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Experiences of using Wikis to support students' learning

Tilly Harrison, Centre for English Language Teacher Education, University of Warwick

Although Wikipedia is the best-known wiki, and most people in academia are now familiar with its function and ethos, home-made encyclopaedia creation is only one aspect of what a wiki can do. A wiki is simply a web page that can be edited by anyone. As such its use is very much in the hands of its creators.

Wikis compared to Blogs

Since we have become used to the Internet as a publishing medium, with the attendant assumption that its pages are fixed products, wikis can be somewhat disorienting at first. However, the rise in use of blogs has made it much easier for individuals to harness the publishing power of the Internet and so wikis are now not such a conceptual leap. Essentially wikis can be viewed as ‘community blogs’, although the uses to which they can be put far exceed that of community journal, picture gallery or shared opinion poll. However these may be useful starting points. There are many websites where a wiki can be created free, just as there are many free blog host sites. Essentially the host sites make it as easy as possible to start your wiki and some even suggest the kind of content you may want to put in it.

From an educator’s point of view, wikis have the major advantage of handing over to the students the ability to both create and destroy, and therefore developing the motivation that that kind of power gives. Responsible use of a wiki requires full understanding of its purpose and a sense of commitment to the community of users. Without a certain amount of trust (Davies, 2004) the wiki idea will not take off. Essentially, where teachers are aiming for more learner-centred approaches, wikis are an ideal way of fostering both autonomy and peer support. Like blogs, they can be private or open to the public. However, unlike blogs, they are not necessarily a medium of conversational communication. See Morgan (2005) for a useful comparison of blogs and wikis in the form of contrasting bullet points.

Wiki Vocabulary Project

As an example of a possible pedagogic framework for a wiki, I will now describe the wiki project which I started a few years ago. My students (English Language, Translation and Cultural Studies undergraduates) need to read widely but struggle with the huge vocabulary demands of the academic texts in Translation Theory, British Cultural Studies or Sociolinguistics which they are expected to cope with. The wiki I set up was essentially for a weekly homework task aimed at increasing awareness and acquisition of vocabulary. Students were asked to choose a single new word from their weekly reading (either their general reading or their prescribed textbooks) and add it with the context sentence, source, definition and personal comments to a wiki.

Part of Class List for Week 1 with word links 

For a class of thirty students, this instantly creates a self-selected (therefore in theory, maximally relevant) vocabulary list of thirty words each week, each one a clickable link which goes to the definition page created by the student. I can use the list for exercises or a test and the students can use it for vocabulary acquisition. From previous experience I know that not all words chosen will be of interest to all students so now I categorise the words once the list is up according to their frequency in general English and their usefulness in academic reading using Tom Cobb’s VocabProfile . Words in the top 2000 of general English or the Academic Word List (AWL) (Coxhead, 2000) are highlighted and prioritised.

Example of an entry for a word (

In the second year of the project (2005) I gave a questionnaire to two of the groups of students who had used the wiki. Here are comments from two students:

“I can edit the webpage and add images as if it is my website. It provides a platform for us to exchange and share words. .. To some extent, I think this is also a team work. In other words every time each of us add new vocabulary on the website it actually is a way of helping others to expand their vocabularies.”
“Every time when I put my word on line I saw others’ words. It interested me to have a look and I tried to remember. It made me think very carefully when I was reading. I needed to think which word was suitable not only for me, but also for others.”


However this sense of community is not automatic since, as another student wrote:

“Our pages could be changed by any other people. I think it is very bad.”

In practice there was never any malicious use of the wiki. The occasional disaster (inadvertent deletion of a page) was easily quickly recovered.  

One point to note however is that the structure of the wiki is fairly fixed (I set up the week by week pages with student names which they edit as they add a word) and that the definitions of individual words are pages created by a single student. As such, the vocabulary pages on the wiki do not use its full collaborative potential and could be seen as fairly teacher-controlled and sterile. However the resource created is shared and useful to the community as a whole. Moreover, this approach ensures that all students gain experience and confidence in editing the wiki, not just the naturally technically literate. Once students have mastered this fairly unthreatening editing task, it is easier to introduce group tasks and shared editing.

Overall the positive feedback from the students has encouraged me to continue this approach. I have used three different free wiki sites since starting with Seedwiki. Last year we used Wikispaces and this year we are using PBwiki (short for Peanut butter wiki). Basically we have moved from (what was then) least visually attractive to most. Interestingly, even though wikis are basically a text environment and the focus should be on the content, there is no escaping the influence of the visual aspects of the web pages. Just as MS DOS lost out to Windows (was there ever a contest?), I suspect that wikis that look old-fashioned will lose out to slicker operations. 

What has struck me with all of the free wikis is the responsive nature of the developers. All wiki users can alert them to bugs or suggest improvements and as such they change and improve all the time. I recently was pleased to find in PBwiki that by tagging a page as a template, it is automatically offered as such when creating a new page. This has saved me much cut and pasting when creating a page with a class list.

