What's a Wiki?
A wiki is a web site that can be edited by any user. What does wiki mean? It's a derivation of "wiki wiki," which means "fast" in Hawaiian. Using a wiki is extremely fast—and easy; no HTML knowledge is required and no special software is needed. Most wiki pages have an edit function, by which users can post changes, delete information, and add new material. In most cases, wikis are open to the general public, but wikis can be designed to only allow certain users or registrants to work on a particular web page. Wikis are also unique because previous versions are saved and can be viewed at any time to view the evolution of a particular wiki page.
Most likely, you have heard of the most famous wiki of all, wikipedia.org. Some people confuse the two terms, but Wikipedia is really just another wiki, a rather large one at that. For those not in the know, Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia that is being written and edited by the general public. That openness exposes Wikipedia to vandals, those with an agenda, and others who want to spread misinformation. Usually, the "vandalism" experienced on Wikipedia is corrected very quickly, but a public site is always vulnerable. In 2005, a respected journalist was aghast to read misleading facts included on his Wikipedia biography, most notably that he was involved in the Kennedy assassination! The journalist, John Seigenthaler, wrote an op-ed piece for USA Today describing what happened to him. It's a cautionary tale that cast Wikipedia in an unflattering light. Until then Wikipedia had been found to be more accurate than Encyclopedia Brittanica.
Wikipedia is clear about its strengths and weaknesses over more traditional sources of information. Newer material is more likely to be incomplete, the target of vandals, and therefore, contain inappropriate and incorrect information. Older articles contain more reliable and comprehensive material.
Because Wikipedia is an electronic, rapidly-changing resource, information is likely to be more up-to-date, and events are often added soon after they occur. The collaborative nature of the site allows for multiple perspectives and it can often be unbiased. For more guidelines on using Wikipedia with students, I'd suggest looking at their own article, Researching with Wikipedia. The general consensus for using Wikipedia in the classroom is as a secondary or background source of information; always verify information elsewhere.
Wikis work best in education for collaborative and group projects. Students can work on a wiki independently while collaborating on the same document or web page. Teachers can view the history, and see what (and who) added material and what changes and deletions were made. Teachers also like to use wikis as an interactive tool for the classroom, where students have a place to create feedback. Want to see some great ideas for using wikis with students? Check out the article, "Wiki in a K-12 Classroom."
Want to create your own wiki? Check out the following online tools--they're free!
Wikispaces for Teachers:
Video: Wiki in Plain English: http://youtube.com/watch?v=-dnL00TdmLY