Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Wikis in a research class - the first steps

Regular readers have probably noticed that posting has been a bit lighter than usual. The third Skeptics' Circle is responsible for a lot of this; however, I've also been spending a lot of time getting a wiki ready for a research class I'll be teaching over the summer.

The idea behind Wikis is simple: anyone who visits the site can edit any page on the site (usually excluding a few high-level administrative pages). Because wikis are completely open and modifiable, everyone can contribute information relevant to their area(s) of expertise, and the site can be maintained by every user, rather than by only one or a few administrators who can quickly get overwhelmed.

One of the primary advantages of wikis is their simple text editing and formatting. All a user has to do is click the "edit" link on a page to start editing the page; no special page authoring software (e.g. a HTML editing program) is required. Once the wiki is up and running, even the site administrator doesn't need special editing software or telnet/FTP access to edit the site; administrators can make almost all their changes through a web browser just like any other user.

The wiki markup language is easier to use than HTML. For example, bold text is created by surrounding text with * characters. Links are created by putting text in double square brackets (e.g. [[Link]]), or by creating WikiWords (two words run together, with the first letter of each word capitalized); WikiWords are automatically linked without any special characters. Creating new pages is similarly simple. This combination of easy page creation, simple markup, and web-browser editing makes wikis probably the easiest platform around with which to build a website, especially if there are multiple content authors.

The most apparent problem with wikis is that since anyone can edit any page, important content can be accidentally removed, or the site can be defaced or spammed. However, all wikis maintain a page history containing a detailed record of changes to every page, and thus deleted content can be recovered, and defacing removed, with just a few clicks. Also, since anyone can edit the site, the first user who stumbles upon a defaced page can fix it without any special editing privileges.

Probably the most well-known wiki is the Wikipedia, an open-source encyclopedia. The Wikipedia is one of the best examples of what can happen with a large community of users on a wiki - the English version currently has more than 490,000 articles. I've even had my students contribute to the Wikipedia as a class assignment, though with mixed success (most did report enjoying the assignment).

I've toyed with the idea of having a class wiki for quite a while, but since I had neither a hosting solution nor a great reason to have a class wiki in the first place, I never created one. However, this summer I'll be teaching a field research class which seems perfect for a wiki. I'll have a small group of students spending a lot of time doing preparation work (starting this semester), all of which will need to be shared, and group research plans will need to be created and changed based on everyone's input. We'll also need a place to store data during the project, and having the data publicly available after the summer course is finished will facilitate future projects.

Since my campus won't even allow the majority of faculty to have FTP access to a web server, and they require department pages to be approved by an administrator before they can be posted on the website, I know the tech folks would never even dream of allowing a wiki on their servers. Thankfully, however, I now have a Linux box at home, so for the time being I'm going to be hosting the wiki there.

After looking at a number of open-source software packages, I ended up choosing TWiki for my course wiki. The most common negative review of TWiki was that it was difficult to install, but most reviews seemed to agree that it was powerful and customizable. I thought about going with some simpler programs (e.g. usemod wiki), but decided that the additional power of TWiki (which has a number of plugins, and appears to be under active development) would be worth the install troubles. One feature I liked in TWiki was the ability to restrict page editing to specific groups of users; while I hope to keep the vast majority of the site completely open to being editable by all users, if we do store raw data on the site, the data will likely require at least some protection from defacement.

Installing TWiki was relatively easy; Debian has a package that takes care of a lot of the installation issues, though I did have to manually edit the Apache configuration files as described on the TWikiInstallationGuide page. Once the server was up and running, the real configuration process began, as I had to alter TWiki's defaults to meet my goals for the site. I was able to do all of this configuration (except installing a plugin and changing a template setting) through my web browser.

So, after about two weeks of editing and fiddling, the site is finally ready to go live with my students. I've shown test versions to a few students, and they seemed excited by the possibilities of the wiki. Now we'll see if that excitement turns into actual site participation.

Update: After 24 hours of being "live" to the students, the site has gotten exactly zero hits. Not exactly the resoundingly successful opening day I had hoped for, but I'm sure the students are busy.

1 comment:

Radagast said...

Importing comments:


PZ - I'm working on a description of what I'm doing with the wiki, but haven't had time to finish it yet (darn committee work). I'll post something up in the next day or two. Sorry!
March 11, 2005, 9:56:50 AM PST – Like – Reply

PZ Myers
So what exactly are you trying to do with the wiki? What do you tell the students their goal should be?
March 9, 2005, 6:50:49 PM PST – Like – Reply

Bill - Thanks so much for the warnings - this is exactly what I need right now. I'm going to be meeting with the students tonight to discuss a few things, including the wiki, so I'll try to address some of your points above when I do my introduction.
March 9, 2005, 1:14:12 PM PST – Like – Reply

Bill Tozier
Sorry to introduce a word of warning at this late stage, but the greatest risk of using a wiki has nothing to do with deletion. It's critical cultural mass. I've set up maybe 20 wikis for projects, classes, and tutorials through the years, and about 90% failed because (a) nobody ever looked at them, but rather continued to use ephemeral side-channels like email and newsgroups for all communication; (b) where people did visit them, they failed to understand the core principles of shared content and refactoring, and so everything became unintelligible spaghetti in ThreadMode; and (c) in one noteworthy case, several folks who thought they were going to be C-level execs in our startup simply refused to allow anybody else to edit their text, and did not deign to edit that of others. [but they failed to Get the Startup Thing as well, so....]

Insisting that everybody edit and contribute something daily is one step, but it can backfire. Frequent scheduled cleanup days are good. Gentle (or insistent) reminders to refactor pages are necessary in almost any situation. Hell, I need to do that to myself, in my own personal research wikis.

So... best of luck
March 9, 2005, 7:14:51 AM PST