Jack, H., “Using a Wiki: A Tutorial”, ASEE North Central Section Meeting, April 4-5, 2009.

Using a Wiki: A Tutorial

Hugh Jack, Professor, School of Engineering, Grand Valley State University


The Wiki is a relatively new approach for facilitating and publishing shared work. It is distinguished by its web based approach, ability to have multiple authors collaborate, ease of use, and easy structure of documents. To create a Wiki a new user may select between dozens of free and commercial Wiki hosts that can run on multiple server operating systems, or free and commercial wiki sites hosted by service providers.

This paper will describe the basic usage of the Wiki within an academic context.

The Wiki Model

The first major Wiki project was Wikipedia. It provided a structure where individuals could submit and edit encyclopedia like articles in an open web based environment. Early controversy surrounded the project including questions of accuracy and bias relative to established encyclopedias [2] such as the Encyclopedia Britannica [3]. These concerns have proven to be exaggerated over time.

Wikipedia developed a model where authors were overseen by editors who would review, undo, and mark content based upon factors such as vandalism, commercial bias, poor style, bias, conflicting opinions, and lack of references. As a result the project hosts many more articles than printed encyclopedias. The articles are often updated within minutes of current events. The result of the success of Wikipedia has resulted in a wealth of software to support Wikis [4] and sites using the same model [5].

Editing a Wiki

Browsing a Wiki is a trivial affair that simply requires a web browser. Editing a Wiki can be done with simple editing techniques. At the simplest level an author may enter plain text (see Figure 1) that will appear in a Wiki page (Figure 2).


Figure 1: Editing by entering plain text


Figure 2: The result of the plain text entered in Figure 1

A variety of simple generic wiki editing codes allow authors to add structure to a document. At first some of them may seem somewhat cryptic, but in general they are quite simple. Consider the example in Figure 3. The start and end of headings are marked with ‘=’, more than one indicates some level of sub-heading. Bulleted and numbered lists are indicated with ‘*’ and ‘#’. These can be combined, or used more than once to indicate sub-points. Apostrophes can be used around text for different font effects. It is also possible to include regular HTML codes for formatting, with the loss of some wiki functionality. The result of the wiki editing is Figure 3 is shown in Figure 4.

One of the great advantage of Wikis is the ability to structure documents, as opposed to having one large linear document. To this end the wiki makes it very easy to create sub-pages and links to web sites. In Figure 3 a link to a sub-page is shown surrounded by two square brackets ‘[[‘ and ‘]]’. These by themselves do not create the sub-page, but when a wiki reader sees the final page there will be a link that will allow them to create a new page. Hypertext links to external web-sites are done in a similar way using single square brackets ‘[‘ and ‘]’.


Figure 3: Editing using Wiki editing codes

The contents of Figure 4 show the main elements of the wiki screen. In the example the author was not logged into the system, as is seen on the upper right hand side. However each of the sections still has an edit option, see the right hand side. It is also worth noting that the subsections defined with ‘=’ signs divide the document into sections and provide a table of contents.


Figure 4: The result of the text entered in Figure 3

Use of a Wiki for professional group communication and collaboration

Working in groups poses particular problems in the academic world where collaborators are often far removed from each other. Traveling to other universities or meetings is one solution, extensive use of email is another. When working on documents remotely there is an issue of ownership and sharing. The normal work mode is for one person to work on the document and then pass it along when complete. This approach works, but adds unnecessary delays, and prevents participants from seeing what others are doing.

The example in Figure 5 shows a wiki developed for a manufacturing education working group. The site was used as a main landing point for resources on and off the system. The group used the Wiki as a place to plan and document a conference, store minutes, and work on a strategic document on the future of Manufacturing Education. While having this type of material on the web is not unique, it does provide tremendous access for adding, editing, and deleting for casual users.


Figure 5: The Wiki used for the professional group

When a Wiki is used as a document authoring platform it allows concurrent collaboration without a face to face meeting. The basic process for creating a shared/multi-author document are,

1. The Lead Editor sets up the Wiki. This may be a simple case of locating a service, working with a system administrator, or setting up some software on a computer.

2. Create a basic Wiki structure for the document including sub-pages for sections. This can easily be done with a table of contents linking to sub-pages.

3. Assign editors and/or chief authors for each section. This creates a sense of ownership and focus within the larger document. Note: editor is a special designation in Wiki’s that can undo changes and ban users.

4. Create a basic description of what each section should be relative to the main document. This explanatory text will guide and focus contributors.

5. Invite a larger group to contribute or take a greater role in the group.

6. The Lead Editor and Editors should review the contributions on a regular basis to ensure consistency of contributions.

7. The editors should communicate on a regular basis to review the document structure and make changes as necessary.

8. When the document is ‘finished’ the pages can be locked to make it unchangeable. If a newer version is planned the pages can be copied to a newer version.

The Wiki in this example was used as a place to host event proceedings for a meeting held at Farmingdale State College: SUNY in November 2008. The conference program was constructed in the Wiki and as presentations, notes, and other elements became available they were added to the document. This approach allows the proceedings to be revised and expanded after the meeting. In addition the results of the conference are available openly on the web and eliminate the need for paper copies. The only disadvantage of this method is that attendees need network access during the conference to be able to access the submitted materials.

Hosting group agendas and minutes on a wiki has particular advantages. They provide a single resource site for historical reference. Members are able to modify or add items directly to the agendas and minutes. For example, if a member cannot attend the meeting they can add regrets directly to the minutes.


A Wiki does not provide any functionality that is already available, however it does provide a convenience and openness not available on many platforms. The strength comes in peer to peer collaboration where it is more valuable to remove the barriers. This clearly aligns with the classic model of academia where knowledge is communal and developed by the group as a whole. A brief summary of the advantages and disadvantages of a Wiki are given below.


Immediate group involvement

A truly collaborative environment: empowers contributors

Easy to share work

Relatively easy to use

Permits different access levels


New approach that is still in development

Requires internet connection

Requires a Wiki Host

Requires monitoring of use to resolve disputes, undo vandalism, etc.

Some items are (currently) difficult to edit such as equations and figures


1. http://www.wikipedia.com

2. Associated Press, “Wikipedia, Britannica: A Toss-Up“, http://www.wired.com/culture/lifestyle/news/2005/12/69844, December 2005.

3. “Encyclopaedia Britannica“, http://www.britannica.com/, March 2009.

4. “Comparison of wiki software“, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_wiki_software, March 2009.

5. “Comparison of wiki farms“, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wiki_farm, March 2009.


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