This year the tool I have used the most to support my work has been a wiki. I have found it an invaluable tool, for both working in small research groups and working in large and small project teams.
My wiki of choice is PBWorks – although I am also familiar with Wikispaces, but only through the work of others, i.e. other people have set them up and registered me as a user. I started using wikis in 2008. I can’t remember now why I chose PBWorks in preference to other wikis, but think it must have been because at the time it appeared more intuitive and easier to use.
I have created 15 PBWorks wikis and am a user of another eight. Only one of these is an upgraded site (i.e. paid for, because we needed more space for the project). Working on a wiki is not all ‘plain sailing’, but for me the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.
Things that I still find difficult are:
- The way the formatting changes when you copy from a document into the wiki or copy into a document from a wiki page. The loss of formatting can be time consuming to correct.
- I sometimes have problems constructing Tables in a wiki page.
- I sometimes think an embedded discussion forum would be useful. I think Wikispaces has one – but PBWorks does not. It is possible to embed an open source forum, but it feels a bit ‘messy’.
I should say at this point that I have never attended any of the online training sessions offered by PBWorks, so I probably don’t know what I don’t know
Things that I really like:
- The potential for promoting collaborative and/or cooperative working, with open sharing and the breakdown of hierarchies. This is of particular benefit in project work. In a project I am working on at the moment, the project team, project funders, project evaluators and prospective clients all have access to the project management wiki – which means that the working process of the team is visible to all. This of course means that whether the team is meeting its deadlines is visible to all, but it also means that the work and efforts of the team, the questions they are grappling with and the complexity of the task are also all visible to everyone. This helps to break down any ‘them and us’ thinking.
- The fact that all the documents being worked on are in the same place and it is possible to keep track of which version is being worked on. I can still remember those days of working in a group on a research paper and getting in a terrible muddle with sending edited versions and drafts by emails which crossed each other – the stuff of nightmares!
- The fact that it is possible to include multi-media, so that audio, video, PowerPoint presentations and so on can all be accessed in the one place. A wiki can be a colourful and lively space.
- That a wiki can be for anything. I also have a personal family history wiki, where I have collected stories from the family, old photos and even audio interviews with older members of my family – the best is my mother, now in her mid-80s singing. She still has a lovely voice and remembers all the words of the old musicals.
Things I have learned about wiki management:
I manage most of the wikis I work in, so over the years I have become better at setting them up in a way that makes them easier to use, although people new to wikis can find still them intimidating. These are some of the things that I do to help ‘wiki novices’ to navigate the wiki more easily.
- If it is a wiki which will be used by people who are unfamiliar with wikis, then an attractive welcoming front page, with images and colour can help to draw people in.
- I usually have a ‘Start Here’ page, which explains how to use the wiki to get the best out of it, the protocols, etiquette etc. for that particular wiki.
- I offer to help via email or Skype. Skype is a useful tool for talking through wiki navigation.
- A ‘Sandbox’ page can be useful i.e. a page where people can play and try things out without worrying whether they are going to ‘mess up’ the wiki pages.
- It is very important for the person managing the wiki to ensure that navigation is, and remains, as easy as possible. This means keeping the wiki tidy through ongoing ‘wiki–gardening’. For most wikis, this means ensuring that folders are well organized and that documents are always placed in folders (particularly important for projects where there are a large number of resources). It also means keeping the Sidebar tidy and well-organised.
- For wikis which are used to share large numbers of resources, then it is helpful to keep the Sidebar to a minimum of pages and to use each of those pages as a Contents list to linked pages (a bit like designing a website).
- It also helps to ask people to identify themselves when editing a page by preceding their edit with their initials and the date in brackets. If there are not too many people in the wiki group, each person can also edit in a different coloured font, which makes them immediately identifiable. The ‘strike-through’ tool, is also helpful in ensuring that what has been edited out remains visible. In Word, this would be equivalent to ‘Track Changes’.
What have I forgotten? What do I not know? There is bound to be something, if not a lot, but nevertheless, wikis have been my most useful tool this year.