Wikis in Group Learning

Wikis in Group Learning

Ever since wikis emerged, I’ve loved the idea of using them to learn as a team. That’s a large part of what we now call Informal Learning.

We once had four fresh recruits who needed to have just a few Photoshop basics before they could join the rest of the team. If we’d had the time, they could have been trained by some of the older employees. Perhaps three afternoon sessions would do it. But we didn’t have the time, so what happened was that the new people were left to themselves, looking up Photshop on the Net.

A few days later, everyone had (hesitant) questions. One Q/A session later, it was clear that none of the participants were on the same page. Also, they had more questions but weren’t asking.

Eventually we decided that a wiki would serve the purpose. A basic wiki is just a web page that anyone can edit; for our purposes, we started off the wiki with two Photoshop tutorial links on it. (This took no more than a couple of minutes.) We created a discussion page on the wiki, after which we had an active discussion very soon—questions, answers to questions, corrections to the material, additional links.

Why is a wiki such a powerful group tool? Here’s how I see it, looking back at that one “wiki session”:

Wikis are bang in the middle between Facebook and e-mail

That is, wikis are unstructured, but you can prevent the material from becoming trivial. A moderator can clean up discussions to keep things relevant, and to maintain the structure. A social tool can suffer from the problem of “no real learning going on”; wikis are the answer if this is the case. On the other end of the spectrum, if you assign a topic to a group as self-learning, there might be no discussions. Or perhaps the context for the discussions becomes too formal.

People learn, but no-one spoonfeeds anyone

So long as you don’t have formal training as an aim, you can go along any direction with a wiki: Instructor- led, facilitator present, unstructured, time-bound or not.

On a wiki, people don’t hesitate to ask—or share

This is unlike in a face-to-face session, and unlike e-mail (which can be formal). It looks like a regular page in a browser, so it’s convenient; at the same time, there’s no “permanence” on a wiki.

No time constraints

When you use a wiki for group learning, the learning gets integrated with regular work. It doesn’t interfere in terms of time, that is, it doesn’t take up a separate session. Plus, as long as participants are interested, their unstructured time can go into the wiki discussion.

The advantage of hyperlinks

In an informal learning context, hyperlinks are sent across in e-mails, in social network updates, and so on. With wikis, those links you send across become part of the discussion instead of being asides or distractions. (Wikis are pretty much based on the idea of URLs!)

Wikis can become a knowledge base

Beyond short discussions or learning sessions, more powerful aspects of wikis come in. You can use a wiki as an updateable database. A database... to store info from the current discussion for later use. (Perhaps next year, when other people will be learning about the same topic?) Updateable... because knowledge and skills keep changing in the online context. (If you created and archived a wiki about Photoshop training, you can update it if a new version of Photoshop comes out.)