NERCOMP – Wikis for collaborative work

The last session I attended at NERCOMP was a presentation on the use of wikis at Bridgewater State College. Eric LePage and Timothy Wenson showed off their “BSCwiki” to a rather large audience (perhaps owing to the fact that the last time slot of the day only offered three breakout sessions).

The BSCwiki was built using MediaWiki, the same open source wiki software that runs Wikipedia, as well as comwiki.org, the wiki I set up for our department’s use back in the summer of 2006. The BSCwiki appears to have the familiar MediaWiki interface with only modest modifications.

One of the first classes to use the wiki was a computer science course in networking. Students were assigned to groups that then collaboratively authored wiki pages on course topics. The instructor maintained a “to do list” as a wiki page, and students could refer to the list and update it as the work progressed.

The BSCwiki was also used beyond the classroom. For example, it was used for project planning for a trial of moodle (moodle.org) at Bridgewater State. BSCwiki was integrated into LDAP for user authentication. While only authenticated users were allowed to create and edit pages, anyone could view the wiki. The wiki is also deployed on a secure server (https://wiki.bridgew.edu/mediawiki/index.php?title=Main_Page).

While Eric demonstrated how to create a wiki page, I spent some time examining the BSCwiki at the link above. I went to the “all pages” page by going to https://wiki.bridgew.edu/mediawiki/index.php?title=Special:Allpages, and noticed that they only have about 100 pages in the wiki. That’s not bad, I guess, but then I noticed that quite a few of the pages were either empty or skimpy “stub” pages. As a former broadcaster, I noticed a wiki page for “Writing for radio and TV” that was actually a brief plug for a program on WRAP, 106.9 FM (which sounds like it is probably a student-operated radio station).

The demo of the features of MediaWiki was a bit boring for me, but it was nevertheless interesting to hear how wikis are being used in higher education. I was particularly encouraged by the number of people in attendance.

After Eric had completed his demo, Timothy talked a bit about the technical aspects of installing and configuring MediaWiki. The software is open source, and can be freely downloaded from mediawiki.org. There are also a variety of extensions on that site that are available to extend the functionality of MediaWiki. One of the extensions added to the BSCwiki installation enabled LDAP authentication.

At this point I raised my hand and asked a question: “Is this why you have your wiki on a secure server?” The answer was yes, that running it on a secure server kept LDAP passwords encrypted so they wouldn’t be sent as clear text. I was curious as to whether SSL was essential, and found this blog post on Library Web Chic that suggests that recommends it (http://www.librarywebchic.net/wordpress/2006/04/20/wikiperiments/).

This session confirmed for me that wikis have great potential for fostering collaborative work in higher education. Still, getting people interested in using wikis more broadly takes some effort. My experience has been that most wikis have a relatively small number of active contributers.

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