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

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Will Wikimaniacs Change Education -
Or Are They Just Maniacs?

I’ve just spent the last four days at the second annual Wikimania conference, an international gathering of hundreds of wiki enthusiasts (“wikimaniacs”) associated with Wikipedia and its various offshoots. Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, used the occasion to announce several new initiatives, including two that are directly related to education. The question is, will educators embrace these projects or simply freak out over them?

The first project, Wikiversity, is just what it sounds like - a wiki-based learning environment where students from around the world will be able to enroll in free courses that utilize free curricula. Wales described Wikiversity as a center for the creation and use of free learning materials and activities. The project, which is still in the earliest stages of development, plans to host multilingual curricula in a variety of languages, as well as scholarly projects and communities to support these materials.

They expect to launch a six-month testbed for the project within the next month, but you can already take a look at the Wikiversity workspace to get a sense of where the project is headed. As of the moment I’m writing this, the mission of the project is “to empower people to achieve their educational goals using resources produced by the free culture movement.” The reason I’m saying “as of the moment,” of course, is because a wiki is fundamentally a work-in-progress, and the wording for that mission statement will probably evolve over time.

So far, the wikimaniacs involved in the site (wikifessors, perhaps?) have laid the groundwork for more than two dozen virtual schools, including a school of chemistry, a school of philosophy, a school of journalism, even an interdisciplinary school of practical human life, which in itself covers everything from waste management to plumbing to nutrition. Some of these schools have even started to enroll students for several online classes, including intro to world civilizations and intro to calculus.

It will be interesting to see how educators take to Wikiversity. My guess is that most US educators will be skeptical, while many educators in the developing world will see it as a godsend. American educators often take for granted that we have a robust network of accredited educational institutions and a wealth of curricula to support them. Yet commercially developed curricula, by its very nature, are only available to those institutions that can afford to pay for them. Students attending schools and universities that are under-resourced are often out of luck. And students who find themselves in countries without a well-established education system are even more educationally marginalized. Wikiversity hopes to fill that gap. Like another famous open content educational project, the MIT Open Courseware initiative, I expect Wikiversity to make its first major inroads overseas. As for here in the US, more educators will probably have to get comfortable with Wikipedia first before they embrace the new initiative.

The second project announced by Jimmy Wales is a content partnership between Wikipeda and the MIT One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative. Touted in the press as the “$100 laptop” initiative, the MIT program is designing a low-cost laptop built on open source principals, to be sold en masse to governments for distribution to children. The target audience for the program is the developing world, so students in rural and poor communities will have the opportunity to build their information and communications techonology (ICT) skills. Several national governments, including Nigeria, Egypt and China, have expressed interest in the program, as has the commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Because of this newly forged alliance, Wikipedia’s parent foundation will work with OLPC to include a copy of the free encyclopedia on every laptop. And since Wikipedia is produced in dozens of languages, the laptops will include content developed for the local languages of countries purchasing them.

On one level, the partnership makes total sense. One of the greatest challenges to bridging the digital divide is ensuring that all people have access to robust, relevant content, not just technology. Giving more people access to knoweldge they can add to themselves will also increase the linguistic and cultural diversity of the Internet in general and Wikipedia in particular, which isn’t always very well represented for many languages, particularly smaller ones.

However, several international activists involved in bridging the digital divide have already raised some questions about the alliance. On the BytesForAll list, which focuses on digital divide issues in South Asia, members have noted how recording Wikipedia onto a laptop automatically dates it. If those laptops are unable to connect to the Internet, the content will get older and older. As one participant noted, “there is a good chance that this e-content is something like the books kept in the shelf. Some bibliophiles dust them occasionally.”

In a post entitled Reading Between the Lines, Trinidadian blogger Taran Rampersad puts it this way:
Reading between the lines - if the Wikipedia is to be distributed with the ‘OLPC’, then it means that the OLPC folks are tacitly saying that the systems are not expected to connect to the internet. This means that as soon as the Wikipedia gets in the hands of the children - it’s outdated. So instead of fixing the problem, it’s minimizing it - which is not a bad thing, but it’s also not a good thing.

The challenge, here, will be figuring out a way to make sure all of those kids won’t be “dusting” the laptops as suggested by the BytesForAll post. For some rural communities in the developing world, Internet access will be intermittent at best, so it would be possible to develop some kind of “wikisync” tool that would sync the laptops with the latest Wikipedia, just like you would sync your mobile phone with your computer’s address book.

But this leads to another problem: as more and more educators encourage students to become Wikipedians themselves, how will the Wikipedia community dynamic be affected by these intermittent updates? For example, let’s say a group of kids in a rural Nigerian community update a batch of entries as part of a class project. They don’t have consistent Internet access, so they make a series of edits locally. Meanwhile, those same Wikipedia entries are probably evolving online, as other Wikipedians enter them. To complicate matters further, another group of students in Massachusetts work to edit the same entries, but aren’t allowed to participate in the discussions for those entries because of the school’s concern over online predators. How will the different versions of the same entry be reconciled when the students’ entries are updated? Will the online Wikipedians feel slighted when the students’ content suddenly overrides their content without building consensus?

Wikipedia, when it’s at its best, works well because a community of people come together around an entry and use their collective knowledge to craft it. It’s the interplay that takes place between these people that leads to a consensus document - a consensus that remains a work-in-progress, but a consensus nonetheless. Would having students that lack regular Internet access editing Wikipedia entries offline make it impossible to achieve that consensus?

What do readers think? Are the wikimaniacs behind these projects onto something, or are they just maniacs? -andy

Filed under : Digital Divide, Wikis


I find these two new initiatives of the wiki-foundation very interesting, indeed antithetical to one another. The first idea, an on-line wikiversity sounds very intersting and potentially powerful. Curricula are designed to move students from one place to another and high quality curricula have been in scaffolds that allow students to master knowledge and skills in a sequential order. A curriculum must consider the learning process to educate effectively.

I’ve had a probelm with MIT’s $100 computer since I first heard about it. You put a lap top into a student’s hands. Now what? Just because somebody is holding a lap top doesn’t mean that they know how to use it effectively. (Just becuase somebody is holding a pencil doesn’t mean that he knows how to write.) Now we’ve an encyclopedia on a lap top. So what? Just because somebody has an encyclopedia doesn’t mean that he knows how to read it. Just because somebody knows how to read it doesn’t mean that he can understand it well enough to use the ideas within it effectively. I admire MIT’s efforts to promote learning amongst children in third world nations. But, I think that its much more thought than simply providing laptops with wikipedia on it.

Andrew Pass

(Just becuase somebody is holding a pencil doesn’t mean that he knows how to write.) Now we’ve an encyclopedia on a lap top. So what? Just because somebody has an encyclopedia doesn’t mean that he knows how to read it. Just because somebody knows how to read it doesn’t mean that he can understand it well enough to use the ideas within it effectively.

I agree with this but your argument is ironic. You argue that MIT one lapton is over simplifing a complex issue, by oversimpliying a complex issue.

I agree that holding a pencil, doesn’t make you a writer [take my case for example, :) ], but would you agree that it’s a start? To me, it eliminates a barrier, both physical and mental.

A child holding a pencil is more likely to write and than one without. And the mental barrier,’We can’t do it because it’s expensive’, is no longer valid.

Now we can move on to the more complex issues, like ‘We don’t want to do it’

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