Teacher Support

Another aspect of each free wiki community is that they tend to have links to education and often actively promote their wiki amongst teachers (this is particularly true of Wikispaces). This means for example that in PBwiki you are routinely offered a ‘Classroom’, a ‘Syllabus’ or a ‘Group Project’ as a template when you create a new page. I did not use these templates but as a beginner it was useful to see what a well-formatted page could look like. In addition some early adopters in education (eg Dodge, 2005) encouraged teachers to test a range of free tools and created useful evaluative frameworks against which to measure any educational wiki project (see Dodge’s Motivational Analysis of Wikis and Design Patterns for Eduwikis). So early in Web 2.0 the potential for wikis as tools for teachers, especially those who were aspiring to a constructivist approach, was spotted and explored. Fountain (n.d.) looks at wiki use in higher education particularly

Linking Blogs and Wikis

Taking inspiration from these initiatives, I have been expanding the use of our wiki for other tasks with my students, linking to the blog writing which I encourage them to do. For example recently I asked the new arrivals from China to blog their first impressions of the UK. Then they were divided into groups and one person was asked to summarise the views of the group members on the wiki. This has the advantage of practising the academic writing skills of drawing out themes from diverse sources, paraphrasing and summarising. It also illustrates what to me is the fundamental difference between blogs and wikis – the former are for personal opinions and sequential discussion, the latter are better for facts and consensus documents.  

The group summaries on the wiki can then be edited by me so that there are no language errors, allowing the students to feel confident in what is published to the world. However by looking at the history of the page, with a couple of clicks, they can compare their own text with mine, (additions are shown in green and deletions in red). This creates a powerful visual reminder of the corrections that have been made. Students can then check with me if they are not sure why something they wrote has been changed. It is also a record that I can use to track recurring grammar errors across different groups for possible remedial work.

Preparing for the Future

We are already seeing fundamental changes in the way knowledge is created and disseminated (Richardson, 2006:127) but for the most part, teachers still use similar methods to those they learned from or were trained in. Trying out new methods is a way to prepare for the future, when such methods or uses of technology become expected as part of our teaching expertise. For the moment, my students’ wiki has added an online resource that could not have been created any other way. I am now looking for ways to develop it further, adding sound to the vocabulary database in the form of mini-podcasts of the word pages, and encouraging more collaborative tasks.

One question that could be asked here in Warwick University is why I should use a wiki when Sitebuilder is also editable. For me it is the ease of use by every student, and graphic representation of changes to a text that persuade me to continue using the free wikis, rather than only use Sitebuilder (which, incidentally, I will use to store the podcasts as they are made). The use I have found for the class wiki makes sense in my context and is totally integrated into the course I teach (Advanced Language Skills). Small, focused projects such as this one where new technologies are integrated into existing teaching methods allow the users (both teachers and students) to build up their expertise and confidence over time. The inevitable problems and setbacks I have had did not affect the module as a whole since at the moment only a small part of the course is invested in the wiki. Starting with a relevant small-scale idea, low expectations, but compulsory participation has worked for me and the majority of students have found it beneficial. 

Wiki Design

As I mentioned at the start of the article, the use of a wiki is very much down to the creativity of its users. My own approach is what Dodge (2005) categorised as a ‘micropedia’. I will list this and his other suggestions taken from ‘Design Patterns for EduWikis’ (ibid) to show that whatever wiki you create, it should be designed according to the type of task involved:

A Micropedia – contributors create a resource of individual entries on a topic either from external sources (such as dictionaries in my case) or from their own expertise.

FAQ – the structure of this resource is around questions and answers on a topic, ideally both generated by students.

Consensus Document – unlike the first two, this wiki would concentrate on a single page being drafted and redrafted until agreement is reached by all involved that the document best fulfils its purpose (eg a peace treaty or a business contract). As such I foresee that this type of wiki would make full use of the ‘Discussion’ option which most wikis offer for each page and which functions like ‘Comments’ in a blog.

TreeSim – outside of education, wikis have been used for ‘branching stories’ where participants move through a story, making various choices and creating new episodes where the choices run out. A TreeSim is a ‘branching tree similation’ which would follow a similar structure of offering choices and revealing consequences of those choices, starting with a complex situation such as an environmental disaster. Some students could create the branches and others could ‘play’ the simulation as a way of learning more about the complexity of the initial scenario.

Ant Farm – In this type of wiki, students are cast as multiple actors in a particular scenario, interacting at various points with one another. Dodge suggests that this is a way of exploring another culture or another era.

Exegesis – a single text is taken as the anchor point and students make links from it to their own pages, perhaps with questions, definitions, background information etc. Dodge suggests that this could be a way of facilitating close reading of a dense text such as those in philosophy, religion or sociology.

Below are links to some of the many free wiki sites -

Finally, don’t expect to see bells and whistles, but please visit to see a functional wiki in operation. Comments and suggestions are welcome. (


Cobb,T. Web Vocabprofile [accessed 14/11/07 from ], an adaptation of Heatley & Nation's (1994) Range.

Coxhead, A. (2000) A New Academic Word List. TESOL Quarterly, 34(2): 213-238.

Davies, J. (2004) ‘Wiki Brainstorming and Problems with Wiki Based Collaboration’ Report on a project submitted for the degree of Information Processing in the

Department of Computer Science at the University of York

[Accessed 14/11/07]

Dodge, B. (2005)‘Wikis as Tools for Collaborative Learning and Knowledge Management’  [Accessed 14/11/07 NB unfortunately many of the links no longer work]

Fountain, R. (n.d.) ‘Wiki Pedagogy’ Dossiers Technopédagogiques, Profetic [Accessed 14/11/07]

Heatley, A. and Nation, P. (1994). Range. Victoria University of Wellington, NZ. [Computer program, available at]

Morgan, M.C. (2005) ‘WikisAndBlogs’ page on a wiki for a course at Bemidji State University [Accessed 14/11/07]

Richardson, W. (2006) Blogs, Wikis and Podcasts, and other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms London: Sage

Citation for this article
Harrison, T. (2007) Experiences of using Wikis to support students' learning. Warwick Interactions Journal 30 (2). Available online at:  Accessed