Finding out more about wikis in education

A wiki is a website where users can easily add, edit and delete content without specialist software or technical knowledge. Users can create new wiki pages and link them to others, and they can edit or existing pages, including those created by other learners.

  • A website (the wiki) with an unlimited number of web pages (wiki pages).
  • A collaborative tool that allows many people to create, edit and link content easily.
  • Includes a text-based asynchronous discussion area on each wiki page.
  • Chronological history of page changes can be seen and one revert to previous page versions.
  • Restricted access to view and/or edit content is possible.

There are many providers of wiki systems. The image below shows the main features of PBworks wikis and Blackboard wikis.

Diagram showing comparison of PBworks and Blackboard wikis

Wikis do not have any imposed or predetermined structure.  With an open architecture, as pages are created, populated and linked together, structure emerges as a result of user participation. This enables users to edit and control the organisation of the entire wiki, not just the content of pages.

Unless restricted, all users can see all contributions to the wiki and who they were made by – learners’ contributions are not reviewed or moderated before being accepted and anyone can edit anything, There are no ‘authors’ but many editors and contributors.

According to the ‘Wiki Way’ (the seminal book on wikis, by Ward Cunningham) ‘Open editing has some profound and subtle effects on the wiki’s usage. Allowing everyday users to create and edit any page in a Web site […] encourages democratic use of the Web and promotes content composition by non-technical users’. Openness and transparency help foster a sense of ownership and trust which can lead users to self-organise and continue development of the wiki in a meaningful and self-motivated way.

Ways to use wikis

  • Group (asynchronous text-based) discussion – presenting, discussing and developing ideas and content.
  • Collaborative writing tool – for group writing, drafting and reviewing of model essays, reports and summaries.
  • Problem Based Learning – learners add content to the wiki as they investigate and respond to a real-world problem.
  • Disseminating information – develop content to inform others, e.g. this wiki is used to provide information on using Open Educational Resources in STEM subjects.
  • Group knowledge repository – learners develop guides, encyclopaedias, handbooks and instructions, e.g. for current and/or future cohorts.
  • Manage meetings and events – organise roles and responsibilities, draft agendas and programmes, record attendees, write and archive minutes and reports, collate resources, take and record decisions.
  • Group projects – learners respond to a project outline by developing content on a number of interlinked pages.
  • Project knowledge management – sharing of ideas, coordination of activities, collaboratively authored task lists, resources, milestones, plans, and status reports.
  • Resource aggregation – group creation of glossary, annotated bibliography, useful links, and video gallery.
  • Community of practice space – gathering, brainstorming, discussing and sharing ideas, approaches and resources.

Case Study 1: Using Blackboard wikis for student collaboration

This case study examines how the Blackboard wiki tool can ‘help a teacher effectively facilitate student collaboration with on-campus or distance students. It discusses the importance of providing technical support for both staff and students, planning clearly defined collaborative learning activities, and designing relevant assessment strategies to help support students develop effective teamwork skills’. It includes a useful rubric for assessment of the individual teamwork component. The video below about the wiki collaboration project provides a good introduction to this case study.

Case Study 2: Introduction to Building Construction - by Samantha Organ

After speaking with Oli Haslam in the Learning Innovation Unit about the different ways academic staff can enhance their teaching methods I decided to give a wiki a whirl for my first year undergraduates. I used a free education wiki on PB Works for my Introduction to Building Construction tutor group which contained about 27 students with mixed abilities and some students who spoke English as a second language.When I was an undergraduate I had spent some time between lectures and tutorials chatting with other students about what we were learning and about assignments. Now on the other side, I have become increasingly concerned that the opportunity for doing this may have declined, particularly with the increase in technological distractions. My other concern was that, through technology, students were increasingly being ‘spoon-fed’ information rather than engaging with the subject matter. I wanted to combat this by offering something which was akin to what students were already using in their everyday life (i.e. internet-based social groups) to enhance their learning and encourage a virtual space in which they could further develop their academic ideas, compound their learning and improve their understanding. A wiki seemed to provide one solution.

The wiki provided me with a blank space to shape, which students could contribute to and use. All you need to do is attach each student’s email. Of course, there were some who still had some difficulties in accessing this initially, but this was rectified after a few attempts.

The point of the wiki wasn’t to replace other learning materials, something which was made clear to the students. I used it to enhance the existing tools and texts by providing a virtual space in which student learning can be further developed.


Provided good accessibility and flexibility. Students could work at their own pace together or independently, in a virtual space. The informal feedback from students suggested that the wiki helped struggling students by providing them with an indication on how others might address a question or challenge. Sufficient encouragement is needed, particularly to start with. It enabled students to work through problems and tasks together, but also, where they became stuck, I was able to post basic explanations. This had the advantage for all those using the Wiki to see – not only saving some time for both me and the students by avoiding repeated emails, but also potentially benefitted those students hesitant in coming forward to ask for further clarification.


