Using Wikis for Developing, Sharing and Reusing Educational Content

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Information icon.svg Using Wikis for Developing, Sharing and Reusing Educational Content
Paper on using wikis for reusable content in New Zealand schools
Sandy Britain, Jim Tittsler
See: History

Executive Summary

Purpose of this document

This document builds on the conceptual model of the digital content lifecycle in the context of NZ education (see part 1.3 Relationships to other documents) by providing a concrete technical model that can be implemented incrementally to fulfill the requirements including authoring, sharing, re-use and ensuring interoperability with multiple learning environments.


The scope of this document is limited to a description of an approach to providing the technical tools and workflow support for the creation, sharing and re-use of digital educational content for (and by) teachers in the New Zealand Education System. The approach outlined here will work equally well for content creation and sharing by students and by third parties, but in the first instance it is primarily aimed at teachers.

The approach described here is intended to operate within the context of the MLE inititative and to inter-operate well with other technical solutions that form part of that initiative.

Relationships to other Documents

This document builds on the work outlined in a previous report: Britain (2009) National Digital Workflows: The Content Life-cycle for NZ Education.


The document outlines a technical solution for supporting the content lifecycle in line with the aims and objectives of the MLE initiative.  In particular, it describes an incremental approach centred around robust, scalable wiki technology.  After a brief introduction, teachers can begin using it today.  As time goes on and development resources are available, it can be extended both in ease of use and in facilities for reuse.  The major focus is on building the capability of New Zealand teachers to author and share resources online, and to build a networked community of teachers collaborating on the development and reuse.

We suggest using MediaWiki as a central point for containing resources and links to resources.  The page-based nature of the wiki encourages ease of access, review, and update.  Each page contains enough structure that the content can be reused.  In particular, we encourage teachers to become part of the existing community surrounding  This engages them with international colleagues with expertise in using the technology for this purpose, and puts no additional server infrastructure burden on the school.  This might be extended at some point into a federation of wikis for schools that opt for having an additional local instance.

The proposed solution:

  • is very low "ceremony," allowing interested contributors to readily share educational resources without special knowledge or software
  • is page addressable allowing teachers the opportunity to pick and choose the resources to include in their collections
  • strengthens networks of teachers by encouraging collaboration in the development, review, and revision of shared resources
  • invites them to join an existing enthusiastic community of educators
  • allows offline editing using standard office software
  • provides just enough structure that content can be readily reused in a variety of formats including printed form and conventional LMSs
  • makes a clear default licensing choice that promotes reuse
  • is readily indexed by existing search engines, which can be augmented by local search facilities
  • does not require local IT support beyond the provision of Internet connectivity
  • is available in both English and Te Reo Maori



The content lifecycle modelling work we have done so far has identified three main elements to the workflow involved:

  • Authoring of Content Resources
  • Sharing of Content Resources
  • Re-Using Content Resources

To create a solution that works across a wide variety of school contexts means that it is necessary to pay particular attention to concerns around the interoperability and “open-ness” of the content, ease of manipulation and re-purposing of content, searchability of resource databases, quality and relevance of content, pedagogical support for teachers in the development of effective content and the need to employ tools which are easy to use for teachers without demanding technical expertise beyond that which they are used to in using ordinary web and office technologies.

There is much we can learn from attempts to develop content authoring and packaging tools and digital learning object repositories in recent years. Two of the big issues that must be effectively addressed are decisions around a standard and open content packaging / exchange format which can readily be edited by third parties after initial creation, and a strategy for application of metadata to assist finding relevant resources once they have been submitted to a repository.

In Britain (2009), the report preceding this paper, we discussed a variety of technical options for managing these content lifecycle elements . These options fall into two broad categories:

A Learning Objects model based on IMS / SCORM content packaging standards, digital learning object repositories and IEEE LOM metadata. This has become the most commonly implemented model within education in recent years. It is well suited to the distribution of proprietary content by publishers but it can be less well-suited to teacher-created content, especially where re-purposing of content is a requirement.

An Open Content Model as exemplified by WikiEducator ( which relies on a native standard format (wikitext) in which content is authored, rather than a post-processing packaging schema and rather than using a traditional repository for sharing, it uses the Mediawiki environment which supports full-text searching. It also natively supports collaborative authoring. The success of this model in Wikipedia has spawned a number of applications in the education sphere.

