UBC Wiki

Reflections on Organization and Community

So, it’s been about six months since I began working on the wiki organization project. With the launch of the updated interface, I thought I’d take a quick moment to reflect.

When I began working on the Wiki in July, my immediate priorities were:

  • To build a complete help section for the wiki. This step was essential for me as, at the time, I was new to MediaWiki software and creating help documentation enabled me to learn the software as I went along. I’m not that unusual – most users have not encountered MediaWiki before so having well written help pages makes the learning process quicker and lowers the barriers to entry.
  • To review the current organizational strategies and determine if anything could be improved or changed to make the wiki better. One thing I focused on was to better define and communicate the purposes of each individual namespace. As users began to understand the purpose of a namespace, they began to use them more. I still think the main space needs to be better defined.
  • To dive into the content, add categories to pages, cross-link articles, and move content to fit the organizational strategy. One of the strategies that I believe has worked well is dropping users a note anytime I touch their content. Direct communication changes the idea the wiki is just a website but rather a place that other people are using.

Ward Cunnigham created the first wiki with the belief that groups of people who want to collaborate also tend to trust one another and I think this is true on the UBC Wiki. One thing that became apparent to me is that a successfully organized wiki is not just a matter of creating proper namespaces or applying taxonomies; it is also a matter of developing community. When users understand that the Wiki is not just an individual tool, but rather a space with lots of users, they take more time to make sure their content fits into the Wiki’s organizational schema.

One of the best definitions of wikis that I’ve seen states that a wiki is a tool for distributed collaboration. Organization on a wiki, I believe, is fundamentally about collaboration. If users on the UBC Wiki are working on different projects (for example, if one person is writing a course assignment and if someone else is updating an employe manual), the way they organize their pages within the context of the greater wiki is a form of collaboration, even if they are not aware of the other person or their work.

The UBC Wiki is a tool measure in potential energy and its greatest assest is its users.  The more it gets used, the more useful it will be.

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

General Thoughts on Correcting the Course: Conundrum

Here are some preliminary thoughts on correcting what I have begun calling the Course: Conundrum (the creation of course specific pages in the main space of the wiki instead of into the Course namespace).

In general, I really like the Course namespace. Organizing course pages via the namespace gives the wiki some structure while nicely incorporating the course information into the overall UBC Wiki knowledge base.  For example, a course such as Econ101 could be included into the category of Economics, thus allowing users to discover a broad range of information and partake in knowledge sharing about economics at UBC (and this type of organization ties in nicely with the concept of open education).  

The course namespace keeps the wiki “neater” by providing it with some organizational structure: a page entitled “Assignments” on the main space of the wiki would be assumed to be a general information article; in the course space, it would indicate assignments related to a specific course. 

However, as I might have mentioned, users are not using the Course namespace.

So far, I see three obvious solutions to organizing course material on the UBC Wiki:

  • Educate the users on how to organize their course pages on the Course namespace through better documentation, tutorials, and direct communication
  • Scrap the Course namespace and allow users to organize their course material on the main space of the Wiki as they see fit
  • Remove course work from the UBC Wiki altogether; provide independent installations of mediawiki for each class or instructor who requests it

Here are some quick thoughts on the above options.

Option #1 – Education

I do not believe the reluctance to use the Course namespace is due to users not wanting to use it. Instead, it’s because:

  1. They don’t know about the Course space
  2. They don’t know how to put things into the Course space
  3. It takes more effort

Education is the key to overcoming all three of these barriers.  Better documentation and tutorials would explain to users just what the space is for and how to use it (and that it really isn’t much more effort).

To date, I’ve been focusing on this option.  For example, I’ve better organized the Course space homepage and I’ve creating help pages such as How to Use the UBC Wiki for Course Work.  Another form of education that I’ve started doing is dropping people notes on their user talk pages about why we moved their page to the course space and pointing them to the new documentation.

In the near future, I hope to make some screencasts demonstrating things like how to move pages to the course space or how to use subpages. Clarifying the purposes of the separate namespaces on the wiki homepage is also something I hope to get done soon. I think time will quickly tell if this method is working.

Option #2 – Scrapping the Course Space

Could we get rid of the Course namespace altogether? Wikipedia, rather famously, doesn’t use many namespaces for their content. Instead, the try to keep their organizational hierarchy as flat as possible by having their main content organized only through the use of specific and precise article titles. The UBC Wiki could go this route as well. For example, instead of having a course organized into the course space (such as “Course:Econ101”), it could just go into the main space (such as “Econ101”). Additional course sub pages could just be added with specific titles (“Econ101 Assignments” instead of “Course:Econ101/Assignments”). The health librarianship wik is organized this way as well. Here’s an example of how they have organized a course page.  Notice that related course pages are not necessarily organized as subpages.

The advantages of this type of organization, I suspect, is that it is easier for users to grasp.  It makes more sense to create a course page called “Econ101” and “Econ101 Assignments” than it does to organize these pages into namespaces and subpages. The disadvantages, I suspect, is that the flat hierarchy has less structure and in a large multi-purpose, multi-user wiki, like the UBC Wiki may one day be, things could get messy fast.  For example, what is the current UBC Wiki page on the Report Card about?  What is the context of the information on that page? Namespaces and subpages force structure and organization on content and thus make information easier to understand and access.

I think a flat hierarchy could work.  However, at this time I think it would require as much educational efforts and the moving/renaming of pages as using a namespace.

Option #3 – Independent Wikis for Course

Rather than have course pages on the UBC Wiki, individual wikis could be created for each course (as requested by instructors).  This would give instructors much more control over their course pages but at the loss of greater knowledge sharing and open education. I don’t really have much to say on this topic other than to note that some places are doing it this way. For example, here’s Stanford University’s MediaWiki web service page and here’s the Simmon College library school’s MediaWiki request page.

UBC Wiki

Categorization Manipulation

One of the main tools to organize a wiki is categories. Mark Choate, in his book Professional Wikis, describes adding categories to a wiki article as a parallel to adding tags to a blog article or a photo: tags and categories are “both keywords that are used to describe or group a page into some conceptual category or topic”. The advantage of using categories as a type of folksonomy, Choate states, is that one user might categorize an article one way while a another chooses an entirely different approach. Thus, when many people add pages to a category, different points a view are represented by the links and someone reading the wiki may discover connections between topics that they might not have thought of themselves.

Unfortunately, the current state of the UBC Wiki is that users are not currently adding categories to their pages. The majority of pages in the UBC Wiki (before this Gardening Project began) had no categories or links to other pages in the wiki. Thus, each article was isolated, even if there were other articles on related topics.

I’ve begun adding some basic categories to articles that currently exist on the wiki. Some nice examples of how useful a categories might be can be found in the Economics and Physics categories. In each category, you can find specific topics as well as pages on some courses, student groups, and departments.

It is my hope that as key categories become more built out, users will become more familiar with the concept, recognize the usefulness of categories, and begin adding categories themselves.