One of the innovations I’ve made in my teaching this year has been the introduction of the DMU Commons Wiki system to my first and final year social media modules. In the past we’d used the inbuilt wiki in Blackboard, but I was never satisfied that this was not outward facing or industry standard. It’s difficult to encourage learners to take on a social media system sometimes, when it is behind an enclosure or garden wall. The system that is built into Blackboard only uses the propriatorial system that they provide, and I was keen to get learners to use something that is more widely recognised in the real world – which doesn’t come much better than MediaWiki, the system that Wikipedia uses.
So I’ve introduced regular wiki posts into the coursework for TECH1002 Introduction to Social Media & Technology and TECH3022 Advanced Social Media Production as a way of providing a space for learners to experience posting to an open wiki system, where they are in charge of the process of submission and can see the posts that are created by other learners. Indeed, the aim is to encourage learners to collaborate on posts and to encourage other people to contribute to them.
The DMU Commons comprises as set of blogs and the Wiki. The skills needed for each are fairly straightforward and give immediate access. There is no coding or complex set-up. WikiMedia is a simple ‘syntax’ based system that can automatically generate a set of standard formatting functions in a page just by adding some simple punctuation/syntax. For example MediaWiki creates a contents box based on the use of headers in the text, which are simply identified by adding a couple of ‘=’ wrapped around the text that forms the title. My estimate is that you can learn to post a page with some basic information in about twenty minutes.
Once the basic skills in creating a page and mastering how to format some simple content are established the main issues is how to name the page so that it can be found by other people on the wiki. There are two main ways to navigate around a wiki, either by following a hypertext link or by searching for a key word. This is a rhizomatic approach to information management, with no centralised or ‘tree-like’ information structure. All points are available to all other points in the system at all times. Indeed, planning wiki entries requires a shift in our thinking that eschews structure and instead works on tags, key words and links. You don’t have to worry about what comes first, or what follows. Each page is posted discretely and stands alone. So it has to be named in such way that it can be found without it being linked to any other pages.
The great advantage in this form of publishing is that there is no central control exerted over the production process, and it can be revised and updated at any time. There’s no need for an editorial board or a publishing schedule. Users can post content when they want, and if it needs to be published in an initial form that is incomplete, then it can be revised and updated later, by any of the other contributors. It’s a perfect development tool for collaborative teams as they work on documents that form a centralised information point. The information can be shared easily and updated as networks of developers go along. Behind each page is the tracking system that maintains a record of what changes were made and by who.
I’ve encouraged my learners to create a profile page for themselves, so that they can add information about what they have been producing, what their biographical information is, and examples and links of work that they have developed. Another advantage of a wiki is its relative anonymity. So users only get identified by the P:Number (DMU ID), and nothing on a page is publicly credited. The most experienced users can sit alongside the newbies and develop content that is of equal worth in the wiki. There’s less opportunity in a wiki to exercise your ego, and as a result those of us who are more introvert and retiring get the chance to make our mark while the loud-mouths have their sense of entitlement to recognition toned down. The blogs that the learners write can be as egotistical as they like, but the wiki entries have to be written to a general standard that isn’t based on who you are, but is instead about what you have to add.
I thought it was important to encourage contributions by asking learners to post content that they are interested in, so there’s a selection of fan pages, sports pages and gaming pages, all in different stages of development. There’s a lot of interest in TV programmes such as Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and Firefly; and then there’s pages about DC and Marvel Comics and Films. The games pages are interesting, because there are a lot of students who game at DMU, with a good deal of expertise and knowledge about different game worlds and systems. As a platform for grass-roots interest, a wiki is a pretty good way of allowing contributors to express their own interests. Interests that are representative of the diversity of interests that exist at DMU. With a wiki, no one page can be flouted as being above any other page in terms of its value or appreciation except that it is of interest to the users and contributors of the wiki. All content is equal on a wiki.
The advantage of a wiki goes beyond simply sharing information, but also allows users to develop collaborative plans when working on projects. Rather than sending around different versions of a document, a wiki page is a living document that can be updated in real time. Changes can be made easily and with clear agreements from the contributors. There are other collaborative document systems, such as Microsoft SharePoint, but for what MediaWiki costs to host, and the level to which it enables collaboration, I don’t think I’d use anything else for project planning in the future. My final year students are about to write a project development plan using the wiki for a social media project they are undertaking, so I’ll be able to share how this goes later on.
So, what’s likely to be of use on the DMU Commons Wiki in the future? One thing that I think has loads of potential is the development of How-to-Guides. Already there are a couple of pages dedicated to media production techniques, such as photography, audio recording and video production. The sharing of hands-on information by learners, technical staff and academics alike, heralds a good opportunity to pass on information to a wider audience, a community of practitioners. With expertise often split over different departments and buildings at DMU, the DMU Commons Wiki could be a cost effective way of bringing practitioners together, regardless of their chosen discipline, to share and collaborate in how to get the best from the media technologies that they are working with. Indeed, why stop at media technology, this wiki is open to all technologies, disciplines and subjects, across the whole of the university.
So I’m looking forward to seeing what emerges from the DMU Commons Wiki, what kind of communities of interest emerge, how they share and collaborate knowledge, and how they enhance communication so that people who wouldn’t normally get to collaborate and share are able to with minimum fuss.