Answer to Leigh Blackall

Leigh Blackall, who was an early advocate of using wiki in education and proponent of projects like WikiEducator, asks the million dollar question:

You started out describing a project where you are setting up a WordPress wiki template, to host what I’m presuming to be student-generated-content activity. Without knowing any of the details that led to that decision, but basing it on years of being part of similar discussions, my first question is why you didn’t try and incorporate existing online project spaces and work out how a mutually beneficial arrangement could be found between the student learning objectives and the goals of the existing project being adopted. Wikipedia and Wikibooks springs to mind, but there are many others, they are just my preferred projects.

On this basis, I wondered if your Wikity project resembled the 90s projects being referred to, at least in the conceptual approach, where the mindset being encouraged might be the same as the mindset that lead the 90s developments.

On the other hand, the reverse could be just as true!

Either way, I do think your touching on an excellent principle of development. More detail on the purpose of the Wikity project would probably help me answer my questions.

This is a point Leigh has been making for a long time — the way we tend to do wiki in classes is not very wiki-like, because

  • it does not contribute to future work by others
  • it does not build on previous work

Instead, our wiki projects live and die in the glass terrarium of our classrooms. Others may see what we do, but no one can add, extend, correct, or argue, and when the class is over the contribution begins to decay until the plug is finally pulled on the wiki and it is gone.

However, the other option — to do all work in existing work in the common space of other communities — has proven to be just as problematic. Consider the set of articles I’ve written on the opioid crisis on my personal Wikity site:

Opioid Articles

This, to me, is what initial thinking on an issue looks like as a student starts to explore and connect. We follow the wiki convention (pre-Wikipedia) of giving ideas, facts, and data a name so we can connect them from many different angles. We provide for organic discovery, connection, and extension.


Can one do this in Wikipedia? No. You’d last about 40 minutes after posting the relationship of the JCAHO and the epidemic before you’d end up in an edit war with someone or other about whether it was noteworthy or germane to the article you were posting to. Wikipedia is a mature project, and is not really a great place for personal emergent knowledge. I say this as a person who has posted many an article to Wikipedia, and consciously worked to counterbalance some of the demographic biases of Wikipedia — it’s a great place to post refined, well-organized and defended knowledge, but it’s a lousy place to explore a subject.

At that to the fact that for your class you’re going to want to customize your treatment to the issue at hand, or to a local perspective or concern. You can’t do that in a general resource, because by it’s nature it has to be general.

I’ve struggled with this tension — we want to build on the work of others and have others build on our work, but at the same time, local concerns make it too hard to release control of our own work. For a while I thought the answer might be large cross-institutional wikis, but even those suffer from the same problems — at some point, someone must control the wiki, own the wiki, maintain the wiki.

Wikity, inspired by recent work of Ward Cunningham, sees the answer to the problem as federation. Individual groups create, maintain, and extend wiki pages (or “cards’), but these cards are, through the magic of an API, forkable to other sites. If people fork your stuff and improve it in ways that support your local aim, you can fork it back. If they fork it and take it in an unrelated direction, well that’s OK too.

This allows people to build on and contribute to the work of others while still preserving their local aims and unique insights.

The “Federated Information Lifecycle” video is from my work with Ward on his federated wiki technology, but remains the best overview for those that get wiki:

There’s a wealth of other stuff (again, mostly under the term “federated wiki”) that explains the thinking that eventually led to Wikity. Thumb through it, and let me know what you think.

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