Personal, Institutional, Global

The first UBC Wiki shared CC-BY by MrGluSniffer

Leigh Blackall offered up some interesting feedback to my previous post on Tina Loo’s Wikipedia work. Lightly edited version:

Somehow, I want to understand why the majority of teachers struggle to accept the suggestion to use the wikis in this way. Even in the edtech world – ppl who pride themselves on open education development and connected learning, their absence from any substantial engagement in the big wikis is noticable. I think I’m beyond criticising them for it, but I do want to know why.

In the past, I’ve suggested that setting up DIY wikis aren’t a step toward such practice, because I thought most who went there didn’t ‘progress’ into a big wiki.

I reckon there’s something complicated behind this disconnect between open education and the wikis. What might seem to be a logical even obvious association, is actually distant. George Siemens laments the loss of a wiki he published DIY, that the hosting university has unceremoniously deleted on him. My only comment was:

Some people question my comments as mere complaining about ppl not ‘playing in my sandpit’, but there is more to it. There are no doubt good, if poorly articulated and understood reasons so many are reluctant to do anything substantial in those collective spaces.

First off, I can relate to George’s frustration. At the top of this post is a picture of the first UBC Wiki. It was yanked offline without notice and the box was tossed into a hallway. It was only a fluke that someone wrote me a week later and asked me to collect my trash. I’ve never been able to convince anyone at UBC that there is value in preserving at least a searchable text archive of the wiki. So here it sits in my cubicle in the vain hope that someone might decide it’s worth the effort to save. (Thankfully, the Wayback Machine has captured much of it.) I happen to believe there is some historically significant stuff on there, things like the Small Pieces, Loosely Joined happening in 2004 with many of open ed tech’s earliest innovators. (Oh well, probably simpler to just agree that MOOCs Inc. and Blackboard invented open education.) It also strikes me as disrespectful to the people who took the risk to adopt early and do some wonderful innovative work — evidently those early adopters agree, as some of them won’t work with me anymore, and I don’t blame them.

But back to Leigh’s comments…

On some level, I am a bit surprised that someone who was an early and passionate advocate of networked learning can’t see why independent, autonomous nodes can be a viable strategy. I mean, if we are doing open right, should it matter where our stuff originates?

That said, we don’t do open right. Given the current state of licensing and technology, we probably couldn’t assemble a coherent artifact like Wikipedia using discrete, aggregated, networked sites across various platforms and tools. So I can see why someone who believes in Wikiversity would feel frustrated that there is not more shared purpose in the open community. And I hope my work and scattered writings have made it clear that I value what global/centralized approaches can bring — even when hyping the UBC Wiki at campus workshops, I try to make time to point out initiatives such as the Wikipedia Education Program, Wikiversity and Wikieducator. These type of efforts can create learning conditions and effects that institutional platforms simply cannot re-create.

But there are reasons why working in a local, familiar context is not mere “control freakery”. A few that come to mind:

* A semi-open space like the UBC Wiki, which requires a UBC ID to edit, is a safer environment for people venturing into open online work. There is no spamming, very little trolling (people are accountable for their writing), and management of student access and accounts is vastly simplified. Leigh is probably right to argue that a minority of these people will push further into more adventurous spaces. But some do. And as for the others, at least their work is posted in an accessible, sharable collaborative open source environment that invites reuse.

* There is an element of ego at play for at least some people when they share their work. It’s one of the powers of positive narcissism. Again, my own understanding of networked models (which I don’t pretend to have thought about as much as Leigh has) accounts for an interplay between individual and collective modes of expression. I think it is amazing that so many people are willing and able to subsume their egos to adopt a “neutral point of view” in Wikipedia. Joining a collective like Wikipedia implies adopting a collective ethos and approach — it can yield great results, it can also limit the range of expression, and I think it is understandable why people might prefer to do their own thing.

* As I mentioned in a comment on Leigh’s blog a while back, there is a lot of content that makes sense on an institutional wiki that I am quite sure would not fit on a collective site. A lot of the material on the UBC Wiki is very UBC-specific (Bars and Pubs on Campus, or Library Branch Hours, our Documentation)… The reuse, if any, is mainly within our institution. There is a lot of content in our Sandbox area that is very informal (student group brainstorming, sci-fi movie clubs, etc…), but I am glad we can facilitate it. And we have definitely found that once people author this type of content on the UBC Wiki, they tend to keep going.

* A final, more personal comment. If some of the bigger, international wiki projects want to encourage more participation, they need to honestly address the reception they offer to newcomers, and the image that they project to the wider world. In her review, Tina refers to the snotty comments her students received from some Wikipedians — and, to be fair, the defence that came from others. (As an aside, a fascinating study on the relative expertise of new editors in Wikipedia.) I have periodically lurked and poked into discussions on some wiki-oriented open education projects over the years, and usually feel alienated by the contentious and tedious nature of many threads. I recall coming across a comment, posted by someone I am friendly with (presumably not thinking I might read it), saying something like “Brian Lamb is a good guy, but he has used the NC clause on his blog’s Creative Commons licence” — as if that dismissed any position I might hold for the rest of my life. In my experience, these sorts of statements are not uncommon, and I can’t be the only person who finds them off-putting.

