An overview of using wikis in a learning environment


Image: Danilo Rizzuti /

 I’ve found myself becoming more comfortable and enthusiastic about using wikis as I work my way thorugh the Master’s in Online and Distance Education. On H808 The Elearning professional, we had to produce a briefing paper advising how others might use wikis in a technology-enhanced learning environment. Below are some thoughts presented as a series of FAQs.

What is a wiki?

A wiki is a website that can written and edited in a way that allows multiple authors to work on it, keeping edited versions and allowing for collaborative creation of a particular resource or fulfillment of a project.

What are the advantages of using a wiki?

  1. Easy to use, needing no IT skills and only requiring access to a web browser.
  2. Wikis allow for more informal authoring and writing, in smaller chunks and encourage adding notes and questions, which others can fill in. This may suit less confident writers.
  3. Wikis offer a means of organization, because they have hierarchical relationships possible among pages and to outside resources, (unlike blogs which are chronologically organized).
  4. Version control is maintained as well as logging of individual authorship.

How do wikis replace traditional instruction?

Wikis are most commonly associated with collaborative learning and group authoring. However, in a Web 2.0 environment tools do not just replace traditional f2f communication (for example a physical meeting moves online) but also allow new ways of learning/collaborating/communicating/producing. This means that traditional ‘learner’ notions of what constitutes collaboration might change in an online environment. For example while a wiki replicates a publishing model online (so it is possible to collaboratively author a textbook); however, unlike a print publication, the wiki is never really completed, can be commented on, versions and edits can be disputed and rolled back, while the overall goal is one of continuous improvement rather than a finished product.  This means the process is made visible and is part of the learning. This poses challenges for assessment but also gives opportunities for seeing visible learning and progression.

Who uses wikis?
Wikis are becoming more common in industry and business. While Wikipedia is the most famous example, there are many other specialist wikis while many corporations use wikis as part of their core business especially in sciences, technical development or software development. Learning how to use a wiki is an important and helpful digital literacy skill.

There are popular educational applications in education as well. Wikis can be used as a tool to house artifacts that have been collaboratively created such as student created curriculum, course materials, reading summaries and writing projects. A wiki enables co-authoring where students can work on pages together; the wiki stores individual contributions and enables negotiations as versions can be reviewed and debated. Wikis can therefore support a more learner centred constructivist pedagogy.

How can wikis be used in an online course environment to support writing skills and communication?
A wiki is primarily a writing tool and can develop writing and communication skills in a space that encourages peer review, vicarious learning (learning through seeing what others do) and makes visible work outside of essays and formal papers. (Ferris & Wilder, 2006). Writing improvement comes through practicing writing and receiving feedback, and wikis provide a viable learning tool for developing writers such as producing a brochure collaboratively for ESL students in Hong Kong (Mak & Coniam, 2008). Another example is where a class co-authored a new textbook, thereby extending the curriculum and sharing new knowledge as the current course textbook was out of date (Ruth & Houghton, 2009)
As wikis can log individual contributions, store comments, and show version development, individuals can see their own progress, while instructors can assess individual contributions as well as group work.

What are the challenges for instructors to using wikis?
Remember that a wiki is just a tool. This means that how it is used may or may not support a particular pedagogical outcome. Simply adding a wiki into a course and making it available for optional use is unlikely to result in collaborative meaning making or co-construction of knowledge. Research suggests that practice and familiarity is needed and that instructors themselves need practice to model and intervene when necessary (Kuswara & Richards, 2011).
Wikis may also challenge the traditional notion of individual authoring and accountability especially if the ultimate aim is a group produced project and if assessment is included. This can be uncomfortable for instructors who will need to be conversant with rules, etiquette and copyright, which needs to be communicated to students.

What are the challenges for students in using wikis?
Working on a wiki will require higher levels of peer negotiation and collaborative work than might otherwise be needed. Students may not be comfortable having their preliminary drafts challenged and peer reviewed while others may feel their work will be plaigarised. Others may be reluctant to edit, review and critque the work of other students or colleagues.

How do I get started?
Tutors and course developers need to be familiar and comfortable with wikis. Tutors can collaborate with other tutors to produce a project for lesson plans or teaching aids using a free wikis such as PBwiki or edit Wikipedia articles by opening an account on Wikipedia (Wikimedia Outreach, 2010). If the institution/VLE/LMS has a built-in wiki, tutors can experiment with the features and see other examples in use in the organisation.

Course particicipants need to understand the principles of a wiki. Introduce wikis to course participants through showing Youtube videos explaining the underlying concepts (Wikis in plain English, 2007). Review and show students wiki examples and ask them to do something simple such as add content such as reading/and summarizing an article. Many wikis have sandbox pages, which can be used for experimentation.

Following a period of familiarization, consider what aspects of a course or learning outcome would benefit from using a wiki tool that will support the learning objectives of the course. At this stage, make a review of what other tools are available and used so as to ensure a wiki is used in an appropriate context. For example if blogs and forums exist, don’t replicate these tools. Use the wiki for a targeted activity with measurable goals, (which might be something like ‘success will look like a well structured page with headings, links and three paragraphs outlining the process of x’).

Encourage motivation by applying wiki activity to a real life application (such as producing a resource that can be used by others), and make it clear that knowing how to use a wiki is an important life and industry skill. Motivation might also be giving marks for authoring in a wiki in used in a formal course environmrnt, but be explicit as to how wiki contributions will be assessed upfront.

What problems should I look out for during a course that uses a wiki?
Wikis privilege skills in writing and editing, and course particip
ants who lack confidence in these skills may find this a barrier and be reluctant to contribute. Instructors can suggest templates to use or make it clear that the focus is on ideas and content, and that spelling and grammar can be corrected through the way wikis work: there is no final version.

Wiki features differ and a particular wiki may cause problems such as lack of commenting, or alerts for when edit are made. Instructors should choose a wiki that has the features the users would require where possible.

Which wiki should I use?
There are many products for the wiki market and choice will depend on a number of factors such as budget, features, whether local or cloud hosting is required,and whether a particular wiki is already provided with an LMS or CMS. A good place to start to find out about wiki applications is

Further thoughts

I’m interested in understanding more about the practical issues about using wikis, and how to maintain momentum, as well as which particular wikis work for a specific situation. Please feel free to share any experiences.

Ferris, S. and Wilder, H. (2006) ‘Uses and potentials of wikis in the classroom’, Innovate, vol. 2, no. 5. Available from:

Kuswara, A.U. & Richards, D.  “Matching the Affordances of Wikis to Collaborative Learning: A Case Study of IT Project Students,” System Sciences (HICSS), 2011 44th Hawaii International Conference on , vol., no., pp.1-10, 4-7 Jan. 2011
doi: 10.1109/HICSS.2011.301. Available from

Mak, B. &, Coniam, D (2008) ‘Using wikis to enhance and develop writing skills among secondary school students in Hong Kong’ System 3 vol 6 no 3 pp. 437-455. Available from…

Ruth, A. & Houghton, L. (2009). ‘The wiki way of learning’. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, vol 25 no 2, pp.135-152. Available from

Wikimedia Outreach, (2010).  ‘Using Wikipedia as a teaching tool in higher education’ [online]

Wikis in plain English (2007) YouTube video, added by leelefever [online]




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