The core of the technical model being proposed in this paper is to adopt key features of the open content model using wikieducator to support the content lifecycle – but in addition to support packaging of this content using IMS / SCORM standards for instances where this is desirable.


Use a pragmatic, incremental approach.

  • The reader is familiar with the ideas of content packaging, metadata, digital repositories and LMS systems at a non-technical level. These are not explained in depth here.
  • The reader is familiar with the MediaWiki environment through use of Wikipedia ( and more importantly Wikieducator ( Also that the reader is familiar with the idea of wikitext authoring.
  • We assume that teachers currently author digital content for their students to be used either in the classroom or online (in some cases using an LMS system).
  • We assume that teachers will welcome the capability to share, re-purpose and re-use digital content created by others within the NZ education context.
  • We assume that digital and online content will become increasingly the medium of choice for teachers in NZ schools – where handouts and worksheets are printed, they are created from digital materials.
  • We assume that an open licensing framework will be adopted for materials created within this scheme. Policy issues around open licensing are beyond the scope of this work.

The key elements of the content lifecycle model are summarised in Figure 1. below:

Digital Learning Workflows

  • Authoring – In order to create digital resources teachers need tools. Whilst most LMS systems offer a variety of authoring tools, it is often difficult to extract content created within an LMS for re-use elsewhere as they do not generally adopt a standard content exchange format.Traditional office tools such as word and powerpoint are popular but are not very well suited for sharing and re-use in a web-based context. also they do not currently offer explicit support for structuring educational resources and activities which the eXe project demonstrated to be highly desirable. Wiki-educator already supports the eXe i-Devices and is a natively web-based authoring environment
  • Collaborating – Collaborative authoring is a desirable special case of authoring, and not all authoring tools easily support collaborative authoring.Wikis naturally support collaborative authoring
  • Packaging – Packaging standards such as ADL SCORM and IMS Common Cartridge allow resources to be transferred and delivered in different LMS environments. This is a clear advantage over LMS-specific back-up formats or mere Zip files.Packaging standards are useful for the distribution of completed content resources but packages cannot easily be broken apart for editing and  re-purposing of the constituent content resources. An alternative approach which is proposed here is to adopt a de-facto standard format based on Mediawiki wikitext markup. Thus the format that is used to support the initial formatting also allows for distribution and integration with multiple other environments. Also it does not preclude the additional use of packaging standards - if so desired.
  • Digital Learning Repositories – Content to be made available for sharing beyond an individual inistitution and personal networks needs to be made available through a digital repository with search tools. The National Library are doing a great deal to support NZ education and the MLE project with their Digital NZ work.  In the solution proposed here, a New Zealand instance of Wiki-Educator will support teacher-created open content within the scope of the MLE initiative. Rich Media content will be uploaded to Digital NZ and then linked to the resources within wikieducator. Clearly no single repository will ultimately provide access to all teacher-created, commercial and publicly available resources that teachers may want to use. Thus attention needs to be given to strategies for repository federation in the context of the MLE work.
  • Metadata – The application of metadata to digital learning resources is a crucial factor in the success of search algorithms applied to repositories and thus to the goal of sharing and re-use at a national level. It is also a difficult practical issue if the author is expected to apply metadata so that others can re-use his or her work. Metadata standards such as IEEE LOM and Dublin Core serve to provide the necessary information for effective searching but are not solutions to the cultural issues. Automatic metadata generation can help to a certain extent but there are other issues associated with the granularity of metadata application, particularly when combined with packaging. These issues need careful attention. In the case where wikitext forms the standard format for text content then the pressure on metadata application is reduced since full-text searching is possible.
  • Licensing – DRM issues need to be addressed through the application of appropriate licensing schemes. In the case of the MLE work this means application of an open licensing scheme for NZ education content.
  • Search – Most search algorithms operate using the metadata applied to resources rather than the resources themselves. See Metadata for an outline of the issues.
  • Retrieval – Whilst some resources are publicly available some repositories will require verification of identity and authorisation to access resources. This means a strategy will be required for identity and access management particularly in the case of repository federations. This is beyond the scope of the content work but other work is underway within the MLE project to handle IAM issues.
  • Adaptation – A major factor in the re-use of digital resources lies in the ability of teachers to easily adapt or customise resources to meet their own situation. This is an issue tied to authoring in a multi-LMS environment. Authoring tools must be capable of un-packaging content for editing once it has been retrieved from a repository. This is one of the major benefits of the Mediawiki wikitext approach.
  • Delivery – Eventually a teacher will want to present the resources they have created or modified to their students. They may do this either within the context of an LMS or through some other means digitally or in print. If packaged content (CC or SCORM etc.) is to be run through the LMS then the LMS must support a run-time environment which can interpret the packaged content. If content is formatted using Mediawiki wikitext then the possibility exists for LMS systems to create import schemes which can automatically embed the new content into an LMS course element.

