Jimmy Wales is the founder of Wikipedia and Director of the Wikimedia Foundation. It was philosopher Larry Sanger who first proposed the use of wiki technology to create an encyclopaedia in 2001, and Wales created a wiki used for collaborative editing before submission to Nupedia for peer review. Wikipedia then became the dominant force and has grown into the largest and most used wiki on the web, a vast encyclopedia built, edited and policed by its users.
Wales was educated in a one-room schoolhouse. Although not home-schooling, it was close as he was taught in a class of four by his mother and grandmother, who ran the school. He had the freedom to study what he liked on his own terms. "Education was always a passion in my household ... you know, the very traditional approach to knowledge and learning and establishing that as a base for a good life." There are parallels with the Montessori schooling of Larry Page and Sergei Brin, who conceived and founded Google.
Wikipedia is a huge knowledge base, or encyclopaedia, that has been created by its users, who can publish and amend without having to download special software. Other users, who correct errors, oversee the accuracy of the content. In addition it allows users to see edit histories and discuss these issues. Realistically, it recognises that knowledge is sometimes not absolutely certain and will be subject to debate and discussion.
Since founded in 2001 it has grown into one of the largest and most used knowledge sources in the world. With millions of articles in over 200 languages, tens of thousands of registered users and thousands of articles added every day; it is one of the most visited sites on the web.
Its remarkable achievement was not only to produce the world’s largest and most popular knowledgebase but to do it through a model that was truly innovative. Previous paper and CD-ROM encyclopaedias, like Microsoft’s Encarta, were produced at great cost by teams with targets and sold to customers to recoup that cost. Wikipedia came along and relied on volunteers who did this for free, relying not on corporate recognition but peer reputation, as writers and editors. This low cost model allowed Wales to offer this wonderful online service for free. It showed that people were willing to create and share for the public good.
There has been some debate about the reliability of Wikipedia but a blind-trial research project published in Nature in 2005 found little significant difference between it and the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Its dynamic nature with thousands of new articles appearing every day, along with search capability, links, edit trails and discussion groups makes it a very different type of resource when compared to print periodicals. Its crosslinks, oinks to external resources, transparency on edits, along with discussions also make it different from print repositories of knowledge.
Wales philosophy to knowledge capture and sharing is what he describes as anti-credentialist, “To me the key thing is getting it right. And if a person's really smart and they're doing fantastic work, I don't care if they're a high school kid or a Harvard professor; it's the work that matters.... You can't coast on your credentials on Wikipedia.... You have to enter the marketplace of ideas and engage with people."
Wikipedia in education
Although derided by many academics and teachers for being inaccurate, it has remarkable levels of use by teachers and learners. On top of this it has been used for assignments, such as editing articles. In practice, however, it is mostly used as a reference tool. Its consistent layout, with a general introductory paragraph, linked index and headings, is appealing to those who want to find things quickly. The fact that it is searchable, cross-linked and provided bibliographies and citations is also useful.
The web now has a plethora of wiki applications including; wikidictionary, wikinews, wikibooks, wikilaw and so on. In addition, wiki technology is being used to revolutionise the way in which we capture, create, publish and update knowledge within organisations. Wikis are becoming common within corporations as a method of knowledge management. Their bottom-up ethos appeals to those who see knowledge emerging from expertise within an organisation, as opposed to being handed down from single authorities.
Wikipedia is one of the world’s most accessed websites. Google even scrapes from Wikipedia biographies to feature as sidebar profiles. It has, in effect, become the world’s de facto standard for knowledge searches. Wales has flipped the traditional publishing model of; expert writes, everyone else pays. In Wikipedia, everyone writes and no one pays. This is a radical shift in publishing and a radical shift in the way knowledge is being made available on the web, and elsewhere. As a learning resource, it is truly one of the modern wonders of the web.