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Using the Wiki the Wrong Way: a case study in plant sciences

Fran Tracy , Katy Jordan, Keith Johnstone

Department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge


The Plant Sciences Pedagogy Project began in the autumn of 2005 as part of the Cambridge-MIT Institute (CMI) Education Programme. The project objectives within the Department of Plant Sciences at Cambridge were two-fold: to conduct research into teaching and learning of undergraduates within the department and to develop supportive on-line learning resources.

Research focused on the second year undergraduate course called ‘Plant & Microbial Sciences’ (IB PMS). Technical support for use of the University’s instance of the Sakai Virtual Research Environment (VRE) platform, known as CamTools, was provided within the university from the Centre for Applied Research in Educational Technologies (CARET). CamTools provides a number of optional tools for implementation within any course or work site.

Wikis have been heralded as one of a number of new and powerful forms of software capable of supporting a range of collaborative ventures and learning activities. The Sakai wiki tool, implemented by CARET, was originally designed to support participants in collaborative research projects. We immediately saw an opportunity to use the wiki tool to structure the content of the IB PMS course site within our Sakai based Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). This enabled the site to contain searchable wiki formatted lecture notes with links to glossary pages and to a wide range of other learning resources. However, we initially restricted the access and editing rights of the site members so that lecturers have edit but not administration rights and students are unable to edit any pages. Are we breaking the rules? We put across our case that the wiki is a more versatile tool than the developers originally envisaged, and that it is not necessary to allow full editing rights to all members of a VLE in order to support the teaching and learning of students in higher education.


Case study, e-Learning, Higher Education, VLE, Wiki


The Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Cambridge uses a range of teaching and learning environments including lectures, practical laboratories and small group tutorials. The Plant Sciences Pedagogy Project - a two-year research and development project concerned with small-group teaching - was funded as part of the Cambridge-MIT Institute's Education Programme. The research element of this project was designed to illuminate current practice and to identify areas in which evidence- based development might take place. It is a multi-method study including a series of student surveys, focus groups of students, semi-structured interviews with staff members, and the collection of videos of small group teaching. The information we have gained from this research has served to provide a sound educational warrant to drive development and improvement of the course online resources.

We were introduced to a Sakai ‘online collaboration and learning environment’ [1] by the Centre for Applied Research in Educational Technology (CARET) at the University of Cambridge, known as ‘CamTools’. Sakai is based on ‘community source’ software, which is maintained, upgraded and developed by a community of partner universities, of which the University of Cambridge is a member. CamTools was launched in 2005, and we were one of the first users. Prior to this project, some online teaching resources had been implemented by the department, including a ‘CourseWork’ website, in which lecture handouts and powerpoint slides were organised in a windows explorer style file store (shown in Figure 1); in addition, a number of course tutors had developed their own tutorial resources hosted in the University CamCommunity site. Using the information derived from our research into small-group teaching at the time the University moved its VLE from CourseWork to CamTools provided a good opportunity review the online resources, as well as to develop additional resources and support that the students would find genuinely useful.

From early 2006, work began to explore the capabilities of CamTools to support the IB PMS course, and to establish a logical design framework in advance of the approaching academic year. We were therefore developing ideas about how to teach online at the same time as learning to use the VLE. We experimented with utilising the software and our own resources in different ways, whilst keeping in mind some clear research based goals.

The IB PMS course is an option undertaken by undergraduate students in the second year of the Natural Sciences Tripos (NST) degree course at the University of Cambridge. It is not a distance learning or part-time course. Teaching is largely carried out through lectures, laboratory-based practical classes and small-group tutorials.

Figure 1 : CourseWork, the online learning environment previously used at the University of Cambridge,

Figure 1: CourseWork, the online learning environment previously used at the University of Cambridge, which has now been superceded by the Sakai-based CamTools VLE.

