What is a Wiki?

By Matthew Ragan

Much of the academic world is already familiar with Wikipedia – the free online encyclopedia of nearly 4 million entries – but also hesitant to embrace it as a useful learning tool. The web, however, is teaming with other user built resources that follow the wiki format.

wiki is a website that allows for easy creation and manipulation of a virtually countless number of pages. Additionally, a wiki characteristically is web based and allows multiple authors to contribute to a single page via a web browser. The true power of a site like Wikipedia is that anyone can contribute. In some cases that means that individuals can contribute their specialised knowledge about a topic, and it can also mean that strong copy editors can contribute a critical eye to sentence structure and flow. The underlying ideological understanding in a wiki is that not everyone possesses the same skills, talents, or predispositions: Strong researchers may be more concerned with the validity of their data, and not the grammatical structure of their sentences; copy editors (read English Majors) may not be fluent in current technical jargon, but write eloquently and can quickly spot problems with grammar andsyntax.

It’s not what you bring to a wiki that matters, but it does matter that you bring something.

In that way, you can think of a wiki as a potluck. At a potluck dinner there is an agreement among the participants that everyone is contributing something: not everyone has to bring a stellar dessert or even bring very much, but they do have to bring something – otherwise there’s too many guests and not enough dinner.

Another common characteristic of a wiki is the use of links. This usually appears as words that are a different color and underlined. Links might direct a reader to an internal or external source. The practice of linking topics/terms/ideas within a wiki can make it easy for viewers to explore the ideas/content presented.

Unfortunately, many academics fear the use of Internet based resources – like Wikipedia – because of their open nature. Wikipedia allows nearly anyone to contribute content and make revisions. For this vary reason it’s often pinned as an unreliable resource (the scientific journal nature has some interesting findings you can read about here and Thomas Chesney has some interesting findings you can read about here). You may agree or disagree with that argument, nonetheless in this course you’ll be building a wiki-based resource with your classmates. This an opportunity to learn about the inherent strengths and weaknesses of a wiki, including some insight into what kind of project fits well with the wiki model.