UBC Wiki

Philosophical Ownership & Open Collaboration

 Atriplex L. - saltbushOccasionally, I get inquiries if it is possible to create or modify a page on the UBC Wiki so it is only editable or viewable by an invited group of people. The UBC Wiki is an open platform with no easy way to restrict the editing of specific pages.  This open approach drives a philosophical view that no articles in the root of the wiki belong to any specific owner; anyone can really edit anything and they should be encourage to do so.  However, we’ve created a couple of different spaces on the wiki that imply a soft ownership of pages: while anyone can still edit these pages, the idea is that pages in these spaces do belong to someone and outside editing should kept to a minimum.  This is more of a philosophical than a structural ownership but I think this idea will be important if the wiki user base continues to grow.

If a user does create a page where they have an implied soft ownership (such as an assignment page in the Course space) and if they are concerned about someone else editing this page, then there a couple of options to help them manage it:  First, they can add the any pages to their watchlist and then update their account settings to have the UBC Wiki send them an email anytime a page on their watchlist gets edited.  This process will help call attention to any changes being made to their content.  They can then easily rollback all changes made by the last person to edit the article by simply going to the page history and clicking on the rollback link. This will remove all consecutive edits by the most recent contributor.

In an early 2004 post on using wikis, Matt Barton addressed this issue:

How do wikis protect an author’s work? Answer: They don’t. A good preface on every wiki page would be, “Abandon all authority all ye who enter here…wikis are protected not by code, or by law, but rather by the participation of an active wiki community. If you are proud of your entry, you will feel compelled to see what’s up if you receive a notification that the entry has been changed, and “roll it back” if it’s obvious the page was vandalized or rendered less intelligent.”

Wikis are fundamentally about open collaboration. The advantage in this sort of platform is that knowledge sharing is truly community based – anyone can make the wiki a better place.

While the UBC Wiki’s namespaces imply a soft ownership of content, it is certainly possible that it might not be the right tool for all projects. In this case, I would encourage users to look at the other tools offered at UBC Blogs: a group can be a great place for private online dialogue and a multi-user blog allows collaboration while limiting access to only those who need it. However, for community collaboration and open knowledge sharing, I think the wiki is unsurpassed as a tool as it inherently maximizes these benefits while minimizing the risks.

Image: Public domain image from USDA Plants Database

UBC Wiki

Consolidating the Crops: Revisiting the Main space

The UBC Wiki, as originally described, serves multiple purposes:

  • It is a course repository: The wiki provides a collaborative space for faculty and students to create and share course related content.
  • It is a documentation repository: The wiki provides a collaborative space for the creation, updating, and hosting of documentation, user manuals, and the like.  Using the wiki append plug-in and the wiki book creator, specific documentation could easily be syndicated and republished.
  • It is an open space that anyone can use for any purpose.
  • Finally, it would be a knowledge sharing repository of all things UBC.  For example (again as originally described):

    The genome page [on the UBC Wiki] should inventory UBC resources about Genome – topics like people, groups and departments that research genome; papers, posters and thesis published about genome etc. In the ideal scenario, UBC faculty, students and staff would update topics of their professional (and wider) interests and so make resources more presentable and easier to find.

To accommodate these multiple purposes, the UBC Wiki was divided into four public namespaces: Course, Documentation, Sandbox, and the Main space.  However, as I’ve detailed in my early Course Conundrum post, users tend to not use the namespaces and just create new pages in main space.  To some extent, this problem is getting better.  I’ve created some expanded documentation and created wayfinding aids about the different namespaces. I’m also moving all new pages to their proper space and dropping a note to the page creator explaining what I did and pointing them to the proper help pages.   Finally, I’ve been moving older pages to their proper spaces as well – as you can see I’m close to hitting the 500 page mark.

