Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters


  • Juha Suoranta
  • Tere Vadén
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_123



Wikilearning refers to learning activities people have together on the Internet, where people do not only share their ideas, information, and opinions but also cooperate, create, and evaluate things with each other. Researchers, educators, teachers, and other cultural workers are building wikis and forming alliances globally with their peers and like-minded people. They are parts of informal networks and “invisible colleges” and have joined forces in creating new forms of interaction and knowledge production outside closed educational systems. To paraphrase philosopher J. L. Austin (1911–1960), wikilearning is not only about how to do things with words but also how to do things with edits, saves, uploads, downloads, histories, revisions, and discussions.

Wikilearning is self-organized and self-determined by nature and has a common goal – editing a wiki page. By utilizing the power of wiki technologies, participants can engage in shared projects in various wikis. It is part of the “collaborative turn” and the associated participatory cultures, which are characterized by voluntary participation, altruistic sharing of ideas and resources, and anonymous collectivism. It exceeds the orthodox boundaries of formal schooling and other exclusive practices of education. Wikilearners do not need credentials, degrees, or diplomas to be involved and committed to learning together.

Wikilearning is an openly normative concept. It contains an ideological and political message: it highlights peoples’ knowledge (sometimes referred to a contested concept of the wisdom of the crowds) and promotes a world in which knowledge production has been made equal among the people of the nations, and democracy prevails. Obviously, these ideals have their problems, including digital divide, gender bias of the learners, and censorship of the Internet in some parts of the world, which restricts the open educational process.

Wikilearning and Wikiworld

Ideally, wikilearners are autonomous and voluntary learners who self-organize participation in shared learning tasks on the Internet. Depending on the task, their number can be small or large, and their ages differ. Wikilearners act together locally (i.e., classroom students working on a wiki project) or globally (i.e., in a shared wiki page or a wiki project). Wikilearning presumes that all materials (i.e., texts, audios, and videos) are freely available on the Internet on the basis of open access (content is created under copyleft licenses, if licenses are needed at all). Everybody has in principle equal opportunity for contributing, commenting, and working on such materials. Of course, this is an idealized picture of the situation rather than an account of current state: not everyone has access to the Internet, let alone the skills necessary to participate, although doing wikis does not demand more than basic literacy and brief introduction to the basic functions of a wiki page.

Wikilearning is the learning model of the Wikiworld. The notion of Wikiworld refers to both the technical and the social spheres of the Internet. The prefix “wiki” – a Hawaiian language word for “quick” – comes from the characteristic software tool, that of wiki software, that has made collaboration on a webpage relatively fast and easy. The first wiki software and correspondingly the first wiki website were developed by Ward Cunningham in 1995. The idea was to provide users a fast way to edit a website without the need for extensive computer literacy. At the same time, Cunningham was aware of the social effects of the fact that anyone – without registration or preapproved credentials – could provide content. As the “Welcome Visitors” page of the world’s first wiki, WikiWikiWeb puts it:

Welcome to WikiWikiWeb (…) We always accept newcomers with valuable contributions. If you haven’t used a wiki before, be prepared for a bit of CultureShock. The beauty of Wiki is in the freedom, simplicity, and power it offers. (…) Wiki content is WorkInProgress. Most of all, this is a forum where people share ideas! It changes as people come and go. Much of the information here is subjective. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WikiWikiWeb)

In outline, wiki software makes it possible to edit a webpage “live,” without leaving the page or using specific editing software. One just pushes the “edit” button, and the page appears in an editable version. After the edit, one can save and publish the page, and the new content is immediately visible. New pages can be created simply by adding a link to a new page. In addition, wiki software typically supports the possibility of two or more people working on the same page at the same time and provides a complete history of the changes made to the page.

