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Editorís Note: Wikis do much more than solve the logistics of collaborative publication; they provide a powerful tool for collaborative knowledge building. Ms. Kok shows how Wikis relate to and expand upon Piagetís theories and their application in knowledge acquisition.

Understanding the Wiki Technology
from the Systems Perspective

Ayse Kok



Clearly delineating the border between the social system (the wiki) and the cognitive systems (the users) is crucial for understanding how collaborative knowledge building works. What is happening when people work mutually on one common artefact, thereby introducing their knowledge to the community and building new knowledge collaboratively?

In this paper, two processes are proposed as the basis for the crossing of the border between the social and the cognitive system: we refer to these processes as externalization and internalization respectively.


Wiki is the most representative tool that enables the new Web 2.0 philosophy that is defined by user participation, openness and network effects. Derived from the Hawaiian word of ďwiki wikiĒ which means quick this social software is an enabler of social interaction, collaboration and information sharing, promoting the growth of communities as user groups. In order to clarify what wiki publishing is a synoptic table of comparison has been provided (Klobas, J., 2006)

Table 1
As Quick as a Wiki:
Comparison of steps needed for creation of a Wiki page and Web Page
(Klobas, J. 2006)

The application of the wiki in the academic partnership projects can be object of a taxonomy following four dimensions:

ß  Support to effectiveness: This refers to the access of information such as phone numbers or suppliers address. Wiki can be useful to collect and self-update the usersí index or other descriptive section.

ß  Knowledge and collaborative support: This refers to the collaboration inside and among teams and the related knowledge management issues. Wikis are used in this sense for many applications, from the creation and the implementation of the common knowledge base to the several applications that requires the matching of many experiences (e.g: co-creation of procedures, handbooks, planning activities, sharing presentation materialsÖetc.)

ß  Communication and socialization: This refers to the development of a networked internal communication as well as institutional and intrapersonal. Users are connected using Wiki in order to join the owner of a particular competence or knowledge or real time collaboration with other related parties.

As McMullin (2005) and other social constructivist theorists assert; because of their flexible functionality, wikis afford the opportunity to offer collaborative, constructive learning more extensively by shaping knowledge through discussion with peers and through reflection. Due to the collaborative nature of wikis knowledge is enacted with a focus on the community rather than on the individual learner (McMullin, B., 2005).

Similarly, according to the theory of the community of practice, learning is an inherently social activity, situated in a social and cultural context (Lave, J. &Wenger, E., 1991). So, in order for learning to occur, there must be a negotiation between an individual's unique experience and the knowledge of the group. The community provides a ground for interaction and so that learners can collaboratively construct shared knowledge (Palloff, R.M. & Pratt, K., 2005).

Wikis are web sites that allow users not only to have access to their content but also to change the content online. As Scardamalia & Bereiter (2003) emphasized wikis are tools for knowledge-building which is important for knowledge-creating competencies in a knowledge society. Wikis donít require software, are easily accessible, and are simple for everybody to use. Their special feature is that hyperlinks can be created and texts can be added, deleted or changed so that groups of like-minded people can work collaboratively on one and the same text about a certain topic. Wikisí potential for collaborative learning lies in their ability to facilitate shaping of knowledge (Chong & Yamamoto, 2006). Wikis can be regarded as media that support learning due to their ability to facilitate collaboration, to allow for design-based learning, to enhance inventiveness, to support inquiry learning and the co-construction of learning (Chong & Yamamoto, 2006). In general, wikis can be considered to support social constructivist learning.

To examine the question of what makes wikis supportive of knowledge building, the researcherís consideration will be based on fundamental perspectives on learning and knowledge building. As Scardamalia & Bereiter (2003) assert a personís individual knowledge can serve as a resource for other peoplesí learning. Moreover, Norman (1991) stated that people make use of each othersí knowledge through collaborative knowledge building with artifacts and that the learnerís active participation should be emphasized.

Collaborative Knowledge Building with Wikis

According to Luhmannís sociological systems theory, social systems can be distinguished from cognitive systems. This paper will first outline the functionality of a social system, and then address the functionality of cognitive systems. After that, the processes responsible for transitions between the social system and peopleís cognitive systems will be described. In this context, the process of externalisation will be distinguished from the process of internalization.

Systems are dynamic as they develop over time and consist of operations. A system ceases where its mode of operation ceases. Such operations are defined as the production of elements. This definition implies that systems are autopoietic and self-referential. They produce their own elements. According to Luhmann (1984), systems continuously develop and recreate themselves so that the systemís permanent continuance can be guaranteed. In other words, the systems exist due to operations that are followed by further operations of the same kind and so on. Subsequent operations always build on the results of the preceding operations.

