MET:Wikis: A Theoretical Perspective

From UBC Wiki

This page originally authored by Lindsay Noel (2013).

File:The Wiki.png
Wikis support essential learning theories by fostering collaboration (Graves, 2012).

A wiki refers to an online system that permits users to modify and incorporate content (Bokhari & Ahmad, 2011). Educators primarily use them for collaborative work in e-learning contexts (Wheeler et al., 2008). This is because they eliminate geographical constraints to group endeavours by facilitating communication and coordination in an online environment (Minocha & Thomas, 2007). They are available online to all users, at no cost, and enable multiple individuals to produce a final product cooperatively (Koohang & Harman, 2005). Research suggests wikis are advantageous to e-learning contexts and student achievement (Bokhari & Ahmad, 2011; Matthew et al., 2009; Wheeler et al., 2008). As a result, teachers worldwide are using them for lessons and activities. Since instructors increasingly incorporate them in educational environments, it is essential to analyze whether they reflect the tenets of essential learning theories, particularly distributed cognition, situated education and constructivist learning.

This article will begin by discussing the various types of wikis that are applicable to educational settings and reviewing literature regarding wiki use in education. The pedagogical advantages and limitations of using wikis will also be presented, especially in terms of how they support distributed cognition, situated education and constructivist learning. Since wikis have numerous benefits in terms of supporting essential learning theories, this article proposes ways in which wikis can be employed to facilitate knowledge development.

File:Wiki Collaboration.jpg
Wikis facilitate collaboration by improving communication and content organization (Ruddle, 2012).

Types of wikis

This is the icon for Wikipedia, which is an online encyclopaedia (The Daily Galaxy, 2007).

There are numerous varieties of wikis that are applicable to educational settings. Wikipedia is the most established wiki platform, with greater than four million articles available in English (Bokhari & Ahmad, 2011; Modigliani, 2011). Other common wikis include WikiIndex that describes and lists existing wikis, Wikiversity that provides learning resources and The Teachers' Lounge that has lesson plans (McFedries, 2006). Curriki, PBWorks, Wikimedia, WikiPapers, Wikispaces and Wikibooks are also popular wikis employed for educational purposes. Users are able to modify and add content in the case of each of these wikis.

Literature review

File:Wiki Wheel.png
Wikis support learning by encouraging active student participation and cooperation (Daytona State College, 2013).

Researchers have conducted significant investigations on the application of wikis to educational contexts. Numerous studies show a positive correlation between wikis and student learning (Begoña & Carmen, 2011; Matthew et al., 2009; Minocha & Thomas, 2007). Although some research demonstrates adverse impacts of using wikis in educational contexts (Naismith et al., 2011), the majority of studies indicate that they are advantageous (Matthew et al., 2009; Woo et al., 2011). Educators are increasingly using wikis to facilitate learning because of their affordances and due to research support (Wheeler et al., 2008).

Although numerous researchers have performed studies on wikis (Begoña & Carmen, 2011; Pifarré & Staarman, 2011), investigations on how these tools support collaboration in terms of essential learning theories is lacking. This is particularly the case for the combination of distributed cognition, situated education and constructivist learning. There is also insufficient research on how educators can employ wikis to support fundamental learning theories. Therefore, this article will relate wikis to essential learning theories and discuss beneficial instruction strategies.

Analysis of wikis and learning theories

Since the literature review demonstrated that learning theories need additional research regarding their relation to wikis, this section will discuss how wikis reflect the tenets of fundamental educational philosophies. It will discuss the learning benefits of wikis, followed by their potential limitations.

Advantages of wikis

Wikis offer numerous advantages to education. This section will discuss the benefits of wikis in terms of student learning. The focus will be on distributed cognition, situated education and constructivist learning.

File:Distributed Cognition.jpg
In the cognitive system (a), students work individually to generate knowledge. With distributed cognition, as illustrated by the cognitive system (b), students work collaboratively to develop new understanding (Nilsson, van Laere, Susi & Ziemke, 2012).

Distributed cognition

The principles of distributed cognition are present in wikis primarily because they establish environments in which knowledge is freely available for redistribution among individuals (Koohang & Harman, 2005). They do not constrain information with spatial or temporal boundaries. Rather, their information can be accessed online from different locations at any time (Matthew et al., 2009; Naismith et al., 2011). Students retrieve this knowledge, and then input their own understanding by uploading and editing content (Naismith et al., 2011; Woo et al., 2011). Individual contributions form a joint product that enhances users’ collective expertise (Matthew et al., 2009). This process of cognitive cooperation facilitates the development of shared understanding and the construction of new knowledge. Research shows that this collaboration increases student comprehension and their ability to process information (Begoña & Carmen, 2011).

Situated education

File:Situated Learning.gif
Situated education requires a variety of learning characteristics, including participation and reflection (Atherton, 2011).