The preserved history gives the freedom to tinker; it is impossible to accidentally destroy a wiki page, as it can always be easily restored. Moreover, there is often a separate discussion page connected to a wiki page (like in Wikipedia) promoting the “public use of reason.” These software features provide a low-threshold tool for collaboration without preexisting hierarchies, with space for deliberation, and with accumulated cultural memory. In general, the Wikiworld includes relatively low barriers to civic engagement and activism, artistic and other sorts of expression, easy access for creating and sharing one’s outputs with others, peer-to-peer relations and informal mentorship, as well as new forms of socialization, social connections, collectivism, and solidarity (see Jenkins et al. 2006). A case in point in the collaborative turn is Wikipedia and its sister projects such as Wikiversity.

However, the Wikiworld cannot be sufficiently scrutinized outside the larger sociopolitical context and without using the lens of radical political economy. From this angle, the Wikiworld is also an ideological battlefield: the very ways in which the digital sphere and its physical counterparts are conceived are contested and defined by everyday actions (Suoranta and Vadén 2010, p. 2).

A growing number of researchers, educators, and other workers in the fields of science, education, and culture are forming alliances with their peers in global blogospheres and wikispheres and thus becoming parts of global informal networks and “invisible colleges.” As wikilearners, they are involved in an open digital knowledge production, often outside their home institutions (Suoranta and Vadén 2010, p. 2). In allowing and enhancing local and global collaboration, wikilearning can be thought of as a form of “commons-based peer production” (Benkler 2006) – a new modality of organizing production and learning. Commons-based peer pedagogy implies a form of learning that is

radically decentralized, collaborative, and nonproprietary; based on sharing resources and outputs among widely distributed, loosely connected individuals who cooperate with each other without relying on either market signals or managerial commands. (Benkler 2006, p. 60)

The use of noncommercial wikis, such as Wikipedia and its sister projects, is often a conscious action against corporatization and commodification of knowledge in profit-oriented universities and privatized schooling systems. Noncommercial wikis, as additions to educators’ conceptual and practical toolbox, facilitate the aim of border crossings, dialogues, and outreach. A crucial feature of wikis, in the light of these objectives, is their emphasis on collective, collaborative, and open approach to learning along with the belief in, and respect of, “the commons of culture, the immediately socialized forms of ‘cognitive’ capital, primarily language, our means of communication and education” (Žižek 2009, p. 91).

Wikilearning and Formal Learning

Wikilearning differs from formal, traditional view of learning in several ways. In this section, we follow comparison made by Suoranta and Vadén (2012, pp. 105–109). Wikilearning is radically open and free in the sense that it is not regulated by educational laws or policies. It is an independent activity, which is not a part of the nation state and its educational system. Wikilearning does not exist in a written curriculum, although it can be incorporated into school settings as part of formal classroom learning. Whereas wikilearning is radically open and characterized by disorganization, formal school learning is politically and economically regulated by top-down, ready-made curricula.

Formal school learning is not only compulsory but also governed and regulated by many actors. The State has its say in general educational policies as well as funding and administration of educational systems. Teachers and their interest groups act as “disciplinary experts” who do not only decide what and how students ought to learn but also shape standards for curricula and assessment (Greenhow et al. 2009, p. 248). Wikilearning occurs in free spaces of civil society and voluntary participation, and voluntarism extends to all levels of the learning process: the decision to participate or not, to learn or not, and to be involved or not and the intensity and mode of participation.

However, one should keep in mind that “free” must be seen in relation to the more critical questions such as: who is paying for the hi-tech and the servers, or who is controlling and harvesting the data? In this respect, wikilearning does not exist in a totally “free space” but is determined by the political economics of the global technological industry and media markets. Although the flagship of all the wikis, the Wikipedia, lives with donations and does not allow advertising, the Wikiworld would be free if, and only if, there were not only open wikis and access to the Internet available as commons, but uncommodified natural resources controlled by the community of users (see Suoranta and Vadén 2010, pp. 158–162).

