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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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June262006

Getting to Know Wikipedia

Last week we took a look at the role wikis are playing in promoting educational blogging. Today I’d like to introduce you to the mother of all wikis: Wikipedia.

As I described previously, a wiki is a type of website that allows anyone to edit its content. The vast majority of websites are read-only; for example, when you visit my blog, you can read it, follow its links, even comment on it, but you can’t change the actual content. It contains text, photos and other information determined by me, so I act as its sole editor. A wiki, in contrast, is a collaborative editorial effort; site visitors may add, subtract or edit content without approval by anyone else.

The collaborative nature of wikis makes them a great online workspace, particularly when the participants are scattered geographically. In the case of Wikipedia, thousands of volunteers, or Wikipedians, are working together to create the world’s largest encyclopedia.

The website, first launched in 2001, uses free wiki software called MediaWiki, which anyone can install on their own server. It’s a fairly straightforward tool that allows users to create or edit encyclopedia entries on any topic they desire. For example, while a typical encyclopedia would have entries on subjects like George Washington or Venus or organic chemistry, Wikipedia includes topics such as the heavy metal umlaut, Anakin Skywalker and Saturday Night Live’s More Cowbell skit. Heck, it even has an entry about me, which is admittedly somewhat embarrassing. (To paraphrase Groucho Marx, I’m not sure I’d trust any encyclopedia that would accept me as an entry.)

And seriously - what kind of encyclopedia would bother to have me, of all people, as an entry? That’s partially the point of Wikipedia. Traditional encyclopedias contain a body of knowledge dictated by a limited pool of experts. Wikipedia takes the position that the general public, as a whole, has a vaster amount of knowledge than any small group of experts, no matter how skilled they are, so the website gives Internet users an opportunity to share their own expertise, determine what knowledge gets included and contribute to the production of a new encyclopedia.

And contribute they do. As of mid-afternoon today, more than 1.6 million registered user accounts have contributed 1,214,787 articles and 62,735,932 edits - an average of 13.41 per page. A typical, traditional encyclopedia would have a fraction of entries, contributed by perhaps several hundred people, rather than hundreds of thousands of people.

How does Wikipedia work? Here’s an example. Last March, a Chinese blogger named Hao Wu was detained by authorities while working on an independent documentary. Because Wikipedia includes entries on notable people making news around the world, I decided to create a Wikipedia entry about him. My first attempt had some basic biographical information, and not much else Since then, more than a dozen people have contributed new information to the entry, including links to international news stories and additional background materials. Every time someone makes an edit to the page, the previous version gets archived. This serves two key purposes. First, it allows users to refer to all previous versions of an entry - something that’s particularly useful when citing a page at a given moment in time. Second, the archive allows users to correct errors or even vandalism. If someone comes along and makes a mistake or fools around with the content, anyone else can “revert” the entry back to a previous version, before the errors were introduced. This way, there’s a digital paper trail. No matter how destructive a vandal might be, there’s always a previous version to replace it.

Meanwhile, Wikipedia also creates a virtual paper trail for each user on the site. For example, it’s possible to review a list of every edit I’ve made to the site. That allows the public to review the work of every contributor. It gives you a sense of their interests, skills and behavior. In my case, a lot of my edits involve contributing photographs representative of Wikipedia entries that lack illustrative images, as well as links to external sources. Sometimes I’ve added new articles from scratch, such as the entry on Hao Wu, or entries on unusual places I’ve visited, like Ksar Ouled Soltane in Tunisia.

All entries on Wikipedia include what’s known as a discussion page. For example, the featured article on the Wikipedia homepage today is about the city of Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta. If you look at the top of that page, you’ll see a link to the entry’s discussion page, which at this particular moment contains no less that 42 different topics. For example, one topic called Fact Check was written by a Wikipedian who wished to see a sentence - “Private cars are less in number and usage compared to other large cities in India” - substantiated. Another Wikipedian then responded by citing a newspaper article that referenced relevant statistics. This is the essence of how Wikipedia works: while anyone may go and edit an entry, the website’s community etiquette encourages Wikipedians to talk about each other’s edits to achieve clarity or consensus. These discussions often focus on whether or not a particular edit follows Wikipedia’s editorial policies, which center around five basic pillars:


  1. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia. It shouldn’t be used as a trivia collection, dictionary, newspaper or soapbox.

  2. Wikipedia has a neutral point of view, which means aren’t shouldn’t offer a single point of view or editorialize. Information should be unbiased and verifiable.

  3. Wikipedia is free content that anyone can edit. This means that you can’t use it to publish copyrighted content, nor should you expect that your posts won’t be edited by others.

  4. Wikipedia has a code of conduct. Wikipedians are very big on community norms, and expect participants to be civil, acting in good faith.

  5. Wikipedia doesn’t have firm rules besides these five pillars. It’s a work in progress and a community effort, so participants are encouraged to be bold and not worry about messing up, since the archive prevents content from being permanently lost or damaged.

Anyone can edit Wikipedia, but there are some basic rules. For example, you’re expected to create a user account if you wish to publish new entries. That helps cut down on spam and vandalism. But you don’t need an account to edit a pre-existing entry; all you have to do is click the edit button at the top of an entry’s page and start editing. Wikipedia’s greatest strength is that anyone can edit an entry. But for many educators, this fact is also Wikipedia’s greatest weakness. In my next post, I’ll talk more about Wikipedia’s reliability and its role in the classroom - and we’ll do that by exploring a JFK conspiracy theory and a mysterious English duke. Stay tuned…. -andy

Filed under : Cool Tools, Wikis

Responses

Hi Andy
Thank you for a great post.

My Online Projects will all be utilizing WIKIS next year for both teacher and student involvment.

It hopefully will end up being an area for people to post both questions and ideas of how to take the projects to an even higher level.

Thanks again for all you do.
Jennifer

Wikipedia is an amazing site/project, however, it would be even better and more people would contribute if it was easier to add and update information. The add/edit process is very techie.

I subscribe to ASSET and just learned about blogging on that teacher site. It sure looks useful. I hope to have a class website soon and add the blogging link to it, accomplishing what was called “threaded discussion” when I was a university student. I hope the blogging will encourage my English students to “think” incrementally on a topic, which will transfer to more lengthy thinking in the students’ essays. Any suggestions to make this plan work out for me as a beginning “blogger” sure would be appreciated.

You should definitely take a look at my previous post on Steve Hargadon’s new wiki on educational blogging, if you haven’t already.

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