Wikis also reflect the theory of situated learning because they establish authentic communities of practice. These virtual workplaces can be applied to numerous learning situations because they do not limit learning to a time or place (Hung & Der-Thanq, 2001; Matthew et al., 2009). This flexibility enables wikis to support authentic learning environments (Brown et al., 1989; Matthew et al., 2009). Activities conducted using wikis also facilitate contextual learning. Skills students develop by collaborating with peers are directly applicable to professional workplaces (Bokhari & Ahmad, 2011). This includes the ability to work in groups, collaborate with others and use computer programs (Begoña & Carmen, 2011; Bokhari & Ahmad, 2011). New users go through the process of enculturation when using wikis, which also reflects the tenets of situated learning. They begin with passive behaviours, such as observing activity, posting comments and asking questions. Their participation gradually increases, and they become actively involved in the community. Users achieve enculturation when they contribute to discussions, edit content, share resources and develop projects autonomously (Ben-Ari, 2004; Tinto, 2003).

Constructivist education involves student-centred learning (Can, 2007).

Constructivist learning

As well as offering learning benefits because of teamwork and authenticity, wikis are advantageous because they provide a learner-centred environment that promotes active student engagement (Koohang & Harman, 2005). Learners use prior knowledge and online information to construct their own understanding (Almala, 2006; Koohang & Harman, 2005). Students also collaborate with peers, and this fosters cooperative knowledge construction (Begoña & Carmen, 2011). In the case of wikis, teachers have a primarily supportive role. They scaffold student learning and facilitate collaboration (Koohang & Harman, 2005). They also encourage students to reflect on their learning, which further develops student understanding and increases information retention (Almala, 2006; Jonassen, 1999).

Wiki limitations

This section will examine issues with wikis in terms of whether they support distributed cognition, situated education and constructivist learning. It will study each of these theories in sequence and discuss ways in which educators can mitigate potential problems.

Distributed cognition

Synchronous communication is more direct than asynchronous methods (Webopedia, 2013).

Bokhari and Ahmad (2011) reported that online communication is problematic due to the absence of a shared face-to-face location. This results in asynchronous conversation, which can inhibit spontaneous idea sharing (Bokhari & Ahmad, 2011). If students who utilize wikis desire synchronous conversation, they have to schedule a time to communicate (Minocha & Thomas, 2007). This is typically challenging because students who use wikis prefer temporal flexibility. However, Bokhari and Ahmad (2011) note that, with the use of appropriate communication tools like live forums, these effects can be minimized. Minocha and Thomas (2007) also argue that many learners prefer asynchronous discussion because they have more time to reflect on content and control when they participate.

Another problem for distributed cognition is unequal participation among users of wikis (Wheeler et al., 2008). Individuals may choose to participate passively, by observing dialogue, rather than actively contributing content. In this case, they refrain from sharing their knowledge with the group, which inhibits the distribution of information. In this case, although other members will not benefit from their expertise, research shows that passive participants are able to learn from others exclusively through observation, thus contributing to distributed cognition (Wheeler et al., 2008).

File:Cognitive Apprenticeship.jpg
Wikis support the characteristics of cognitive apprenticeship (Brannagan, 2012).

Situated education

The primary issue for wikis regarding contextualized education is the time-consuming process of cognitive apprenticeship (Ben-Ari, 2004). Ideally, for situated learning, a student chooses their desired profession as a child (Ben-Ari, 2004). Through collaboration with a master of a trade, in this case a teacher of wikis, students gradually increase their knowledge (Brown et al., 1989). Typically, this does not occur in the case of e-learning. However, this scenario is rare and primarily theoretical in any context. Also, although wikis do not allow for entirely situated environments, they do support the essential characteristics of contextualized learning by enabling students to participate in an authentic community of practice (Brown et al., 1989).

File:Active Participation.jpg
Learning is most effective when students actively participate (University of Sydney, 2013).

Constructivist learning

In addition to distributed cognition and situated learning, wikis inhibit certain characteristics of a constructivist environment. In order for students to produce their own knowledge, they need to be directly engaged in learning activities (Koohang & Harman, 2005). In the case of wikis, some students may refrain from actively participating. They may rely on their peers for information and others’ contributions to group projects (Begoña & Carmen, 2011). This prevents them from constructing their own knowledge. Although this would present a problem, there is a tracking tool embedded in most wikis that enables educators to monitor participation (Begoña & Carmen, 2011). This discourages passive participation and promotes equal contributions to group work.

Pedagogical implications

Wikis have numerous benefits for student learning, particularly because they reflect the principles of distributed cognition, situated education and constructivist learning. Given their advantages, this article suggests that teachers employ wikis. This section provides instructional strategies for using wikis successfully by supporting essential learning theories. It also discusses these tools in terms of distance education programs.

File:Wiki Teacher.jpg
When using wikis in education, it is the teacher's role to assess student contributions and provide prompt feedback (Center for Scholarly Technology, 2006).

