25 years of EdTech – 1998: Wikis

I think of wikis sometimes and it makes me a bit sorrowful. Perhaps more than any other tech they embody the spirit of optimism and philosophy of the open web. The wiki, a web page that could be jointly edited by anyone, was a fundamental shift in how we related to the net. The web democratised publication and the wiki made it a collaborative, shared enterprise. In 1998 wikis were just breaking through. Ward Cunningham is credited with inventing them (and the term) in 1994. I heard of them in 97 at an ed tech conference. I came back from that all enthused, I would accost people in corridors like the ancient mariner and shout “let’s make all our courses wikis!” People would mutter things like “quality control” or “we don’t have any online courses yet”. I should have persisted – we could’ve been the digital university 20 years ago.

Anyway, enough about me and the OU. Wikis were a hot topic for a few years, and were really groundbreaking. Remember at the time Encarta was a revolutionary take on the encyclopedia. Wikis had their own markup language which made them a bit techie to use, although later implementations such as Wikispaces made it easier (that Wikispaces closed a couple of weeks ago speaks to my sorrowful theme). With Wikipedia now the default knowledge source globally with over 5.5 millions articles (in English), it would seem churlish to bemoan that wikis didn’t fulfil their potential, but that is how I feel in terms of teaching. Wikis encapsulate the promise of a dynamic, shared, respectful space. I get sad just writing that now, thinking of the lack of those values in social media. With wikis this was partly the ethos behind them (named after the Hawaiian word for quick after all, I mean duuuuuude), but also their technical infrastructure. You can track edits, rollback versions, monitor contributions – there is accountability and transparency built in. Wikipedia has become something of a bro-culture but it’s less of a dumpster fire than Twitter.

But they didn’t really transform education to their potential, for instance, why aren’t MOOCs in wikis? It’s not necessarily that wikis as a technology have not quite fully realised their potential, but rather that the approach to ed tech they represent, has been replaced by a more broadcast, commercial, publisher model than a cooperative, process oriented one. Maybe education wasn’t ready to let go of control after all. Credit to OERu for persisting in the potential of wikis, and people like Mike Caulfield for advancing the thinking around federated wikis.

One Comment

  • Wayne Mackintosh

    Thanks for the OERu shout out. After a decade’s experience hosting WikiEducator, I don’t think the resistance of academics to engage with collaborative wiki authoring is a technical one – my gut feel suggests that its cultural. In the early days, we received many complaints about the editing in wiki text. After implementing a rich text editor – their was no change in editing behaviour. I’m glad we preserved. We now have a suite of courses for first year of study and multiple exit awards not too mention a number of exiting technology pathways. Given the wiki source – its now so easy to remix for different delivery contexts and we have version control :-).

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