Wisdom in wiki production/Good wiki material
How do we produce good wiki materials? What sorts of wiki materials are inspiring? How should we approach the issue of wiki and wiki content quality?
The requirements for wiki materials depend on their purposes of use: wiki-form user instructions, for example, must be clear and easy to navigate, first of all. A collectively produced wiki should entice the reader to participate in contents production and the editing of texts of others through stimulating questions.
When we study the quality of wiki materials, the explanatory power of traditional quality models is limited due to the large amount of wiki producers and users. Wiki writers are often committed to their work and maintain quality through their internal discipline, wishing to ensure high-quality wiki contents together. In wikis, information producers are information reviewers at the same time. Therefore, the key concept in wiki quality control is, in addition to the conscious attempt at writing good contents, also the active and thorough work done in peer assessment. The activities aiming to high wiki quality need support from various arrangements and resources.
How do we assess wiki quality?
How should we approach the issue of wiki and wiki content quality? We can use the concept of quality as we know it from service quality: we can assess functional quality and technical quality. Let's use a geography wiki in a school as our example. Functional quality would deal with issues concerning the quality of the contents of the wiki materials: are they to the point and comprehensive? For example, is the information about Australia correct (facts true and verifiable), are the contents suitable for the needs of the intended users (level of information and language), are the contents properly outlined and structured (presented logically and coherently). Technical quality would deal with the question of the functioning of the wiki — does it work in the technical sense (is it easy to navigate and accessible for different user groups) and is it technically reliable (are e.g. back-up copies taken regularly)?
The explanatory power of traditional quality models is limited in the case of wikis, because it is in the character of wikis that information is produced and used by a large number of individuals, and these individuals may not know one another. During the first decade of our millennium, a number of books were published on collective intelligence. The central theme was the power of cooperative action as compared to individual action. The theme in many of these books was the analysis of the self-directed high-quality work of many individuals. Many collective efforts in our digital era — e.g. the continuous development of the Linux operating system — have proved that individuals are capable of sharing the outputs of their work and working together in a first-class manner without any hierarchical control and roles agreed on in advance.
The pleasure of many different individuals working with wikis can be compared to the joy of collective work and sharing; a good example from other areas in life would be e.g. dancing in the streets and the collective action in concerts and sports events. Many different individuals are capable of working together without control, but collective activities present challenges in relation to quality.
Quality challenges of wikis
Wikis — and all other digital peer productions — continuously face the need to create and develop self-guiding quality processes. Practical experience has shown that wiki writers are committed to good internal discipline and share the understanding that wikis are collectively produced entities, the quality of the contents of which is ensured together. We have several examples in the recent history of Wikipedia in which extensive user communities find autonomously, in a self-guided manner, viable ways of solving conflicts. Lih has given us a lively story of the argument that raged over the issue of Gdansk-Danzig: Wikipedia users came up with a collective norm regarding the name of this town that belongs to Poland today, located on the shore of the Baltic Sea — Gdansk in Polish and Danzig in German, determining which language version to use in which context.
Another important challenge is related to the rapid increase in the number of content producers. Yochai Benkler claims that one of the greatest changes in modern communications came about when regular users appeared in the core of content production. This means a significant change for information production as regular users are assuming a role that was previously thought to belong to communications specialists only. For example, the articles in Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, are peer-produced and based on existing information, and therefore, information producers do not need to hold special diplomas before they can participate in the production of the articles. This means that people of all ages and backgrounds can participate in the writing and maintenance of Wikipedia articles, as in principle, all users are welcome to add information, references and quotations as long as they use Wikipedia's edit guidelines and an appropriate style. We must remember, however, that reproducing information in a different form does not lead to the creation of new information, which is a challenging qualitative issue. Andrew Keen argues that the domination of amateurs will lead to the loss of important information among trivia.
Quality criteria for wiki contents
We can use the quality criteria for Wikipedia articles for quality criteria of wiki contents in general. In short, they are the following:
- The article is well written.
- The article covers the issue sufficiently, i.e. it discusses the most important facts and details.
- The research for the article is thorough and makes use of reliable sources; references and links are clearly visible.
- The article is neutral; its point of view is unbiased.
- The article is stable, in other words, there is a consensus concerning its contents.
Wikipedia aims to be an encyclopedia open to all. For various wikis, these quality criteria may differ, the last two items may do so in particular. The contents of all wikis do not need to be neutral and stable, but the defined criteria can well be applied to wiki contents so as to make sure writing is good, facts are verified and sources are reliable.
Factors impacting wiki content quality
Wiki content quality is produced through the interaction of peer production and peer assessment. The individuals producing a wiki — peers — assume different roles at the various stages of the production. They can participate in wiki development as content creators, but their roles as assessors and developers are important also. Because the basic idea of wikis is to offer information voluntarily in a distributed and open manner, various producers can add and correct information on wiki pages and add new headings without the structure of the wiki being affected. In wikis, information producers are information reviewers at the same time. In this way, wikis enable the production and distribution of structured information and are important learning tools.
The quality concept of the QMPP project, a European project focused on the quality management of peer production of e-learning content, is applicable to wiki contents as well.
There are various stages in wiki production that take place at different times. The tasks relating to content creation and production may include writing or otherwise composing contents (writing a new article, making a video), editing contents (e.g. proofreading), enriching contents (adding new information or new media materials), or updating contents (correcting published information).
The key concept in wiki quality control is, in addition to the conscious attempt at creating good contents, also the active and thorough work done in peer assessment. Peer assessment may include benchmarking (comparison to other sources), peer assessment (systematic content evaluation by peers), peer reflection (reflection with peers concerning the contents) and peer learning (learning and developing together through continuous assessment).
Practical support for high-quality wikis
When assessing wiki quality, we must remember that e.g. Wikipedia has strong centralized resources available — the data structure, content structure, reference structure, search engines and editing tools are all offered as centralized. Similarly, various wiki solutions include structures and tools to support distributed content production that make wide participation and collective work possible. The basic idea is that quality does not emerge on its own; instead, work aiming at high quality must be supported by various arrangements and resources.
The production of high-quality wikis requires work methods, processes and tools that support the creation and updating of the wiki contents. High-quality wiki work requires clear practices for e.g. arranging pedagogical support for wiki production (operational guidance and support), rewarding peer production (are peer-produced outputs rewarded like traditional materials?), and providing support for various issues in the digital world (e.g. copyright issues and the supply of digital resources).
Processes supporting wiki work may include e.g. the work of various communities of practice that distribute good practices and experiences, the training and development of various parties, and the supporting of active communication and sharing of experiences among these parties.
Even though it is one of wikis' key principles that all users can participate in the work with a common browser, it is important to provide users with the possibility of using various digital tools if the wiki solution enables the use of more attractive media features than text and basic graphics. In order to establish a high-quality way of working, we must make sure that all users can easily access the tools and that the tools are easy to use and well-structured, and we must also establish how much tools support should be available for users in their daily work.
Wikis cannot be broken easily
An important aspect of wiki quality is that users do not need to worry about perhaps breaking wikis. One of the most important technical features in wikis is the restoration of earlier revisions. This mechanism helps counteract vandalism and it allows users to see the differences between the different revisions of articles. This feature is particularly useful when a peer production system is applied in an environment where information changes constantly and factors are many.
About the topic elsewhere
The book (Quality of peer production) provides sources that discuss the quality of peer productions.
The wiki Wikipatterns wiki contains good and bad practices ("patterns") relating to wikis. These practices relate to people (people patterns/anti-patterns) or adoption (adoption patterns/antipatterns).
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- QMPP project. Vertaistuotannon laadun hallinta. http://www.qmpp.net