I discovered that where there is not a sufficient structure or purpose to adding content, students will certainly not engage. It is hard not to feel disheartened where students do not engage, but if the structure and tasks are clearly of benefit they will engage. Analyse student needs quickly – it helped me to see where students were overall struggling enabling me to adapt future classwork or set prep to guide them through the issue. A little time is required to set this up, although you potentially save time in answering repeated email queries. I did expect to need to police the wiki but this wasn’t necessary in reality. However, I did need to check the wiki for the odd comment directed at me and to also identify where students might be struggling. One student complained that they didn’t have the time to engage, but the same student admitted they were still playing ‘catch up’ due to neglecting their studies in the first semester.


Overall my first experience of using a wiki was mixed because I needed to invest some time initially in finding out how it worked as well as find out how students could benefit and engage with it. However, I am convinced of its benefit for my students (some of whom are using it for resit revision) and, where questions were directed at me through the wiki, I could provide an answer to the benefit of all those using the wiki rather than the vast minority. I intend on using this for future student groups, altering what didn’t work last year and incorporating some interactive quizzes where I can to improve the student experience.”

Benefits of wikis to learners

  • Ability to collaborate textually while creating rich content.
  • Enable participants to benefit from group knowledge and interactions, where the knowledge of the group is greater than the individual.
  • Learners who are shy or face other problems in face to face environments may flourish in an online written environment (e.g. international students)
  • Develop higher order thinking skills (see Bloom’s taxonomy) such as the ability to create and evaluate.
  • Appropriation – the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content
  • Multitasking – the ability to scan one’s environment and shift focus as needed to salient details
  • Distributed cognition – the ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand mental capacities
  • Judgement – the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources
  • Networking – the ability to search for, synthesize and disseminate information
  • Negotiation – the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives and grasping and following alternative norms.

(Source: ‘Confronting the challenge of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st Century’)

Barriers to wiki use

  • Staff time required to set up and maintain wiki as a learning tool and to facilitate learners
  • Tutors’ difficulty evaluating individual contributions (usual problems of assessing groups)
  • Technical and pedagogical learning curve
  • Staff fear losing control of the learning space
  • Access to computers.
  • Learners see no value in participation (provide good reasons, emphasise the value, make content exportable)
  • Reluctance by learners to contribute in a public space
  • Wiki may contain ‘wrong’ or misleading information (opportunity to examine rightness and wrongness of information)
  • Wiki vandalism
  • Student privacy
  • Combatting copy and paste plagiarism

Learner-centred pedagogy

‘Learner-centered teaching shifts the responsibility for learning to the students and away from the teacher — when instruction is learner-centered the focus is on what students, not teachers, are doing.’

Saulnier (2008) ‘From “Sage on Stage” to “Guide on the Side” revisited’.

‘Students learn by incorporating understanding of the subject into their existing knowledge base, and so must take an active role rather than being passively taught. The professor’s job is therefore to facilitate learning rather than lecture.’

King, (1993) ‘From Sage on Stage to Guide on the Side’.

‘The wiki epistemology therefore has several important characteristics:

  • collaboration – individuals acting together to develop shared knowledge;
  • construction/co-construction – individuals acting together to produce knowledge and their products;
  • different ways of learning – individuals acting together as equals – sometimes an expert, sometimes a novice, rather than in competition;
  • the authority of ‘the’ expert is undermined; and
  • a different philosophical underpinning which is more oriented towards constructionism.’

‘Wiki pedagogy thus entails the following dimensions

  • opportunities to develop competency in the skills required through an apprentice style beginning; an open framework of (inter)disciplinary knowledge;
  • multiple pathways for entering, learning and building the wiki content;
  • recognition that it is never finished;
  • understanding and accepting both competition and collaboration/cooperation;
  • and emphasising the potential for perspective shifts.’

Ruth & Houghton, (2009) ‘The wiki way of learning’.

‘Many users of learning management systems [e.g. Blackboard or Moodle] focus on delivery of prepackaged ‘knowledge’ to be acquired by the student. Some or even many users rarely allow interaction between students and between students and teachers, and rarely employ options that are available for providing interaction ‘spaces’. Where they do, it is separate from content. Wikis, on the other hand, shift the focus to construction of knowledge, rather than presentation of information, often giving students an active role in the formation of knowledge’ (Ruth & Houghton, 2009).

‘Wiki collaboration can be seen as an ongoing conversation as students constantly update pages based on interactions in face to face sessions, research online and reflecting on the work of their peers and the teaching team. These interactions potentially deepen the level of intersubjectivity or shared understanding (Wertsch, 1998) achieved in the course. This was demonstrated through student reflections.’ (Ruth & Houghton, 2009).

Further reading

Deters, F., Cuthrell, K., & Stapleton, J. (2010). Why Wikis? Student Perceptions of Using Wikis in Online Coursework. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching (JOLT), 6(1).

Parker, K. R., & Chao, J. T. (2007). Wiki as a Teaching Tool. Interdisciplinary Journal of Knowledge and Learning Objects, 3, 57-72.