Wikilearning occurs in a peer-to-peer mode, that is, by learning from each other and helping each other to learn. Importantly, the peer-to-peer structure also allows giving without taking and taking without giving, i.e., it is not reciprocal. Thus, due to the wiki technology itself, peer pressure is kept to a minimum. In schools, learning “technology” is utilized according to the habits and traditions of didactics and pedagogy (teacher-centered and student-centered pedagogy and so forth) and also embodied in school buildings and classroom designs. On the contrary, wikilearning is based on voluntary self-aggregation of participants and their immaterial and material productive assets. Immaterial assets include brainpower and cooperation (or “participatory processing”) with other users, and material assets include access to computers and digital networks (Bauwens 2009, p. 123).

An important feature of wikilearning is reflective uncertainty. Wiki information should not be taken for granted, because wikis are editable and the current edit may be erroneous if not outright malicious. However, the history of edits can, at least in principle, be traced back to the beginning. This, of course, is a dramatic difference between wiki information and printed information as well as Web 1 information. In comparison to textbooks’ qualities that often augment unreflective certainty, the “edit” and “history” buttons in every wiki page potentially increase learners’ skills in media literacy. Gradually, by using wiki pages, users learn to mentally expect and anticipate the structures of editability and genealogy also on other pages, including those of books. Thus, the reflective uncertainty of wikified information leaks to other areas of knowledge, in which learning is commonly defined by unreflective certainty. Reflective uncertainty also implies that the materials are not organized through preexisting taxonomies, but with dynamic “folksonomies” of tagging, linking, and categorizing.

In contrast to orthodox school learning, or what Freire (1993) called banking education, which emphasizes hearing, listening, and rote memorizing, in wikilearning it is crucial to negotiate on information and knowledge (e.g., in wikis’ discussion areas and so-called coffee rooms). As opposed to textbook approach, wikilearning includes searching information and comparing different sources of information.

In wikilearning, communication is not based on the model of sender and receiver (Shannon’s transmission model of information), but on suggestion and evaluation. From an ethnographic perspective, traditional classroom activities are speaking, listening, making notes, and filling workbooks. The wikilearners are widely distributed, and their activities are typically computer mediated. At the level of cognition and experience, however, the difference grows bigger. Speaking, listening, and making notes correspond to the cognitive activities of conveying information and memorizing. When a wikilearner (or correspondingly an open source developer) receives a piece of new information (a code or a patch), the point is not to memorize or even to use it, but to evaluate it and synthetize it with possibly several versions of the existing database.

Ideally, all activities in wikilearning have this quality of evaluation and integration, rather than mere delivering and memorizing. Wikilearning thus entails that learning has not so much to do about rote learning, but everything to do about making connections bit by bit, even and often with strangers in the shared wiki project. As Greenhow et al. (2009, p. 251) point out, this quality of learning can be seen especially in young people’s learning:

Contradicting traditional pedagogical models in which students submit their works to one authoritative source (the instructor) and receive feedback from that source, today’s learners expect to participate in evaluating as well as in being evaluated and to share work and feedback among their peers. (Greenhow et al. 2009, p. 251.)

It is also noteworthy that in the hacker world, there is a militant ethos of evaluating the patch, the hack, and not the submitter, the author of the patch. The same applies to the Wikiworld: the question of who did it can be less important than the principles of anonymity and impersonality inherent in working with wikis (Suoranta 2010, p. 511).

Wikilearning is based on doing and creating together, with the underlying idea that no one can achieve alone what can be achieved together. Individual learning achievements are not measured, and criteria external to learning activities are not used. Participants judge the value of a learning activity based on own motivation for participation (utility, fun, communality, etc.). The evaluation of learning extends also to formal educational systems and their learning techniques: even though traditional transmission models of knowledge die hard, they are nevertheless reinterpreted and remixed in the Wikiworld by the young and old wikilearners.

A wiki page aggregates the common pool of information by page editors. It is not the property or achievement of any one participant in the group and could not be written by any one editor. The software is built for aggregation, rather than publication or dissemination of preexisting knowledge. The process of aggregation does not have a predefined endpoint, as the aggregate is always freely available and subject to further uses, editions, modifications, and additions. Compared to the gated or closed forms of expert information often relied on by formal education, this promotes radical plurality of information.