Our primary focus was to be able to house all the lecture materials which previously consisted of lecture handouts and slides in pdf format. Whilst using the resources tool to store all the relevant files, we opted also to use the wiki tool to present the material to students in a more intuitive, dynamic and engaging way (Figure 2).

Despite having little experience of web authoring, and a lack of other examples to follow (as Sakai had not been previously used for this type of VLE application), the potential of the wiki was quickly realised. This paper reviews the ways in which we have utilised the wiki within a virtual learning environment, whether ‘rightly’ or ‘wrongly’ according to the conventionally accepted spirit of a wiki.

What is a wiki?

A wiki is a web-based area where visitors can view and edit content. Wikis are the

brainchild of Ward Cunningham, and the wiki ethos fits in with the inventor of the internet Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s vision of a read-write web [2]. The name wiki is derived from ‘wikiwiki’, the Hawaiian term for ‘quick’ [3], as networks of interlinked pages can be developed in very little time, mainly due to the ease in which hyperlinks can be assigned

to particular words, generating a new webpage which can then be populated with the

information relating to the word in question.

Figure 2 : The front page of the wiki tool with in the CamTools site,

Figure 2: The front page of the wiki tool within the CamTools site, where all the lecture materials are located; within the term structure, each lecture has its own wiki page and sub-pages. See Figure 4 for an example of a lecture wiki page.

The defining principles of ‘wiki-ism’ are generally considered to be as follows:

Fast retrieval and change of web pages

Simple markups for formatting instead of HTML

Content is basically ego-less and time-less

Hyperlinks appear when referred to; which encourages creation of hyperlinks, and always shows which ones are valid.

Displays recent changes

Anyone in the world can change anything [abridged from 4; emphasis reproduced from source quotation]

Whilst these features have largely been valuable in terms of creating our course site, we have not subscribed to the open-editing facet of ‘wiki-ness’ – which, judging by the emphasis placed on it by the authors of the source of the list above (indeed authored via a wiki itself) is central to the idea of wiki use. The ubiquitous Wikipedia embraces wholesale public editing, and as of March 9 th 2007 it has over 1,670,000 articles (in English) [5]; its success in maintaining a freely-editable online encyclopedia is attributed to the notion of ‘soft security’.

‘Soft security’ fosters community strength and moral responsibility of users, so should an abusive minority appear, their deleterious actions would be quickly righted by the community, making vandalism a futile exercise. Access is not restricted by a login portal


Wiki security

One of the contentious features of our wiki, in comparison to the community model outlined above, is that it is set up within a VLE that can only be accessed through a Cambridge University logon portal, and so it is not publicly viewable. This is necessary in order to ensure that the VLE is only viewed by people involved in the course and to preserve the intellectual property rights of teachers.

However the most controversial feature of our wiki is that we have controlled the editing rights of different groups of people. This means that on the points of granting editing rights to all users and implementing ‘soft security’, our wiki stands at odds with the idea of what a wiki ‘should’ be. We set up the IB PMS VLE so that lecturers have minimal administration rights but they have permission to edit the wiki. Currently they are uncomfortable about making any changes themselves and prefer to submit altered lecture notes to the site administrators to make the changes for them. We hope that in the future, once lecturers have become more familiar with the system, they will use the wiki directly to make yearly changes and corrections to their online lecture notes; this would reduce the future need for course site administration.

Students currently have no rights to edit the wiki. This decision could be immediately reversed at the click of a button for the whole wiki or just for individual wiki pages. However, we have currently chosen to restrict editing rights in this way to ensure that the lecture notes are an unadulterated version of the ‘expert viewpoint’.

