What is Wiki?
WikiWikiWebs are server-based collections of hypertext pages based on an "open-editing" system concept originated in 1995 by Ward Cunningham (Leuf & Cunningham, 2001). Using only a web browser, any number of users can quickly and easily create, access, and edit wiki pages, including those created by others. While at first this sounds like a recipe for disaster, the truth is that sites using this concept have developed surprisingly complex and rich communities for online collaboration and communication. In addition to Cunningham's original wiki, the Portland Pattern Repository, there are thousands of active wiki communities in existence (Wikimedia Foundation, Inc, Wiki History).
We have been using wikis for over two years at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, and the version we use is PmWiki, a wiki clone developed by Patrick Michaud in PHP. Like most wikis, PmWiki users format documents with a simple markup language rather than with a WYSIWYG interface. We have found many uses for the program, including using it for collaborative writing. PmWiki users usually refer to the program as "the wiki" and refer to using the tool in such ways as "Put it on the wiki" or "Write it in wiki." PmWiki is open source and available under general public license. What this translates to is that there is no cost to download and install the program on a server, and users need only have Internet (or intranet) access and a browser.
Simplicity and Flexibility
Probably the most striking thing about wikis is their inherent simplicity and flexibility. However, this simplicity and flexibility require something of the user. In addition to adding or editing content, users must also add their own structures and build functions into the program as they need them. As Ward Cunningham, the originator of the wiki concept, and his co-author Bo Leuf point out, "A stack of copy paper dumped on the floor has more inherent structure than an initial, as yet empty, wiki" (2001, p. 335). While PmWiki and similar technologies may offer a number of specialized features, most functions are not built into the program with drop-down menus as they are in other types of software. Instead, users agree on and create functionality based on the needs of the particular task. What this means is that instead of learning all of the features and functions of a software program, and later searching through a menu for features that they may or may not use, wiki authors create structures and functions that fit their own situational needs and learning and writing styles. For students and other users, this means taking control of the technology rather than letting the technology control them. In this way, wikis can readily accommodate differences among users and allow them to shape their own information spaces, which in turn can create a more positive experience for writing and collaborating.
In collaborative writing situations, this flexibility allows members of a group to negotiate their shared spaces based on the demands and requirements of the specific project or task. And, as Tammaro, Mosier, Goodwin, & Spitz (1997) insist, flexibility is a primary consideration in any technology that supports collaboration:
- "In order to successfully support group work, collaborative authoring tools must be flexible. There is tremendous variety between authors, papers, and circumstances under which the work is performed" (p. 24).
This flexibility combined with the inherently required structuring can have a positive impact on the collaborative process, especially in helping students to work through the conflicts and power structures attendant with group interaction. Because co-collaborators need to negotiate these shared spaces and agree on procedures in order to make the system work, they may become more aware of the social, economic, and cultural contexts that can influence collaboration.
Beyond Paper Documents
One of the greatest advantages offered by wikis is that writers are no longer restricted to one-dimensional text-on-the-page writing. Students can easily incorporate links to other objects including websites, cited articles, visual elements, or multimedia presentations. In this way, students can be encouraged to move away from paper documents toward the kinds of writing they are likely to experience in their future workplaces. This flexibility allows users to create adjacent schedule pages, outline pages, and communication channels such as discussion lists. (See our PublicationChatPage for an example of a communication channel that we used while we were working on this article.)
Wiki is a Process/Not a Product
How will we structure it? Who's going to do what? What are we going to call the page? The first thing one has to do is decide what to call the wiki page. Naming a page represents the larger structures of a document - pages within groups, headings within a page, links within a page - all of which are structural decisions that affect meaning. Will there be one big page 40 miles long or hypertext from one page to another? Subheadings all on one page or in different places? Wiki authors use different processes for different whys, as with any kind of rhetorical writing process.
The wiki interface asks writers to focus on the writing itself. Unlike conventional web pages or web-based documents, a wiki allows writers - even encourages writers - to skip design and go directly to the content (for better or worse, depending on how and what you teach). By the time wiki authors get around to thinking about how their pages look, they have already spent a great deal of time thinking about what they are trying to say and why they are saying it. And although one of the key features of wikis is the ease with which authors can create new pages and add content to them, this act in itself illustrates the point. In order to create that space, wiki authors must first decide what to name the space. Naming may seem like an insignificant act, but it is the first step required to create a flexible wiki writing space that can either remain entirely private or be shared with the entire world. Contained in the act of naming a wiki space is the beginning of a process that encourages active participation in the decisions that writers make as they "plan, develop, design, write, test," (Spinnuzi and Zachry 2000, p. 170) and come to understand what they are trying to say.
We frame the rest of our discussion with the sense that the production of writing - the process of writing - should not be understood in terms of drafts that are produced by students in word document programs, or even class management systems such as WebCT, which focus more on finished forms of documents. Rather, when writing is seen as a living document on a wiki screen that changes, we can come to see writing not as finished documents or drafts that students twiddle and tweak and resist getting involved with but as an open invitation to learning, an invitation to "capture surprise" not "on the page," as Murray wrote (1984, p. 3), but on the screen, the wiki screen that students decide how to shape and change.
How can we widen the process of writing in our classrooms so that writing becomes less a focus on static drafts that students tweak and twiddle and more a focus on the act of producing writing? How can we get our students to understand the circulation involved in the act of producing writing? Wikis change the way knowledge circulates. The producers of the writing decide how the writing will circulate, and how the writing process will develop. We discuss these issues in the Wiki and Composition Theory and Wiki as a Collaborative Writing Tool? sections.