Consequently, the artificial boundaries between academic subjects (such as math, literature, etc.) need not be replicated. In one way or another, motivation of each participant is internal and based on the desires and problems in everyday life. Again, this lies in clear contrast to formal education which is often compulsory and where individual learning tasks are often externally motivated (by the need to get good grades, to be a good pupil, etc.).

Wikilearning responds to local and contextual needs. As one of the earliest groups that have embraced wikilearning to the full, open source software developers call this phenomenon “scratching your own itch”: developers typically develop software that they themselves need or want to learn about (see Raymond 1999). Similarly, unlike in formal schooling (where preexisting goals have to be achieved and learning performances are evaluated with regard to preset benchmarking), engagement in wikilearning is based on real-world needs.

Wikilearning makes and takes all participants radically equal – the starting point is everyone’s freedom to participate, create, and use the materials. Wikilearning is not regulated by academic degrees and does not intend to produce neither hierarchies nor competition between participants. In fact, typical hierarchy in disorganization is task based, contextual, informal, and susceptible to rapid changes.

Perhaps the most important examples of wikilearning are various projects maintained by the Wikimedia Foundation, including Wikipedia and Wikiversity. They operationalize the key ideas of wikilearning, namely, participation, collaboration, commitment, and solidarity. For instance, Wikiversity consists of three core principles. First, no one controls the content of learning and no faculty decides about courses or granting diplomas. Second, Wikiversity is based on self-organization of users and editors, Wikiversitarians, who – regardless of their age, social status, gender, ethnicity, or religion – have the ability to contribute to the learning process. Third, Wikiversity is about mutual learning cultures, equal participation, and collaborative editing.

In lieu with these principles, the Wikiversitarians use models of learning-by-doing model and ideas of participatory action research. Thus, Wikiversity “is devoted to learning resources, learning projects and research for use in all levels, types, and styles of education” (Wikiversity: “Wikiversity”). It is a new global and collaborative infrastructure for knowledge production and also a potentially revolutionary learning environment in that it gives the users a chance for direct collaboration and sharing of their ideas and insights (Suoranta 2010, pp. 508–509).

From teacher’s and students’ point of view, the power of Wikiversity is precisely in its collaborative and public mode of communication. Wikiversity encourages participation in the public learning sphere and provides an uncensored and direct public arena for pedagogical and sociological communication to everyone – whether inside the university or elsewhere. It can be argued that Wikiversity abolishes the banking model of education as “an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor” (Freire 1993).


Wikilearning may be a necessary (but by no means sufficient) concept for developing new insights on the future of education and democracy. It opens up opportunities for developing peoples’ knowledge, for collective defiance, for popular insurgency through common knowledge building, and, for that matter, learning different positions and argumentation. At best, wikilearning creates passionate and responsible collaboration among teachers, students, colleagues, and other fellow human beings. At the same time it brings up critical questions such as: how is wikilearning being practiced in the real world where such qualities as collaboration and commitment, so crucial to wikilearning, are not widely acknowledged and immediately apparent?

Therefore, it is important to keep in mind the obvious issues of wikilearning. One concern has to do with technology and the digital divide. What used to be a question of having or not having a computer and Internet access has, during the 1990s, turned into relative inequality of having devices or wireless and broadband Internet access. Another issue has to do with gender gap among the users of Wikimedia. Some estimates suggest that less than 20% of all the active contributors of Wikipedia are women (Glott et al. 2010). The third problem seems to be the number of Wikipedians, which is slowly decreasing while the hierarchy of Wikipedia is actually increasing; thus, it is rather difficult for a newcomer to become an active contributor (see Simonite 2013). Contributing is even harder if altogether impossible if, and when, the Internet is being censored. In spite of these issues, the modes of learning in the Wikiworld might present a manifestation of radical openness, democracy, and free education. And as such, they can show in practice what people are able to do and possible to achieve in cooperation with others locally and globally.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of TampereTampereFinland