Think Outside the Blog

Web logs are great vehicles for an interactive exchange of ideas between a handful of people, but blogs are not as effective when a large number of people want to collaborate, contribute, and easily find information on a given topic. That's when you need a wiki.

A wiki is a class of Web site that lets authorized users create and modify pages (sometimes called articles) as well as search for information. The term also sometimes describes the software that makes the site possible. The most famous example of a wiki is Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia with articles that are written and edited by site visitors. This four-year-old experiment in creating an open-source reference "book" houses more than 1.5 million articles (about 700,000 in English) and is growing daily. In fact, Wikipedia receives 60 million visitors a day and has spawned related projects including Wiktionary, an online multilingual dictionary, and Wikisource, a repository of open-source texts.

Although Wikipedia's success has been tarnished a little by vandalism, some misinformation, and fights over certain controversial topics, the wiki concept — an open site maintained by its users — has been a hit.

Wikis at School

Educators at all levels are finding ways to incorporate wikis into their teaching. For every assignment that asks students to research a particular topic, there is a possible application for a wiki. Take, for example, a collaborative writing project. With a simple wiki, students from one class, multiple classes, or even multiple schools can post their writing samples for comment (see "High School Online Collaborative Writing"). The wiki structure makes it possible for several students to work on an assignment concurrently. Most wiki software packages track changes to a page so students and their teachers can see when and by whom the writing was edited.

Or consider a different scenario: Students who are studying a complex topic such as the U.S. Constitution are broken into teams to research and present information about different aspects of the document and its history. In the past, this kind of student work might be shared with the rest of the class. With a wiki, it can be shared on the Web for anyone to read and use. Perhaps more exciting, parents, students in different classes or schools, and invited guests can add details, correct errors, and comment on what's been posted, making learning a truly collaborative process.

Outside of the classroom, teachers and administrators are using wikis as tools for school planning and interaction with parents. The traditional printed newsletter, for example, can be replaced by a wiki that continuously provides announcements and other key information to parents. Some schools have chosen to use wiki software to build their entire Web sites.

Get Building

Intrigued? There are three basic options for creating your own wiki: Taking advantage of a free wiki hosting site, paying a provider to host your wiki, or setting up everything yourself.

Option 1. Several sites on the Web, often referred to as wiki farms, allow you to create your own wiki at no charge. These free tools usually have limited features and some place Google ads on your pages. However, they are easy to set up and use, and someone else worries about the technical back end.

Many wiki farms also offer advertising-free versions of their services with advanced features like greater server space and the ability to track participation. If you're considering paying for one of these services, check to see if the host offers the ability to create a password-protected wiki. This feature is not always found in the free versions. Free hosting sites include Wikicities, WikiSpaces, and PBWiki.

Installing MediaWiki requires a minimum of 256 MB RAM.

Option 2. Like blogs, wikis have become so popular that many Internet service providers now include the software to produce them in their packages. So if you pay an ISP to host your school or personal Web site, you may find it has already installed the wiki software at no extra cost. Ask your provider how to activate and manage the software.

If your host doesn't provide the wiki software, it's usually not difficult to install a package. Most are open source, such as MediaWiki, a popular wiki tool and the power behind the Wikipedia. The software can be downloaded for free and is usually simple to set up.

Option 3. Because many schools are concerned about student security online, a third possibility is to set up your own Web server inside a firewall to run your wiki. That may sound intimidating, but it shouldn't be. The installation is painless to do on just about any Mac OS X, Linux, or Windows XP computer using open-source software. All you need is a basic understanding of Web servers. (See for an account of my experience with installing MediaWiki on a Mac OS X box.)

Wikis provide many exciting classroom applications. Most of all, they allow educators and students to collaborate with each other and the world in ways they never could before. And that's a good thing.

Tim Stahmer, an instructional technology specialist for Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, can be found at