That all said, there are powerful benefits in not only thinking globally but acting there as well. I resolve to up my participation on these fronts. I also hope to report a number of technical and practical shifts to the UBC Wiki in the coming months that will allow for more effective integration between the big central wiki projects and local installations.

19 thoughts on “Personal, Institutional, Global

  1. I’d love to take a look at the content from the old wiki! I’m sure there are lots of things there that are worth preserving/moving to the new one.

  2. That’s not the only Wiki that is inaccessible now – at least they didn’t throw this one in the hallway.

    There is some wonderful stuff there. Some crazy hypertext fiction, a lesson plan database from a John Willinsky course.

    I can understand why they did not want to run these applications indefinitely – the code from those programs was no longer viable, and there are security issues. But an HTML archive would have been nice.

    It would be nice to migrate some pages to the new wiki. But also time-consuming and miserable work — these early wikis had different formatting, and the “adapter” programs never really worked. Though much of what is historically interesting about these early wikis is in the page histories, the evolution of these sites over time. That would have likely been lost with a flat HTML archive as well.

    I carry a lot of guilt for the inaccessibility of these sites, and how those early users feel. I thought I stressed the “temporary” and “pilot” nature of these experiments at the time, but people still feel invested in the work. I wish I had done more to try to ensure server-independent back-ups were done (though even now I am not sure how that would have worked).

    1. I remember we had a notice on the site for over a year telling people to move content to along with offers to help them migrate we spammed the user list several times and got little to no responses. At the end the majority of content on the first wiki was pharam/poker/porn spam not great advertising for UBC (shows the value of having campus SSO on a open wiki…) **had the same issue with the Open Ed wiki last time it was in Van from a few years back using OpenID auth getting a notice from IT led to it being taken down.

      In the end I think it show that to run a service even an archived/retired one you have to continue to patch the servers and the application if you want to hold onto the content of past or migrate to the new system. In this case no one seemed interested in either option.

      **You can always plugin it in and wget all the content at any time and then upload it somewhere.

      We have the same issue with other wikis we host which are actually much bigger than the first UBC wiki they still producing content but are stuck in legacy mode on a server 4 years old which will be decommissioned soon at which point they will have to migrate (hopefully to the UBC Wiki) or find their own webhosts. I have pointed this out to the admins of the wikis and they have not made any attempt to move. It really shows they value of central and not building all these satellite sites that are not maintainable in the long run.

  3. Thanks Brian, for taking the time again for me. I struggle with the contradiction in my rhetoric. On the one hand I purport the importance of conviviality and self determination, but promote the use of Wikimedia Foundation projects, Google services and It is apparent to me that these internationally scoped projects also serve to undermine conviviality and self determination. But if we weigh that up against the losses when a whole collection of human expression goes offline and sits in a box in a hallway, I’m cool with the contradiction. If it wasn’t for the rescue work of the Way Back Machine, and george putting out a PDF, and you putting out a searchable text version, I’d be even more comfortable.

    The snotty behaviors, and the minute debates you refer to on the big wiki projects… I wonder if this is predominately on English wikis? And if so, why? There may be big enough data between all the language versions of the big wikis to discover something cultural/liguistically, such as a link between a language and a propensity for violence perhaps…? Or maybe it is just a size thing, I dunno. And then again, we could probably find an answer based on the general data of the internet, and not need the focus on wikis.

    I hear your points about the need for specific affordances, like familiarity, accountability, control, learning how to preserve these in a sadly globalized world is critical I think. Wikiversity is a pretty blank canvas, wikibooks is too in many ways. I don’t think these projects have nearly as many issues as en.wikipedia, not to say they have none though. They may go offline someday, actually I’m certain of it, but probably not before the DIY that is sponsored by our universities and governments.

  4. I have Diigo cached pages of both the Small Pieces, Loosely Joined and the main page of George’s wiki. I wish now I had cached more of that site.

    I always encourage faculty to not “build” anything exclusively in a site, even one that “belongs” to them (like a rented server). If we have something that matters, we have to still go all 20th century and back it up to our hard drive. But that’s really hard with sites where what we love is the participation, and want to save all of that.

    I’ve been following D’Arcy Norman’s move toward taking control back of the stuff he’s posted elsewhere, and I’ve been doing much of the same to avoid the cost that now inevitably accompanies “free” sharing on several sites (for example, Flickr).

    RSS was supposed to glue everyone’s stuff together so that central repositories and monster wikis would be unnecessary. Where is that future?

  5. As an olde seasoned eLearning bod, I feel that maybe we are at an evolutionary stage of wikis and blogs and other social web tools. The final shape of the product has not yet formalised. There are several issues here:

    – old school practioners like me who have come from the CAL (computer aided learning) camp only want to use and promote tools that have a clear reselience built into the system.