Requirements Analysis

Business Requirements of the MLE Project

We have identified the following business requirements of the content lifecycle strand of the MLE project:

  1. Easy authoring of digital learning resources by teachers which can be shared, adapted and re-used across the schools sector nationally leading to efficiencies in terms of teacher-time and costs in developing digital resources from scratch.
  2. A wider variety of relevant, high-quality resources freely available to teachers to use in their own context leading to greater adoption of ICT in schools because of a lower barrier to entry and greater perceived benefits of participation
  3. Capability for students to author and share digital content as part of their learning activities
  4. Have an extremely low barrier to entry, making it easy to get started and easy to revise

We have identified key elements in achieving these aims:

  1. Provision of authoring tools that are easy for teachers to use and which can export resources in a standard format that caters for both adaptation and reuse of resources. Authoring tools should also support collaborative authoring.
  2. The standard format of resources should be interoperable with all LMS systems in the MLE project. Costs of compliance should be as low as possible.
  3. The resources should be easily discoverable through the use of search tools. Any metadata schema applied to the resources should be applied consistently and accurately. Any repository solution for collecting the resources should reliably deliver the most relevant resources in response to a request.
  4. Any licensing framework applied to the resources should encourage open access, adaptation and re-use.

Content Authoring Requirements

  1. Use familiar tools where possible. Candidates are MS Office; OpenOffice; Google Docs – as well as the first choice  - option direct authoring into the wiki. Any of these alternative tools must be capable of exporting to the wiki environment. Each of the tools listed above have their own merits and drawbacks. Priorities need to set by the New Zealand education community for where efforts should be targeted with regards to authoring tools.
  2. Include pedagogical structuring template (iDevices). This has been one very successful feature of eXe
  3. Content must be re-editable by a third-party

Content Repository Requirements

  1. Resources should be findable even where minimal / poor quality metadata has been applied by author.
  2. Repository solution should be accessible by all in NZ education, all content in the repository should be open for full access
  3. Publishing content to a repository should be a far as possible automated to make it as easy as possible for teachers to share their content. It is envisaged that a “one-click” publish option would be added to the authoring environment.

Interoperability Requirements

  1. Content should be able to be sensibly displayed / run across multiple LMS systems
  2. Content should display / run outside of an LMS system
  3. Content should print in a well-formatted form (except rich media)


A Technical Model to Support Identified Requirements

Content Format

The basic format chosen is the defacto standard of wikitext as implemented by the MediaWiki project.  This format is:

  • layered on plain text, so beginners can rapidly adopt it
  • is expressive enough that experts can wield fine control
  • is extensible

Content Repository

In order to get started immediately, we can take advantage of the existing WikiEducator infrastructure.  A unique front "landing" page will be used to give a clear New Zealand Schools character, with highlighted projects and users within the sector.

In the future, as demand increases, it would be ideal to have a separate New Zealand instance that is automatically synchronized with the global copy.  We will also allow institutions that desire the option of running their own local instance, but that is not a requirement.

An established, published API is available for automating transfers from and to the central wiki.

Content Authoring Solutions

This scheme allows a variety of editing options.

The first, and most flexible, is using wikitext within the native WikiEducator user interface.  WikiEducator uses the wikitext template scheme to add pedagogical structure to each page, very similar in intent to the iDevice concept of the eXe tool.  Templates are used throughout WikiEducator to build some simple structure into pages, and it is this structure that facilitates

Online editing will be supplemented by adding an optional rich text editor for text entry.  In the first instance, this will be a generic tool allowing styling text, but it will be expanded to integrate the standard template set.

In addition to online editing, the OpenOffice suite allows exporting in wikitext format, providing an offline tool for content creation.  An extension allows nearly "one click" publishing of resources.  We envision the development of macros that facilitate using the standard WikiEducator templates in the offline environment.

And content can be imported from external sources.  For example, the WikiEducator community has recently demonstrated a proof-of-concept tool that allows importing content from Conexions, a major source of open educational resources.

