Get the community to build something great.
What's the big idea?
How to create a model community. If Wikipedia was a town, you’d want to live there.
Maybe a wiki is best explained through another big idea that didn’t quite turn out how its inventor planned:
How do they work?
“The basic [idea] of the Web is that [of] an information space through which people can communicate, but communicate in a special way: communicate by sharing their knowledge in a pool. The idea was not just that it should be a big browsing medium. The idea was that everybody would be putting their ideas in, as well as taking them out.”
--Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World-Wide Web
If you want to make Tim happy this Christmas, it’s time to get back to the basics of what the web (and Christmas, coincidentally) was for – sharing, not commerce. And that’s what wikis are for.
A Wiki (from the Hawaiian word meaning quick) is a collection of web pages. Beyond that, there is a raging war of definition but three things are generally true about all wikis:
- Everyone owns everything (or, nobody owns anything): Anyone can edit any page, and usually it’s extremely easy to do so with one click and no html knowledge or adminstration rights required. It would be hard to spend more than five minutes learning how to edit and contribute.
- It’s about information, not opinion: Unlike a blog, or a discussion forum, where who you are has a lot to do with how and what you write, sleeve, wiki contributors are expected to park ego and editorialising at the door.
- The conversation never ends: Again, unlike a threaded discussion, where a moderator may conclude that the discussion has reached an end and close it, wikis are constantly expanding through links. Linking is very easy in most wiki tools - and you don't just link to existing content. Say I’m writing a piece about e-learning for a wiki. I want to include a link to a piece on simulations – but I don’t want to write it. I include it as a link in my article. It’s what Wikheads call a stub. Someone else in the community (eventually) adds the article, stubbing it out. And they include new stubs and links and round it goes.
The best way to understand the power of the wiki is to browse a few – and then contribute to one. By far the best known and largest wiki is Wikipedia, the ever expanding encyclopedia. There are 850,000 articles in it, and more every hour. Encyclopedia Britannica has a mere 120,000 (and how did I find that out? Why through Wikipedia’s comprehensive article on Britannica, of course..).
What’s in it for Learning and Collaboration?
Wikis are an example of a model community (if social constructivism is your preferred model): you can collaborate and contribute, and frankly you’re expected to as part of your civic duty, your say is as valid as the next persons, the group strives towards better and better quality through continuous refinement, self-regulates, and everyone benefits from the shared knowledge of everyone else. A great example of a community of practice.
How and where does learning, collaboration and wikis intersect? Here are some ideas to think about for your organisation.
- Start a wiki on a specific challenge or issue in your organization. Invite everyone. See what they come up with.
Wikis are very well established in academic contexts. An author puts forth a thought, idea, and her peers edit, enhance, extend. It’s less established as a model in organizations. Why not get your marketing people to start a wiki on new product ideas? Get your trainers to start one on how we can use wikis to encourage collaboration. The legacy is body of searchable and growing knowledge – wikis really do answer the knowledge management question. There are many free wiki tools out there – we at Kineo have started using SeedWiki (www.seedwiki.com).
- Help your learners develop their organisational voice through wiki contribution
Wikis have become a key part of many university writing courses. In that context, the wiki is the group project – a group displays how well they have developed an authoritative voice, weighed the views of others, defended their arguments, and improved the common understanding of a topic through their wiki contributions. You are far more likely to retain knowledge of a topic if you are tasked with producing an artifact that demonstrates your knowledge of the topic. Wikis are perfect for this.
- Add a wiki to your blend
Many blended learning solutions have a discussion forum. That’s good, but a discussion forum is not really interesting to anyone who wasn’t there, and it’s a hard thing to sustain as people drift back to the day job. Consider a wiki instead. Task your learners to collaborate to channel their new learning into a set of articles that will improve understanding of a specific issue in your organisation (or the world). Add them to wikipedia if you don’t want to start your own wiki. It feels good to contribute and to feel part of a community where everyone is a learner and a teacher.
- Plunge forward: Let freedom (and chaos) reign
Making a wiki part of the collaboration tools your offer says something important about how you expect them to collaborate in general. It’s informal in manner but formal in output. The wiki model has something to tell us about how we make (or let) learning and collaboration happen in our organisations. It's best summed up by the advice that wikitravel, a specialist wiki gives to contributors: plunge forward, which means
So plunge forward! You just might enjoy it!”
- “Being assertive. Your knowledge and experience count! There are few if any "travel experts" working on Wikitravel (if they exist anywhere...), so don't worry about not being good enough. We want your help.
- Experimenting. There's really not much permanent damage you can do to Wikitravel. If things get really broken, other Wikitravellers will come in and fix them.
- Doing what's OK right now. You don't have to upload a perfect article fully formed the first time around. Just add a stub if you don't quite know what to say. Get your thoughts down, and let others expand on them. That's how Wiki works!
- Ignoring authority. You have as much right to edit anything on Wikitravel as anyone else does. Don't bother asking whether it's all right to edit something. It is!
Says it all, really. ‘Plunge forward’ as the learning professionals New Year’s resolution, anyone?