    – how the social software will eventually shape in the near future will be determined by fit for purpose by users and again.. relience.

    – I believe lack of personlisation, ownership, ‘not invented here syndrome’ are factors that have adversely affacted uptake of wikis in mainstream education.

    – There is too much information on wikis and social networking sites everywhere – I feel there is information overload and what I call the ‘dazzle effect’ with users. This is a major deterent with potential users of wikis.

    – wikis mimic our own human communication modes – ‘networking’; with that in mind and as an educationalist, I am baffled as to why they have maybe not taken off like you have outlined in education. I must confess I too have reservations on their use for reasons outlined above.

    – will be glad to discuss this further if needbe,

    rgds Harish Ravat, CELT, DMU Leicester, UK.

  6. Scalability, personal control, autonomy, sustainability… all of these are factors balanced or traded-off with ANY approach we propose (though increasingly we do seem to find clever architectures to shove constraints or enablers lower or higher up the stack so we can have our collective cake and individually eat it too.)

    As the pre-existing boundaries and business objects of our institutions come into contact with the new affordances (and deficiencies) of network learning and culture, there needs to be a dance between the two to find the new solutions (and ed tech goes bad when it does the rigid institutional shuffle and asks the network to conform to it instead of being willing to find a groove with the rest of the network.)

    There are other obvious ways in which institutions and instructors therein can start to dance with the larger wikis – when I saw I was so happy that finally librarians were seeing wikipedia not as competition but as a potential starting point for scholarly research. Another one that seems obvious to me is for universities to bring their CONSIDERABLE expertise and resources in networking and server capacity into distributing the hosting of Wikipedia and other large wikis, thus making it less fragile, less expensive for that not-for-profit common good, and starting to create new bridges between these civil society entities. I can already here the wail of the bean counters decrying such a move; but how does that old quote from Emma Goldman go? “If I can’t dance – I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”

  7. Glad this topic has bubbled back up, and you guys are clearly the ones to elaborate most insightfully on it, because I know (and references in this thread clearly show) that you’ve been deeply involved in collaborative/creative projects like wikis for a long time.

    (There’s actually quite a bit I’d like to write on this from my experience at UVU running the generally unsuccessful WikiLearn project, as well as spearheading the state of Utah’s Canvas wiki parallel to Instructure’s early efforts organizing their own wiki for feature/usage documentation.)

    Interestingly, I haven’t seen much suggestion that there is significant value in fostering and maintaining a myriad of purposefully separate and distinct projects, whether those are collaborative or individual. This goes beyond “ego”, which several folks mentioned, and even beyond what Brian originally suggests when he wrote, “there is a lot of content that makes sense on an institutional wiki that I am quite sure would not fit on a collective site”.

    Fitting in is one thing, but we can go beyond that and talk of value found in a multiplicity of expressions and collaborations. Let’s talk varying stylistics, information architectures, and even typography and design–any of which may be legitimate reason to have a separate creative/collaborative space at any of these levels.

  8. Wow, so many great comments. Sorry it is taking me so long to respond to them.

    @Scott McM. I hope my frustration at the wiki being yanked offline did not come across as a swipe at you or your peers. I recognise the difficulty of keeping old applications online indefinitely. And as I mentioned to Zack, I see what happened as primarily my own failing in terms of having a long term plan and managing expectations. I wish we had you around back then!

    @D’Arcy – you are one person I need not remind about the provenance of that server. Funny, I never got any complaints from learning object repository users when the CAREO server was yanked…

    @Leigh – I don’t think of this issue as a “contradiction” in your (or anyone else’s) rhetoric so much as an enduring and vexing tension that we all struggle with. I doubt it will ever feel completely clear. And I agree, it is troubling we haven’t got a better sense of data preservation after all these years.

    @Lisa – Thanks for stopping by, you make a lot of good points. The erosion of support and adoption of RSS (and other open syndication approaches) is one of the most troubling trends online, and I wish more people cared about it.

    @Harish – thanks for bringing your “olde seasoned eLearning” perspective to bear, lots to think about!

    @Scott L. – I appreciate you articulating a vision of higher education actually taking on and sharing the load for common good online environments (not just wikis)… what I have seen referred to as “green spaces” on the net. It makes me melancholy just thinking about how “wild” that notion seems to be in the current environment — even among technologists! It’s not as if universities don’t style themselves as “guardians of culture” and having a mission to promote free inquiry. And the sad part is a truly transformative commitment could easily be provisioned within a miniscule portion of existing IT budgets…

    @Jared – thank you for amplifying a point I did not make strongly enough. When I mentioned “an interplay between individual and collective modes of expression”, and “doing their own thing” I was groping toward the point you make much more elegantly: “value found in a multiplicity of expressions and collaborations. Let’s talk varying stylistics, information architectures, and even typography and design–any of which may be legitimate reason to have a separate creative/collaborative space at any of these levels.” Love it!

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