it's also a wonderful opportunity to learn how one's writing has influenced the reader.It's interesting, too, that you note that vandals can be educational. As annoying and counterproductive as they are, I've seen when that sort of disruption has brought communities together, brought attention and effort to improving poor entries, and had the net effect of improving the wiki. It's also an excellent lesson in dealing with disruption and difficult people. The Wikipedia page WP:BEANS is based on one such lesson. There is one other thing I've learned from my involvement with wikis, almost by accident, and I think it's worth mentioning. Like many Americans, I took Spanish in high school. While I did take more than the school required (four years rather than the mandatory two), I emerged with good grades, able to do grammar exercises but unable to carry on a conversation (at least, not comfortably or productively), read a book, or follow the speech of a native speaker. At least 12 years after that, I had forgotten most of it for lack of use. This much is typical. Then, a Bolivian editor working on the Spanish Wiktionary came into the Wiktionary IRC channel to (heh!) ask what to do about a vandal. He asked in Spanish and I was the only one there that knew any of it. I'm sure I utterly mangled the language that night, but I guess I got my point across. We've been talking ever since, about two and a half years. He learned English better than anyone else in his class and is now teaching it. I have since read entire novels in Spanish and carried on conversations with native speakers. Besides facilitating an unexpected contact with a good conversation partner, the wikis we work on together (Wiktionary, Wikinews, and now wikiHow) give us a practice space and a motivation to practice real writing, translating, and interacting with a community. It's so much more fun and so much more effective than learning how to conjugate verbs in a workbook, and the world will have more information available in two languages when we're done.

    Like

  2. Teemu, It's great to see you sharing and extending some of what we talked about on Sunday. I was hoping to get in touch with you to find a link to the Wikiversity course you showed us, and now I have it. I look forward to the opportunity to review how that course worked, and to continuing a discussion of ways to enhance the wiki learning experience.I have brought to the attention of our engineer the glitch you described the the failure of our article titling system to properly render the á in Bogotá. An easy short-term workaround is to create the new article by entering the title without the words "How to" as a URL (http://www.wikihow.com/Use-Transmilenio-in-Bogot…á). This will then take you to a new page you may edit. One of the consequences of our efforts to make MediaWiki as easy to use as possible for less technically proficient users is that doing so sometimes limits the flexibility of the software; fortunately, as users of an open source platform, we have the ability to modify and fix things as needed.Cheers,
    Chris

    Like

  3. Odd- that url doesn't render properly on the blog, either! Regardless, if you enter accented text into the URL, it will display the title properly.

    Like

  4. A final follow-up to the "Bogotá" issue: Travis, our engineer, has fixed that bug; accents in titles will no longer create problems with the "Write an Article" feature.

    Like

  5. Dvortygirl: Thank you for sharing your learning experience with wikis. In your story there are many aspects I haven't thought about. As such, your post is already a great case study. I think the wiki editing is totally under-researched area, at least from the learning science point of view. I know that Cormac from the en.wikiversity is doing this kind of research, but that’s about it – as far as I know. If you know someone, please let me knoe.Chris: Thank you. I knew that you will fix it, but this was really fast! There seems to be a same character problem with the blog engine we are using. The stub article is now here: http://www.wikihow.com/Use-Transmilenio-in-Bogot%C3%A1… I enjoyed talking with you on suunday and the discussions really made me think. I am happy to continue exchanging ideas and thought in a future, too – online and offline.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s