Friday, January 14, 2011

OK Jimmy Wales – what's next after Wikipedia?

Wikipedia is a miracle and Jimmy Wales walks on digital water. So it was great to both see him speak, and get to speak to him, at Learning Without Frontiers this week. A truly 21st century phenomenon (started 2001) and thorn in the side of those who think that knowledge is the domain of libraries and educational institutions, Wikipedia is BIG, with over 3.5 million articles in English, appearing in 262 languages (not all are fully populated).What’s more, it’s a fantastic legacy, as important as the publication of any book in history, as it has an astounding past (crowdsourced) and a fecund future, in terms of content, access, growth and impact. So what answers did Jimmy Wales have to the following questions?

How many?

Last month there were 408 million unique users. Think about that for a minute. Only China and India have more people.

Who’s looking at what?

Turns out different countries look at different things. The Japanese are obsessed with ‘pop’. Germans have ‘geography’ as their top topic (should we be worried?) and Spain ‘science and technology’. On the whole, however, pop, sex, history, geography, science and health are the big topics. Did you know that the LOST scriptwriting team had to use LOSTpedia to check when new references came up as the whole thing became too complicated to track?

Who creates the content?

Wikipedians are 87% male, average age 26, highly educated (almost all graduates) and the majority do not have a partner or children. Jimmy described them as “intelligent, obsessed guys with too much time on their hands”. Now some could see this as a bit of a problem, but hey, is it our fault guys? Get on there girls.

Wikipedia in China

When Jimmy was in China he was in a restaurant and Wikipedia appeared on a menu. This happened several times and people sent him menus from all over China with Wikipedia dishes on the menu. He guessed that people searched on Google for translations for dishes and since Wikipedia comes up often, it was carried over blindly onto the menus.

More seriously, China banned Wikipedia, but freed up the site around Olympics time, and now only block sensitive pages such as Taiwan and Tiananmen Square. It’s still the one country where whole classes of students have never heard the term ‘Wikipedia’. Everywhere else, the majority have not only heard of it but used it regularly.

Who hates Wikipdedia?

So what did Jimmy think about the ‘haters’, mostly academics? As he explained, they mostly don’t understand what Wikipedia is, in terms of construction, editing and discussion. Sure things are wrong, at times, but as he explained, on the whole, it’s pretty good, and as good as other traditional sources of printed knowledge. To those who say it’s too editorialised, his reply was that you can’t accept all contributions for entry and not have an editorial process. It can’t be completely open. On the whole Wikipedia is built by smart people who care.

What next?

I asked Jimmy whether he ever thought Wikipedia would create an education version, as teachers are not scalable and a step by step instructional adjunct with self-assessment tools would make it more relevant to education. He misunderstood the question a little and referred me to Wikibooks and explained that there’s too many national accreditation boards to consider. That didn’t stop him forging ahead with Wikipedia. Simply go round them. Ignore them. Let users and creators decide on content.

This is important, as Wikipedia broke the back of the encylopedia market, then broke the illusory monopoly that publishers and academics had on knowledge. But more than this, it showed that human beings are decent, altruistic beings who know a good and worthy thing when they see it, and are willing to help create things in education outside of the institutional structures.

I suspect that the next big educational resource will come from another source. Wikipedia is what it is, we need something similar but different.

Solution 1: Wiki textbooks

You can create textbooks through wikis, and use collaborative web-based creation and distribution for quality educational content. The problem here, seems to be the fondness for the ‘book’ metaphor i.e. Wikibooks etc. We don’t want books, we want web-based content.

CK12 is a possible breakthrough, as Jimmy Wales is on the board, and it’s well funded. You can use, edit and customise their textbooks. It’s pretty neat with good drag and drop creation tools, but again, it’s the ‘textbook’ metaphor that limits its usefulness.

Solution 2: Questions and answers wiki

Quora may be the sort of thing that will work. It’s created, organised and edited through crowdsourcing, but organises knowledge as answers to questions (which may in themselves be edited). This puts a more natural front-end onto a knowledge base, as queries are almost always framed as questions, not keywords. However, one question, one answer fails to create the dialogue and opportunities for structured learning.

Solution 3: Wiki Self-paced content

Take a structured, subject based resource, similar to BBC Bitesize, and allow it to grow and edit through crowdsourcing, with an editorial eye that knows good questions, good answers and there are opportunities to answer questions by the learner. Note that I’m not suggesting an expansion of Bitesize. That’s defaulted into little bits of animation add-ons.

Solution 3: Self assessment tools

This, I believe is the key to unlocking the open source knowledge market. Educational institutions have a stranglehold on education, making it incredibly expensive. That stranglehold is reinforced by the noose of accreditation. If we can free assessment from institutional control, we free up education for all. A populated open source Assessment tool that allows you to create, edit and use assessments would be a boon to learners and organisations.

Solution 4 All of above

Over the next ten years I see these fledgling wiki-led, open source movements produce resources in learning that are as powerful as Wikipedia. It needs a combination of good content and assessments. It also needs a credible open source brand, like Wikipedia. But Jimmy Wales, is not on this tack. To be fair he’s changed the world forever with Wikipedia, it would be a bit much to expect him to do it twice! If anyone is interested, contact me.


Gregory Kohs said...

It may be somewhat instructive to learn about one (relatively) failed experiment called Wikijunior, not one of the Wikimedia Foundation's shining moments:

Ben Betts said...

The concept of Open-Source accreditation is pretty damn exciting.

If you were to follow the Jimmy Wales school of thought on this one, you would simply innovate around the whole accreditation thing and ignore it. But I'm not convinced it is that simple. In a world where it is increasingly difficult to differentiate your qualifications from your peers, accreditation is a card you don't want to be without.

Online education suffers particularly in this area - it has to be accredited up the arse for anyone with a serious interest in a legitimate qualification to take the risk.

Donald Clark said...

Ben - totally agree, but where there's a will there's a way. The OU, University of Phoenix and many others were told, when they started, that their qualifications would be worthless. They persevered, and have overcome that problem.

If you assesssment tools that are better than the current (in this country commercial) crop, you'd get somewhere. The first step, I suspect, is a good set of content and tools that genuinely gets students success in the current system. Take BBC Bitesize. Hundreds of thousands use it to revise for GCSEs. It would take little to add mock GCSEs onto that system.
Past papers hint at what is possible. Parents, teachers, tutors and students all use them.
Open source assessment would have:
a system that scores/grades as you go
an indicative grade for major existing assessment systems
tools for building assessments

Lesley Price said...

All using technology!! This is gen Y why is education wanting to go backwards and teach Latin?? ..