Tag Archives: mediawiki

Wiki markup in Moodle and Mediawiki

Some have asked whether wiki markup is dead, but when editing a wiki or teaching others to do so, I usually prefer to use markup tags to format text and create links. Why? Because the WYSIWYG editors tend to be:

  • a bit unreliable and don’t seem well-supported across all browsers.
  • likely to cause problems with boundaries – eg further editing next to a list item can cause new text to be mistakenly inserted into the list. This can cause major confusion for new users. Since often the only solution is to edit the source anyway, knowing how to do so becomes an essential skill.
  • not very intuitive to use – eg some of the buttons in the Mediawiki toolbar below are obvious, others much less so:

wysiwyg editor toolbar

There are some important differences between the markup used by various wiki systems. Because I use a range of wiki software (Mediawiki and PMWiki for my own sites, Moodle wiki and PBWiki for some of my courses) I find I sometimes use the wrong markup for the one I’m using and need to refer to the documentation.

Here’s a handy table comparing the markup for a few common functions of Mediawiki and Moodle wiki:

Function Mediawiki Moodle wiki
Small heading ====heading==== !heading
Medium heading ===heading=== !!heading
Large heading ==heading== !!!heading
Internal link [[pagename | text to display]] [text to display | pagename]
External link [http://www.verso.co.nz text to display] [text to display | http://www.verso.co.nz]
Bold ”’bold text”’ __bold text__
Line break <br> %%

There are other differences between the markup of various functions, of course, but in my view headings and links are the most significant because of their semantic purpose.

Wikis: more than just collaboration

Definitions of wikis, especially in education, often state that wikis are ‘collaborative’. Most wiki software does support collaboration, but not all applications of wikis need to be collaborative. In fact, collaborative features can be detrimental if we want to publish our own writing and not have it changed or deleted… the reflective thinker may not want to be disturbed!

For example, I maintain a Mediawiki site for my own articles and other resources that I don’t want changed. It used to be an open wiki, but dealing with the spam became too time-consuming. So now the wiki is only open to be read by visitors, not for writing. I no longer feel the need to apologise for this – I don’t let others browse the documents on my hard disk, but I do let others browse (but not edit) the writing on my wiki. And there are plenty of other channels for collaboration out there.

Some wiki purists might say that using a wiki solely for your own writing, without allowing for input of others, is against the wiki philosophy. But I’d argue we should be able to use the tools in ways that best meet our needs, and the best tools provide flexibility in how we use them. And most of us have the need to write in different read-write modes: sometimes it’s private, sometimes it’s public, and sometimes it’s collaborative. The best wiki tools should let us easily write and manage documents in a range of read-write modes.

Ideally, Mediawiki would allow me to easily manage the read-write mode of any article and its associated discussion page. Unfortunately, it’s not that straightforward – permissions are set in the Mediaiwiki configuration file and the documentation warns against relying on the plugins available for finer-grained managing of permissions. So it hasn’t been feasible for me to effectively manage the read-write mode of individual pages on my main wiki.

Recently I’ve been trying out PMWiki, which makes much better allowance for controlling access to the wiki site and to individual pages within it. Any page can have a password for reading and a password for writing, and these can be set relatively simply. That means you have fine-grained control over the read-write mode of any specific page.

That’s just what I need – and I believe that’s what learners need too. Not all learning happens collaboratively: successful learners need to be reflective as well as collaborative. Effective Web 2.0 tools provide for personal reflection as well as more social approaches to learning.

Photo by Matan: Copy of Rodin’s ‘Thinker’ at Columbia University

Conceptual learning and the Diffen wiki

I was recently asked to provide usability feedback on Diffen.com, which uses an extended implementation of Mediawiki to provide a customised form of wiki. As the name suggests, Diffen is built around the idea of differences and each of the site’s articles provides a comparison between two key concepts.

Diffen logo

For example, I created a simple page comparing compare and contrast, two terms which often cause problems in ‘old world’ assessment. In the true wiki tradition, my brief article has been edited and substantially modified by others!

Each Diffen article has a comparison table which is a useful feature, although this is not available when you first create a new article. You can search for two different terms and create the page if it doesn’t exist. Users can rate the two terms and also hide or show similarities between them. The site does have Google ads but overall has a simple design. A few features are not always clear for the new user but it’s quick to learn how to use the site.

In the past I’ve found activities based around two apparently polarised opposites very useful as professional development activity. So I can see opportunities for interesting read-write learning activities based around exploring concepts such as Behaviourism vs Constructivism. It’s a pity that each article is limited to comparing just two concepts, but a nice feature is that characteristics are inherited – ie if you create a new article, the comparison table is automatically populated if one or both of the concepts are compared elsewhere.

Overall, Diffen is a great idea and I can see useful applications in my professional development workshops and elsewhere in education where conceptual learning is important.