Luhmann (1984) distinguishes three different kinds of systems: Biological systems operate by means of biological processes. They are autopoetic in the sense that cells create other cells. Psychological or cognitive systems operate via processes of consciousness and cognitive processes, such as retrieval of knowledge from long-term memory, elaboration of knowledge, process of externalization and internalization of knowledge. They are also autopoietic as cognitions develop further cognitions. Finally, social systems operate by means of communication. In this context, communication is not intended to be a result of peopleí activities but a product of social systems.

From a systemís perspective, the environment is contingent. This means that the system cannot anticipate what will happen in the environment, and thus, the environment can irritate the system. So, for each system its environment is more complex than the system itself. After being irritated, a system may be able to select a limited amount of information available outside its borders. By operating on this information, it reduces external complexity, establishes new relations and increases its internal complexity.

Social systems depend on cognitive systems as there would be no communication without cognitions. Luhman (1984) points out that systems are operationally closed, yet they can influence each other. In order to solve the problem of systems that are open and closed at the same time, Luhmann (1984) applies the concept of structural coupling. Social systems are structurally coupled with cognitive systems via language. Since systems are sensitive to irritations from their environment, and since irritations can be incorporated into system-immanent operations different systems can make use of other systemsí complexity. So, a cognitive system can take on the social systemís elements and the social system can take on the cognitive systemís elements if they irritate each other. So, structural coupling allows for co-evolution of both systems. Both systems, the cognitive and the social system can become more complex over time.

Clearly delineating the border between the social system (the wiki) and the cognitive systems (the users) is crucial for understanding how collaborative knowledge building works. What is happening when people work mutually on one common artefact, thereby introducing their knowledge to the community and building new knowledge collaboratively?

In this paper, two processes are proposed as the basis for the crossing of the border between the social and the cognitive system: we refer to these processes as externalization and internalization respectively.


For contributing to the development of a wiki, people first have to externalize their knowledge. They do this by introducing information that reflects their own knowledge (Cress & Kimmerle, 2007). For that purpose, a personís own knowledge has to be conveyed into a wiki article in a form that maps the personís knowledge.

The wiki artefact exists independently from the people who created it and it develops in a way that is determined by peopleís knowledge. The information in the wiki relates to the contributorís individual knowledge; therefore the personís cognitive processes are represented by and reflected in the wiki (Cress & Kimmerle, 2007). A user is only able to contribute something to a wiki if she or he has corresponding knowledge about that topic. Of course, the information in the wiki and the knowledge in a personís mind are not identical, but they are equivalent to a certain degree (Cress & Kimmerle, 2007). After the process of externalization, the wiki exists independently from the personís knowledge.

Contributing to the wiki not only allows the creation of an artefact, it can also lead to individual learning processes in the contributors. The mental effort necessary for the externalization of knowledge can extend peopleís individual knowledge, because externalization requires deeper processing and clarification (Cress & Kimmerle, 2007). Normally, people who contribute to a wiki canít externalize their own knowledge without some changes in their individual knowledge. Through the externalization process, people often deepen their knowledge and clarify their understanding. So, externalization can lead to individual learning processes and people who contribute to a wiki article can expand their own individual knowledge (Cress & Kimmerle, 2007).

Fig. 1.0 The Process of Externalization

Once a person has contributed to a wiki, then each individual group member can have access to the wikiís information. This process of externalization does not require the interaction with other people in a narrow sense. People can externalize their knowledge without necessarily addressing other people in the first place (Cress & Kimmerle, 2007). These processes are also tentatively presented in Figure 1.0 in the form of the three cognitive systems (CS1 to CS3) and the social system wiki. The grey symbols represent novel aspects of knowledge as a result of learning through externalization.


Inter-individual knowledge transfer and collaborative knowledge building take place when people have the opportunity to work with a wiki and to internalize the information available in the wiki. So, people have to process the information and integrate it into their individual knowledge (Cress & Kimmele, 2007). New knowledge may be developed in this way. Besides, an additional knowledge-creating process can occur. If people internalize information from the wiki, knowledge can develop which was formerly neither part of their personal knowledge nor part of the wiki (Cress & Kimmele, 2007). This can occur if new knowledge internalized from the wiki interacts with the prior individual knowledge in a way that enables people to create new knowledge. In other words, new knowledge is inferred to out of the knowledge internalized through the work with the wiki and the prior knowledge (Cress & Kimmele, 2007). This knowledge can be described as emergent knowledge (Cress & Kimmele, 2007). This is a result of the collaboration and as such represents collaborative knowledge building which is more than mere knowledge sharing. Something qualitatively new has developed (Cress & Kimmele, 2007). The process of internalization has been depicted in Figure 2.0 in which the cognitive system 3 has developed such emergent knowledge.

