What Can Wikis Do for You?

Written by Erin Branham. 

Working with digital tools does not mean thinking only about what faces the public – apps, in-gallery kiosks, iPads used on tours, etc. These things are exciting and wonderful. But back end organization can benefit greatly from making the digital shift as well.

For instance, how does your department or institution organize its teaching information? More than likely your museum has some content management system for your collection, such as EmbARK or TMS, which holds information about your individual objects. It has been my experience (and someone please correct me if your experience is different) that educators are not routinely invited to add content to the object files stored in such systems. The result is that an education department generally maintains its own set of files on objects, with associated material such as lesson plans, in-gallery activities, school and teacher professional development workshop curricula and so on. Often, each member of the education staff, along with curators and other specialists, have loads of material that they’ve developed for various specific programs sitting on their hard drives as well, where it will one day either depart with them, or simply get wiped.

Some institutions may have an efficient system in place for using network shared drives to archive this information – so at least it’s never lost. However, how is it organized? Most likely by audience area: family, school, adult programs. If you’re the family programs specialist, how often do you open up the adult programs files to see if there’s an idea in there you can use for inspiration, or content you can repurpose for your audience? Or, in smaller museums, how often do you check the curator’s files to see if there’s a great idea in the lectures s/he’s given over the last two years? I’m guessing here, but – never? For me, most idea sharing happens when I have an interesting conversation with a colleague, or attend one of their programs, and get a specific ping on something they’re doing that might inform the content of one of my programs.

Well, say hi to the wonderful world of wikis – ongoing conversations stored in the cloud that open new possibilities for how we organize and use our teaching information. These beautiful little tools are often free (PBWorks, wikispaces) for educational use. They allow groups of people to pool all their knowledge into articles with associated content, links, audio, video, footnotes – you name it. The pros: collective intelligence, collaboration, all your data in one place easily accessible by everyone and constantly being shared, updated and improved. The cons: a lot of front end work to build, populate and edit the wiki, plus a shift of work habits where you keep that great new course you just put together on the wiki rather than tucking it away on your hard drive or dropping it into that archive file on your network.

I love wikis. I use them more and more. Wikis allow the high schoolers of the Villa’s Teen Apprentice Program – 12 students who live far-flung across Los Angeles and its suburbs, to collaborate on projects and share ideas and information. Each year’s group gets its own wiki, and the teens tend to build their wikis in unique ways, so each wiki also functions as documentation of the program. I also use a wiki to organize brainstorming and information-sharing about digital projects within our education department. On it, staff pitch ideas, share links to great stuff other museums are doing, and keep meeting logs. I am also on a quest to move everything in my department’s hard copy object files and everyone’s individual hard drives onto a wiki built and edited by all of the education staff, so that what we are building is our own little wikipedia of our collection.

Training new docents? Why make them that giant packet of material? Invite them to the wiki, give them reading assignments, starting on the article pages and advancing to the linked scholarly article files. In fact why not open your wiki to docents as editors so that they can contribute? Many people fear such an open source approach, and voice concern that errors will creep into the shared information, but one of the greatest perqs I’ve discovered is that writing an article for your colleagues that is shared by everyone makes you check your references. Create a set of guidelines for writing that requests footnotes so that anyone reading the article can go deeper and suddenly everyone is being a good deal more rigorous as they prepare their teaching content.

The possibilities are endless – but don’t take my word for it. Check out this primer on the wonderfulness of wikis , visit some of the museum field wikis on our Connect page and let us know what you think – can you imagine useful applications of wikis to your work? Share your experience with wikis – I’m sure there’s a wikipedian lurking on our audience somewhere…

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