Interoperability with LMS Environments

A proof-of-concept tool that will take a collection of pages and bundle them into an IMS Content Package or IMS Common Cartridge for deployment into an LMS if required.  Rather than mandating this, we suggest that existing LMS vendors make it easy for their users to import or reference pages or collections of pages within their environments using the existing MediaWiki API.


Because we are proposing aligning the New Zealand schools with an existing international project that was founded by the Commonwealth of Learning, many risk factors are mitigated.  The major risk is the lack of adequate Internet connectivity that would impede the use of the online resources.

Integration with International Initiatives

The project builds on the success that the Commonwealth of Learning has had with the WikiEducator project.  The stewardship of the WikiEducator project has moved to the not-for-profit OER Foundation at Otago Polytechnic.

A Phased Development Work Plan

It is important to stress the iterative and incremental nature of the solution being proposed.  There is no major software or infrastructure effort required to get started.  Early adopters can join the existing community and begin using the system now.  As work progresses, strides will be made in ease of use and the facilities for content indexing, review, and reuse.The workplan is divided into four phases as described below: Phases one and two are expected to take approximately 6 months work each.

Phase I : Capability-Building for NZ schools sector

In the first phase of the project, we build capability targeted at the New Zealand schools sector.  Many of the activities are directed at demonstrating how existing functionality can be best used.  As the user community gains experience, technical development can be applied to improve ease of use. Goals include:

  • adapt the proven L4C training program for NZ teachers
  • developing exemplar schools with early adopters leading the way
  • champion illustrative contributions from NZ educators (and facilitate those contributions by having skilled community members assist in content capture)
  • develop "best practices" documents suggesting effective wiki use
    • authoring
    • content use
      • printed
      • deployed in the wiki
      • deployed elsewhere on the web
      • deployed in an institutional LMS
    • content reuse
      • using RSS feeds
      • customizing content
      • collaborating and improving content
  • develop a distinctive NZ landing page and project (curriculum) pages
  • implement categories that identify NZ content by curriculum tag
  • preliminary investigation of the installation of a rich text editor for some users of WikiEducator
  • provide a way to easily manage user lists
  • explain existing API so that programmers can pull, reuse, and even push content
  • review the existing set of templates for consistency, ease of use, and structure encouraging reuse

Teachers are encouraged to join the community, share existing resources, and build their own collections of resources that they can repurpose and reuse.Summary of outcomes of this phase:  When this phase is complete, the NZ schools wikieducator site will have been created, NZ teachers will have been introduced to the concept of authoring content in the wiki and a body of content will exist on the site.  This phase fulfills several functions. First it allows us to conduct an initial investigation of the issues and potential success for the technical approach as a whole right from the start. Wiki-educator is already sufficiently well-established in its own right for us to use it immediately with schools in NZ. This phase will provide many of the pointers we need to decide on which technical ehnhancements to wiki-educator we need to prioritise to rapidly increase uptake and usability for NZ schools. Thus the workplan for phase 2 will only be finalised when phase 1 is completed, meanwhile we can make a 'best' guess as to what will be needed in phase 2.

Phase II: Tools development

The result of Phase one will inevitably be that a number of technical enhancements are required for improving usability and streamlining workflow. In the second phase of the project, technical development is applied make the wiki easier to use for all teachers for authoring, searching, and reusing.We anticipate that some of the technical enhancements will be as follows

  • enhance the online rich text editor
    • support a wider set of templates (iDevices)
    • add option lists in templates to make it easier for users to select from a range of valid choices
  • support offline editing using OpenOffice
  • add a metadata tab to all pages
  • implement a technique allowing peer review of resources
    • globally
    • within a school or cluster
  • add tools allowing individual page tagging, with display of
  • add tools for supporting formative assessment

Phase III: Tools development

The third phase has two focuses: (1) attempting to blur the distinction between the repository technology and a desktop application and (2) developing the underlying technology to allow a federation of cooperating wiki instances.  These each represent major pieces of work, requiring a team of education, software, and web experts working over the course of a year or more.

  • support offline editing using Microsoft Office
  • allow simple online image editing
  • improve mobile device rendering and authoring
  • allow synchronization of multiple MediaWiki instances

Phase IV: Tools development

  • export directly from OpenOffice into IMS Content Package and IMS Common Cartridge formats
  • allow audio and video capture directly from desktops and mobile devices