Importantly, it was necessary to prevent edits which might breed inaccurate or erroneous information. The soft security model works for Wikipedia because the articles tend towards the most widely accepted convention on a topic – evidence for this phenomenon includes the foundation of the right-wing take on the idea of Wikipedia, manifested as ‘Conservapedia’ [7], which actively fosters views which would be censored by the more liberal ‘soft security’ of wikipedia. Interestingly, one of the starkest contrasts between Wikipedia and Conservapedia is that the Conservapedia homepage is prefaced with the following statement:

“Minors under 16 years use this site. Posting of obscenity here is punishable by up to 10 years in jail under 18 USC § 1470. Vandalism is punishable up to 10 years in jail per 18 USC § 1030. We will trace your IP address and give it to authorities if necessary.” [7]

In contrast, the corresponding message on the Wikipedia homepage is simply:

“Welcome to Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” [5].

The Conservapedia statement is perhaps further indication that tending further from the most acceptable, common view breeds the necessity for ‘hard security’. The inequalities in Plant Sciences expertise across the population of our wiki community are highlighted in Figure 3.

of our wiki community are highlighted in Figure 3. Figure 3 : Profile of people with

Figure 3: Profile of people with different backgrounds (‘role’) in the Plant Sciences Wiki Community. Relative ‘expertise’ in plant sciences increasing from left to right.

In the future, setting students glossary pages to write in wiki format could form a teaching activity within small group tutorials. These glossary wiki pages could be checked and corrected by a member of staff, who would then ‘sign off’ the page to show that it is accurate by using the comment tool to post a message of endorsement on the page.

Whilst we have adopted a wiki as the medium for our lecture material, we have kept it well within a ‘hard security’ setting, which is arguably at odds with the very notion of a wiki.

So why use a wiki?

The organisational flexibility afforded by the wiki has been the major advantage for its use within our VLE. By setting up a logical framework within the wiki, based on the University terms, and turning the lecture handout into a wiki page for each lecture, e- learning objects such as flash animations can be linked into the course where appropriate, links can also be made between lecture topics, to other web pages and

internet resources, and course glossary terms (which had previously existed as a list in a pdf document) can be linked directly from wherever they occur in the text (shown in Figure 4).

from wherever they occur in the text (shown in Figure 4). Figure 4 : Part of

Figure 4: Part of a IB PMS wiki lecture page, showing links to glossary terms and online articles.

This application of the wiki tool has lent itself very well to creating interactive lecture notes. These notes were available to us in word or pdf format and were already formatted in a basic style that was not challenging to replicate using the simple wiki formatting options. We found it was a quick and easy way to make web pages, even for people with little experience of creating traditional html websites. A key advantage to using the wiki is how easy it is to link to other wiki pages – by placing square brackets around a word, a link is created to the relevant glossary item. It is also possible to link directly to articles in scientific journals, so that students can quickly access the articles referenced online (see Figure 3) if they are us a computer within the University Network. We also found that formatting text and using macros to insert links or pictures in the wiki was easy to master and carry out. Another advantage of the wiki format is that it is searchable, so that for the first time, students can search across all the lectures to see where a particular topic is discussed. Todays’ students have extensive IT and computational skills, which enable them to fully exploit these resources.


Whilst it has been suggested by some that our application of the wiki tool is not in the true spirit of a wiki, the wiki tool lent itself perfectly to creating intuitively organised interactive lecture notes. A key part of what we wanted to achieve with the lecture notes was for links to be made between topics, to glossary words, and to other online resources, all of which were all easily realised. Whilst the wiki tool within Sakai has been widely used for online research collaboration, our experience demonstrates that it also has great potential for use in teaching. However, it is also necessary to maintain the idea of lecture notes as ‘expert knowledge’ as opposed to students’ ‘novice knowledge’. So as to ensure that the ‘expert knowledge’ remained unchanged, students were not allowed to edit the wiki. Although we found it necessary to take a ‘hard security’ approach to managing access to the VLE and the wiki pages within it, we have found the ability to set editing rights to be a valuable feature for use of the wiki within a higher education teaching environment. Whether our wiki really counts as a wiki in the truest sense is debatable, but semantics aside, it matches our requirements well.



[2] Tim Berners-Lee, talk at the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science (LCS) 35th anniversary celebrations, Cambridge, Mass., April 14, 1999, available online at