Learning by Doing, Training by Tinkering

I installed a local version of MediaWiki on my laptop today. MediaWiki is the software platform on which the UBC Wiki runs and I wanted to go through this process for a couple of different reasons: First, I hope to be able to do some experimentation with the UBC Wiki without having to bother the development guys who keep it running and healthy. Second, I really want to get a better grasp of how MediaWiki works behind the scenes. Afterall, while knowing how to drive a car is often all the knowledge you need, having a basic understanding of how the engine works can be the difference between a good day and a really expensive one.

At any rate, installing MediaWiki was much easier than expected. MediaWiki is a web application and to get it to run on a laptop, you need to have a program that can act as a localized web server, such as MAMP. After installing MAMP, I downloaded the latest version of MediaWiki (the 1.16 beta that has the new and sleek vector skin). I saved the MediaWiki files in the MAMP htdocs folders and then I just followed the basic steps outlined here.

It was quick and painless process and already I’ve begun to get a better idea of how the UBC Wiki is configured and what sort of effort it would take to add additional extensions. As I gain a further understanding of how the engine behind the UBC Wiki works, I hope to gain a clearer picture of it’s potential and how to keep it better organized. And, just as my folks never wanted me to tinker under the hood of their car, its good to have my own copy on which I can learn.


Converting Documents into Wiki Pages

In addition to an overall organizational structure, a wiki also should have some organization within its individual pages. The use of headings, subheadings, bold, bullet points, and the like make an individual article or page easier to scan, navigate, and read. Most of the internal page organization can be easily accomplished through the use of formatting and Wiki Markup. However, a problem that I’ve noticed is that a lot of users do not write their content directly in the UBC Wiki; instead they most likely use a word processor to draft and format their text and then copy and paste that text into the wiki. Unfortunately, word processor formatting does not often transfer well into MediaWiki. Thus, the user has to take additional time to reformat their content on the wiki. Often, though, they just leave their content as is, which can look pretty bad and be hard to parse.

I wanted to quickly point out a couple of tools make getting content from a document into wiki page a bit smoother. The first is an extension for Open Office, the free, open-source word processor program which is a pretty great alternative to MS Word. The Sun Wiki Publisher extension allows a person to type up a document in Open Office just as they would normally, and then save it in a MediaWiki format. All formatting, such as links, bullet points, and headers, is automatically converted to Wiki Markup. In my basic testing, this extension works really well and can handle even moderately complex tables.

I have yet to find anything that works as well for Microsoft Word. The easiest strategy seems to be to save the document as an HTML file and then to copy and past the HTML into an online Wiki Syntax converter and then copy and paste that output into the wiki. Novak recently recommended this HTML to Wiki converter and it works well, especially if you are using HTML directly from a website (which is how this UBC Wiki page was created). Unfortunately, when converting from Word to HTML to Wiki Mark-Up, the process is not quite as smooth and some reformatting or tweaking of the Wiki Markup seems to be necessary. Still, its better than having to create a table from scratch or insert a ton of links into a list.

I’ve created a couple of Help pages on these topics: Converting Documents to Wiki Syntax and Converting HTML to Wiki Syntax.

Update:: Brian points out in the comments saving a Word document into HTML and then converting it doesn’t work all that well. I agree and I’ll keep looking for better solution.