More on Wiki

I've professed my love for wikis as a tool for organizing knowledge before! I've used so many flavors over the years, including PmWiki, a wiki platform based in Python (had terrible problems with access control, my inexperience…), and MediaWiki (which is the software that runs Wikipedia, but requires some pretty tricky MySQL installations). Around the lab, research, and in teaching, I use the OS X flavor of wiki, because it requires the least amount of knowledge of mark-up language and so some of my colleagues have actually contributed (much moreso than in instances when we were using MediaWiki, for sure).

Last year as I prepared to teach my molecular ecology course for grads, I was contacted by the WikiEdu foundation and asked if there were assignments using Wikipedia that could be incorporated into my class. I actually knew exactly what we could do: prior to this month, somehow despite all that was already on Wikipedia, there were no entries for two key, basic models used heavily in population genetics: the Infinite Sites Model and the Stepwise Mutation Model. Students in my class wrote these entries as one of their major assignments for the course, and I'm very pleased with the resulting contribution.

These entries will almost certainly be edited and updated, I hope you take a look and consider making your own contributions and additions. The goal isn't permanence, but an entry into understanding both these models (I'm pushing very hard on making sure the class understands and ponders assumptions, as molecular ecology is an inference-heavy field) as well as epistemology - how we know what we know. It changes ones opinion of the science literature, of books, of Wikipedia entries, of newspaper articles, whatever, if you have actually contributed to this knowledge.

The WikiEdu folks were extremely helpful; I deviated pretty heavily from their plan for the lessons, but not because their lesson plan wasn't a good one. And, in fact, there is a lot that could have been done better with this exercise. I'm sure the students thought it might be a bit of overkill on the time involved for what in a typical class might have been a 2-3 page paper that gets red-penned and returned, a grade recorded. I get that; I'm no perfect instructor.

But I really appreciate the thought and consideration that went into these entries. Having your work made public is kind of scary; it continues to be for me even though I've been doing this for 15-20 years. A paper coming out is an opportunity to share what you know, and often results in being told something you didn't know (and perhaps should have known). Nevertheless, if we don't share what we learn, share what we know, it is very difficult to build and grow scientifically.