One thing that would really help users notice the organization of the wiki would be to better define the purpose of the main space:

  • If the main space is intended to be a wikipedia like resource for anything and everything UBC, then this needs to be stated in clearer terms in all descriptions of the main space.
  • “Best practice pages” or better examples of main space articles should be developed so users have a better idea of just what it is we are trying to create.
  • Policies and guidelines should be developed as to what types of content fit into the main space (I’ve started developing some here).
  • The term “main space” should go and it should be renamed with something that better conveys the space’s intended purpose, such as UBCpedia, UBC Dictionary, UBCompendium, or (my favourite) the UBCnomicon

Of course, these suggestions apply to all namespaces.  However, since the main space is the most prominent part of the wiki, clarifying its purpose would help clarify the the purpose of the other areas as well.

UBC Wiki

Wayfinding on the Wiki

Wayfinding, as Wikipedia succinctly summarizes it, refers to the user experience of orientation and choosing a path within the built environment and to the set of architectural and/or design elements that aid in that orientation. While signage is an important aspect of wayfinding, wayfinding principles should also be part of the structure of an environment, whether that environment is informational or physical. A classic, if not somewhat simplified example of wayfinding in the real world, is when hospitals colour code their separate wards, so that pediatrics might have blue walls while neurology has green. A person visiting the pediatric ward who turns a corner and finds themselves in a green hall should intuitively understand that they have gone the wrong way.

One of the clear issues on the UBC Wiki is that users do not necessarily grasp that there are separate namespaces for different types of content and thus get “lost” when adding new pages. To try make this structural division more intuitive, wayfinding tools can be built into the site structure. One easy method is to follow the hospital example and do a slight bit of colour coding. To this end, on the main page of the wiki, I took the text description of the different namespaces and put them into coloured boxes:

I then repeated the colours on the homepages for the Course and Documentation spaces to reinforce the idea that, just like different wards in the hospital, these are different areas with slightly different purposes.  I don’t think too much colour is necessary, but a little might help users understand the site better.

I’ve also begun experimenting with how “signage” can be used on the wiki.  For example, I’ve begun putting book icons on pages related to Wiki Books.  Right now I two different versions – A small, relatively unobtrusive sign:

And a larger banner that stretches across the page (reduced in size here to make it fit on the blog):

I think that both signs call attention to the book creator and help users find it better than just a link would.  It is my hope that by including wayfinding elements into the UBC Wiki, users have a better understanding of both the structure of the wiki and some of its features.

UBC Wiki

The Course: Conundrum

The UBC Wiki is organized into a couple of different namespaces. Two of the major ones are the root space (found at wiki.ubc.ca) and the Course space (wiki.ubc.ca/Course). The purpose of these spaces is to help organize the wiki by differentiating between the purposes of pages at a high level. The root level space is an open area that can be used for any academic or UBC-related activities and is generally thought to be a good place for general knowledge articles about UBC (the wikipedia of UBC if you will). In contrast, the Course space is the area where pages regarding specific course based activity or content should go. If a faculty member wishes to have a class wiki and their students edit and create content based around that class, rather than having random and vaguely named pages in the main part of wiki, it would make to sense have them instead organized into a course structure.

And here is the conundrum: organizing course material into the Course space is slightly more complex than just adding content to the wiki and people are tending not to do it. Indeed, much of the content currently being added to the wiki is related to specific courses and this content does not make sense when viewed in isolation from the other course content.

One of the major tasks of this wiki gardening project is to understand how best to organize course content, but even more importantly, is how to best create processes, structures, or systems to have the wiki self organize. Rather than have a wiki administrator force top down organization (i.e. someone like me reviewing and moving/renaming pages so they follow prescribed wiki space nomenclature), a goal of the wiki gardening project is to figure out a way to create a framework so users can easily organize their own content and make the wiki more useful.

Specifically, over the next week or two, I’ll be looking at how to make it easy for people to add course material in a way that is organized and makes sense both to people in the class (for example, how do I create a student page that is related to an assignment page) and to general users (for example, why is the page on apples discussing a particular horticulture assignment).

Specific things I want to focus on include:

  • the current namespace / naming structure (i.e. does the naming protocol wiki.ubc.ca/Course:abcd123 make sense and will people use it?)
  • looking at how categories and templates can be used to better organize course work
  • creating more complete help pages
  • creating tutorials (i.e. Want to use the wiki for course work, here’s how to do it)
  • providing better guidelines
  • creating a discussion around wiki policies
  • moving pages, creating categories, cleaning up