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?
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.
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.