Saturday, May 9, 2009

Wikis on the way out?

Interesting conversation after the internal training on wikis I conducted this week. One faculty member in the agency's lunchroom mentioned she liked the possibilities working with wikis provided and thought we should do the training for another group of faculty members next. This drew a reaction from one of the would-be-affected faculty members, who said "Wikis? Those are on the way out."

This intrigued me, primarily because I think there is a kernel of truth in what she said. Not that the tool itself is not useful anymore. But there are other factors that draw this reaction from people.

1. Google Docs has had much more appeal than wikis in the groups that I have trained them for both (probably about a 75%-25% split). Even though their word processing capabilities are very similar--and that's what those unfamiliar with both are looking at, as opposed to spreadsheet or presentation capabilities--Google Docs comes with more apparent structure to it. Wiki allows people to build their own. And they don't want to build their own. Plus, there is the moniker Google that gets people excited.

2. I find for people who aren't natural play-around-and-figure-it-out folk, which is a large portion of people, they have had bad experiences with a wiki. Mainly someone has created a wiki and added them as a collaborator, and not knowing what to look for or how to operate the program, they get discouraged by it.

3. We often make the mistake that just because wikis are easy to make, that people will a) come to it, and b) contribute to it. Neither are the case. If we build it, they won't necessarily come. Or contribute. Many people are not yet "jump in and contribute blindly" people when they aren't part of the community. And wikis do not scream "come look at me" like other slick-looking websites out there.

At Heartland, I know that we have a wiki on the Iowa Core and 21st Century Skills. And a Web 2.0 wiki. And an iPod in the classroom wiki. And a cell phone in the classroom wiki. And a gaming in the classroom wiki. And a technology in science wiki. And a technology in social studies wiki. And a training wiki. Or two. And that's missing some, and in addition to databases in Google Docs and other places.

I think all the content on those wikis is valuable and well-gathered, but its easy to see that people are becoming over-wikified. The reality is that building a wiki is easy for someone to create the content. But getting it to the point where people regularly visit and freely contribute is a high art that isn't often seen.

4. In the previous case, all those wikis were "information dissemination" varieties. Where I have seen wikis be more effective is as a defined small group's forum for collaboration. We use a wiki for our statewide online council, mainly for posting agenda notes and giving updates on the different projects we are working on. The members of the committee know that the wiki is where we will share this information, and even though I wouldn't say anybody in particular is thrilled about visiting the wiki, it does its job.

This is an important distinction I've discovered that I need to mention during wiki trainings. It has great potential as a collaborative tool. But in reality, how you use it will determine your satisfaction with it. If you use it as the collaborative meeting place for a set group of people, your likelihood for success goes up. If you use it as information dissemination, know up front you will have to spend a good effort marketing the wiki and ensuring the community that they can contribute. In this case, wikis are not "quick".

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