Wikis on rise in classrooms

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By Heather Travis
Friday, October 3, 2008
University of Western Ontario professors are turning the online editing system that has made Wikipedia famous into a collaborative teaching tool for the virtual classroom.

Wikipedia is known for being a quick reference tool to find out historical data, celebrity fun facts or even to look up information on your next vacation destination. Although Wikipedia is well-known for being an encyclopedia that anyone can edit, few people know that it is part of a larger world of ‘wikis.’
 
A wiki, which comes from the Hawaiian word for quickly, is a type of website that allows users to change and add information, as well as remove and edit all of the content on the site. Wikipedia is just one of many wiki websites.  
 
Based on popular demand, Paul Lukasewych, instructional technology support specialist for Information Technology Services at Western, developed Kiwi Western, a wiki is used within Web CT Owl. It was officially launched in September and is currently used in about 10 courses, including those in the departments of English, Education, Film, Geography, Physics & Astronomy and Spanish.  
 
Most people don’t know what a wiki is, but have been using them in their everyday lives.   “It’s very universal – you just need a browser,” he says. “It’s becoming more wide-spread, especially with Wikipedia.”  
 
Some Western professors are favouring wikis over traditional websites, which sometimes require knowledge of complicated Internet coding methods to build them.  
 
Adding content to a website can also be restricted to the creator or a select few who have been given administrative access, which limits the possibilities for collaboration. However, Kiwi Western is integrated into Web CT Owl, which gives all of the students enrolled in the course authorization to modify what appears on the site.  
 
“Wikis are a collaborative tool,” he says. “Anything you can do on a web page, you can do on a wiki.”  
 
The system keeps a log of all the alterations that have been made to the wiki, which allows users to revert back to a previous edition to undo changes. But, unlike Wikipedia which allows anyone with access to the Internet to edit it, additions to Kiwi Western wikis can only be made by its registered users.
 
And, instructors don’t have to be tech-savvy to set up a wiki for their course.
 
The design of the wiki system is similar to a word processing program, with many familiar publishing features, such as text and tables. However, the final result looks more like a website, with many interactive features such as photos, audio and video, as well as other multi-media tools.
 
The wikis can also be used for group projects, research, posting course outlines and syllabuses, as well as class notes, adds Lukasewych.  
 
“It could be a very useful tool in WebCT Owl because students could be anywhere and be collaborative,” says Lukasewych. “It’s reached the point that it is easier to use.”
 
This means students could upload their projects to the wikis and anyone in the group – regardless of where they are in the world – could make changes or add a piece to the puzzle.
 
For example, during the Fall Perspectives on Teaching conference in August, Film Studies professor Wendy Pearson demonstrated how she used a wiki in her course on Canadian Films.
 
Throughout the year, students built wiki web pages on the individual films they were studying and were marked on the process as well as the overall final product. The wiki pages, which were built using a similar program to Kiwi Western, had biographies on the films, images of the movie poster, information on the stars and background information, among other details.
 
Lukasewych says the potential uses for Kiwi Western are endless.
 
Unlike many wikis on the market, Kiwi Western is free to instructors within WebCT Owl. However, a wiki that is separate from WebCT Owl can be set up for a small fee. Lukasewych says faculty may use those wikis for collaborative research, editing graduate thesis papers and other non-instructional purposes.
 
For more information on Kiwi Western wikis, visit www.uwo.ca/its/kiwi/ or contact Western’s Information Technology Service.  
 

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