 Fig. 2.0 The Process of Internalization

Four processes of learning and knowledge building

To explain the co-evolution of the usersí knowledge and the wikiís content, one should also refer to the theories that describe cognitive processes of individual learning (Piaget, 1970). A prominent approach that describes how people deal with new information is Piagetís model of equilibration (Piaget, 1970). This model explains how people take in new information from their environment, how they perceive and encode it from outside and integrate it into their own knowledge (Piaget, 1970). The equilibrium theory describes the way people try to maintain a balance between the environmental information on the one hand and their prior knowledge on the other (Piaget, 1970). If information is new and not in line with existing knowledge this incongruity causes a cognitive conflict (Piaget, 1970). When information cannot be promptly decoded and integrated into existing knowledge people have to adapt to the new environment. Piaget points out that such cognitive conflicts can lead to new knowledge. There are two possibilities to solve a cognitive conflict: by assimilating the new information or accommodating the knowledge to make it compatible with new information (Piaget, 1970). Assimilation refers to the process where an individual understands new information on the basis of existing knowledge and integrates it into prior knowledge. Assimilation describes the quantitative aspect of individual learning as only additional pieces of information that fit into existing knowledge are added (Piaget, 1970).

The other process of adaptation is the process of accommodation where people interact with new information in a way that changes their knowledge. They donít simply assimilate new information into existing knowledge, but actually change knowledge in order to better understand the environment and its information. This creation of new knowledge refers to the qualitative manner of learning.

Within this context, when interacting with the wiki, people can learn as a result of externalization or internalization. Learning can take place by assimilation or accommodation. Accomodation and assimilation donít necessarily take place internally (in peopleís cognitive systems), but also externally (in the social system wiki). If information is contributed to the wiki without being linked to previously existing information, the wiki is only extended by the addition of some information. If information is contributed in this way, the wiki assimilates the new information and its organization remains the same. On the other hand, accommodation happens when new information is not only attached to the existing information, but the information in the wiki is organized in a new way.

Cognitive conflict can be described as irritation. When people work with a wiki they have to see if their own individual knowledge matches with the information the wiki provides. If people feel that the wikiís information is congruent to their individual knowledge then there is no need for external or internal accommodation or assimilation (Cress & Kimmele, 2007). In contrast, if people feel that the wikiís information differs from their own knowledge there is a need for internal or external assimilation or accommodation (Cress & Kimmele, 2007).

If people realize that important aspects of their knowledge are missing in the wiki they may perhaps externalize these and add them to the wiki (external assimilation) (Cress & Kimmele, 2007). If people find that their knowledge and the wikiís information are incongruent, they will accommodate their knowledge (internal accommodation) or revise the wiki article (external accommodation) (Cress & Kimmele, 2007). So, if a userís knowledge corresponds to the information in the wiki the user will neither learn anything nor will she or he revise the wiki. If the incongruity is very large, the information in the wiki and the individualís knowledge will hardly be perceived as describing one and the same topic. This situation will reduce the need for making both congruent (Cress & Kimmele, 2007). Only a medium Ėlevel incongruity causes a cognitive conflict which motivates people to engage in one of the equilibration processes described above (Cress & Kimmele, 2007).


In collaborative knowledge building with wikis, four different forms of learning and knowledge building can be distinguished: internal assimilation (quantitative individual learning), internal accommodation (qualitative individual learning), external assimilation (quantitative knowledge building) and external accommodation (qualitative knowledge building) (Cress & Kimmele, 2007). What is essential is that cognitive and social systems develop mutually. This co-evolution of systems constitutes the foundation of collaborative knowledge building.  While through external assimilation the wiki consists of increasingly more information, through external accommodation processes it enables new understandings, allows for new emergent knowledge and facilitates collaborative knowledge building.

This paper intends to propose just a personal and not yet validated manner to assure a right adoption of Wiki. A scientific validation here proposed may further be contributed via further studies and structured empirical researches in this direction.

One of the main points agreed in this study is that the use of Wiki permits not only a knowledge stocking or the sum of prior information, but a true creation and circulation of new knowledge. Wiki is not just a technology, but a true philosophical way of intending work.


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About the Author

ayse Kok.jpg

Ayse Kok completed her undergraduate studies in Management Information Systems in Bogazici University in Instanbul, Turkey and her Masters of Science in Education (e-Learning) at University of Oxford, where she is continuing for a Ph.D.

She is founder of a non-profit that provides digital learning services to primary and secondary schools and has worked for international corporations and the United Nations. Her May 1, 2008 interview in E-Learning queen http://elearnqueen.blogspot.com/2008/05/interview-with-ayse-kok-new-series-life.html explores differences in e-learning in different countries in Europe, in Turkey, and in other cultures.

Web site: http://ayshe.kok.googlepages.com

E-mail (2): ayse.kok@kellogg.ox.ac.uk



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