Incorporating wikis

Wikis can be incorporated in face-to-face classrooms, blended environments or distance education programs. To use these tools effectively in any context, teachers should establish the online platform by creating the interface, organizing the content, listing participation criteria and specifying discussion questions (Almala, 2006). They should provide various types of activities that are authentic, contextualized and stimulating (Hung & Der-Thanq, 2001). Educators should also suggest related resources and encourage learners to seek additional information. They should support students throughout the activities by answering questions, giving prompt feedback and scaffolding learning (Almala, 2006). Finally, teachers should encourage students to participate and collaborate, which will help promote the co-construction of knowledge (Wheeler et al., 2008). These teaching strategies will help educators support distributed cognition, situated learning and constructivist education when using wikis.

File:Wiki Distance.png
Wikis are online tools that can be accessed from different locations; therefore, they support distance education (Bauer, 2010).

Wikis and distance education

Learning tools and teaching strategies that reflect the principals of fundamental learning theories are especially necessary for distance education programs. As discussed above, online learning can be inhibited by asynchronous interaction and lack of student engagement (Begoña & Carmen, 2011; Bokhari & Ahmad, 2011). However, by using the teaching methods described, wikis provide an ideal learning environment that supports distributed cognition, situated learning and constructivist education, despite spatial challenges.

See also


Almala, A.H. (2006). Applying the principals of constructivism to a quality e-learning environment. Distance Learning, 3(1), 33-40.

Atherton, J.S. (2011). Learning and Teaching; Situated Learning. Retrieved from

Bauer, A. (2010). Wiki. Retrieved from

Begoña, M-F. & Carmen, P-S. (2011). Knowledge construction and knowledge sharing: A wiki-based approach. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences, 28, 622-627.

Ben-Ari, M. (2004). Situated learning in computer science education. Computer Science Education, 14(2), 85-100.

Bokhari, M.U. & Ahmad, I. (2011). Open source tools: Empowered the e-learning pedagogy in distance education. International Journal of Computer Technology and Applications, 2(6), 3029-3034.

Brannagan, K.B. (2012). Enhancing online finance education for non-financial managers. Retrieved from

Brown, J. S., Collins, A. & Duguid, S. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18, 32-42.

Can, T. (2007). Constructivist Education. Retrieved from

Center for Scholarly Technology. (2006). Using wikis for your subjects. Retrieved from

Daytona State College. (2013). ENC1101-56 Wiki Homepage. Retrieved from

Graves, A. (2012). What is a wiki. Retrieved from

Hung, D.W.L. & Der-Thanq, C. (2001). Situated cognition, Vygotskian thought and learning from the communities of practice perspective: Implications for the design of web-based e-learning. Education Media International, 38(1), 3-12.

Jonassen, D. (1999). Designing constructivist learning environments. In C. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional design theories and models: Volume II. Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Koohang, A. & Harman, K. (2005). Open source: A metaphor for e-learning. Informing Science Journal, 8, 75-86.

Matthew, K.I., Felvegi, E. & Callaway, R.A. (2009). Wiki as a collaborative learning tool in a Language Arts methods class. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 42(1), 51-71.

McFedries, P. (2006). It’s a wiki, wiki world. IEEE Spectrum, 43(12), 88.

Minocha, S. & Thomas, P.G. (2007). Collaborative learning in a wiki environment: Experiences from a software engineering course. New Review of Hypermedia and Multimedia, 13(2), 187-209.

Modigliani, L. (2011). Get wiki wise. Scholastic News, 79(13), 6.

Naismith, L., Leet, B.H. & Pilkington, R.M. (2011). Collaborative learning with a wiki: Differences in perceived usefulness in two contexts of use. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 27, 228–242.

Nilsson, M., van Laere, J., Susi, T. & Ziemke, T. (2012). Information fusion in practice: A distributed cognition perspective on the active role of users. Information Fusion, 13, 60-78.

Pifarré, M. & Staarman, J.K. (2011). Wiki-supported collaborative learning in primary education: How a dialogic space is created for thinking together. Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 6, 187-205.

Ruddle, C. (2012). Wonderful wiki strategies: The airservices approach. Retrieved from

The Daily Galaxy. (2007). Wiki puts the "you" in search. Retrieved from

Tinto, V. (2003). Learning better together: The impact of learning communities on student success. Higher Education Monograph Series, 1, 1-8.

University of Sydney. (2013). Learning Pyramid. Retrieved from

Webopedia. (2013). Asynchronous. Retrieved from

Wheeler, S., Yeomans, P. & Wheeler, D. (2008). The good, the bad and the wiki: Evaluating student-generated content for collaborative learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(6), 987-995.

Woo, M., Chu, S., Ho, A. & Li, X. (2011). Using a wiki to scaffold primary-school students’ collaborative writing. Educational Technology & Society, 14(1), 43–54.

External links