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Online Edge

Odvard Egil Dyrli on Wiki Sites

These Web sites offer collaboration opportunities but have potential drawbacks

The Houston Independent School District is one of the topics in the free online encyclopedia called Wikipedia. The reference describes the accomplishments of individual schools and the work of former employees Rod Paige and Laura Bush. But it also presents controversial allegations that the district failed to report incidents of violence to the police, and that "HISD coerced administrators at many schools to lie on dropout rates."

While it may seem unusual for such information to appear in an encyclopedia, Wikipedia is a reference like none other, and also includes articles about schools from Long Beach, N.Y., to Beverly Hills, Calif. And, facts and opinions about your district may be included, too.

Wikipedia is written entirely by volunteers from around the world who prepare articles on whatever interests them. It is an example of a new form of online collaboration called a "wiki." Since it was started four years ago, more than 6,000 contributors have worked on 600,000 articles in 50 languages, and Wikipedia now includes in-depth content on countless topics such as capitalism, evolution and war. Your staff needs to know about wikis and the benefits and challenges they bring to schools.

What's a Wiki?

A wiki--the name comes from a Hawaiian term for "super-fast"--is a special Web site that allows users to put information online easily, and allows anyone to change the content submitted by others. As Web log, or "blog," software made it easy for individuals to post personal thoughts, observations and even diatribes in online diaries, wiki software extends that concept to groups. Wikis are powerful ways to share collective expertise, gain from the insights of others and get feedback on ideas.

As a user who posted an article described the experience, "Several people chipped in, sometimes rewriting a paragraph, sometimes criticizing an omission, sometimes deleting parts, and the article is now much better than I could ever have written alone." Each day visitors to Wikipedia from around the world create thousands of new articles, and make tens of thousands of edits.

One district is already using a wiki site to share resources.

Wiki concepts can also be applied to other kinds of online activities, and the success of Wikipedia led to related references including a Wiktionary dictionary and thesaurus, Wikiquote compilation of quotations, Wikisource collection of source documents, and more than 250 volunteer-authored textbooks and manuals called Wikibooks. Several corporations such as Eastman Kodak are using wikis for applications including brainstorming and shared document writing, and school districts are starting to experiment with the form.

However, wikis are also criticized because people can post inaccurate or inflammatory entries, and may inadvertently or deliberately vandalize or delete the work of others. Wiki coordinators claim errors are soon corrected, and peer pressure usually keeps such problems in check. And, since the software also stores previous versions of articles, no material is ever lost. In addition, a wiki may be password-protected, and violators can be blocked from participating.

School Wikis

In addition to encouraging staff and students to try and contribute to Wikis, such as Wikipedia and, some schools are developing their own, using various selections of free and fee-based wiki software. For example, Rob Lucas, in Rocky Mount, N.C., started the Teachers' Lounge Wiki for teachers to share lesson plans and resources, and Tim Lauer in Portland, Ore.'s Lewis Elementary School is setting up a wiki for students to write a monthly newspaper. The resources below will help you learn more and get started.

Odvard Egil Dyrli,, is senior editor and emeritus professor of education at the University of Connecticut.