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Wikipedia and Education


John Simkin
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Interesting article in today's Guardian by Sean Dodson

Thursday August 11, 2005

The Guardian

In less than five years, what started out as a small side project with a budget of a few thousand pounds has grown into one of the web's greatest success stories. Wikipedia, the open, editable encyclopedia, and its sister projects have gone from absolutely nothing to 22m entries in less than half a decade. In doing so, Wikipedia - the centrepiece of the Wikimedia empire - has become the most detailed encyclopedia in history. And its breathtaking pace has yet to show any sign of slowing.

As an online knowledge database, Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org) has one significant advantage over its expert, professional predecessors: anyone is free to edit it. Equally, anybody is free to delete entries or add new ones. The system works by using editable web pages known as wikis (hence the name), which let ordinary users make changes as they see fit. And, in handing this power to the people, Wikipedia has become more than just a hobby - for some it is almost a religion.

Last Friday, the movement held its first ever international conference, Wikimania, in a youth hostel in Frankfurt, with 400 delegates who'd flown in from all over the world.

The Wikimedia Foundation is to knowledge what the Open University is to academia, except it operates on an annual budget of $800,000 (£450,000) and - perhaps most surprisingly - with a staff of just one person. It is written and administered by a legion of volunteers who work for free. Tens of thousands of devotees, self-confessed wikimaniacs, squirrel away at the world's information, trying to cover "the sum of all human knowledge" in every language spoken by humans - and a few, such as Sanskrit and Old English, that are long dead.

As well as the encyclopedia, the foundation also offers a dictionary, a taxonomy of the species and a nascent news service. All operate under the same ideals of openness and public cooperation without the need of financial incentive.

At Wikimania, Jimmy Wales, the movement's founder, identified the next pieces of the jigsaw likely to fall into place. In his keynote address, Wales named a list of things "that should be free". While not quite commandments, they amount to 10 ideas about how the "Free Culture Movement", as he termed it, could extend the wiki ethic beyond the pages of its ever-growing encyclopedia.

Among the projects under discussion are an online atlas charted by members of the public; a repository of classical music to be performed by student orchestras; a file format to rival the mighty MP3; an online curriculum stretching from kindergarten to university; and an archive of images of paintings by the old masters. In short, Wikipedia is to spread its wings over many more forms of culture.

What's more, there are already 10,000 book "modules" being collaboratively written within the pages of Wikipedia. Soon, they will be published under the foundation's banner thanks to a deal with an "on demand" publisher. It could, says Wales, signal a whole new kind of book publishing.

He also urged his hardcore following - the various volunteer "chapter heads" who administer the wiki projects and police the site for copyright violations and mindless vandalism - to go forth and multiply. This is important to Wales because while Wikipedia is becoming a wider movement theoretically open to anyone, only an elite of users actually bother.

According to the movement's own statistics, there are 3,800 hardcore users making more than 100 edits a month, and another 18,000 who make at least five. Then there is a long tail of casual users who use Wikipedia as just another authoritative source - as they might have once used Britannica or Microsoft's Encarta, making the odd edit only if the urge takes them.

As the movement gets bigger, its organisation becomes more difficult. Already there are Wikimedia "chapters" in Germany and France, who help organise fundraising and hand out administration tasks. A UK chapter (http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Wikimedia_UK) is also beginning to form, with a small group of wikipedians meeting in central London every couple of months.

One of its regulars, Dave Gerard, a part-time volunteer editor and full-time computer system administrator, freely admits he is "addicted" to Wikimedia and spends several hours every day on work related to the site. Like most editors, his primary motivation is to do "some public good". "I've been filling my head with information for decades," he says. "This is a chance to get it all back out again."

He is not alone. Ever since the library of Alexandria was built, the dream of amassing vast quantities of information has inspired the world. "What we're doing," says Wales, is building "a world in which every person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge."

Just as astonishingly, he thinks it will take just a decade to achieve this ambition. According to Wales, there are more than 22m Wikimedia entries extending across 200 languages. The aim is to provide for "every language in the world spoken by at least one million people" by 2015. If this sounds like chaos, think again: it's more akin to the ideas that fired the imaginations of 19th century political radicals such as Matthew Arnold and Mikael Bakunin. It is anarchy representing a self-regulating cooperative of free thinkers acting voluntarily for a greater common good - and it works in practice, too.

There is a rumour, started by a factual error in Time Magazine, that the Wikipedia entries for US presidential candidates George Bush and John Kerry were "frozen" during last year's election campaign, so fierce was invective-laden spam being slapped around by both sides. In fact, the page was closed "less than 2% of the time," according to Wales. Even in the heat of battle, Wikipedia can be relied upon as an impartial and trustworthy source.

It should stay that way. Wikipedia will, says Wales, never carry a commercial advertisement, nor rely on government funding. The Wikimedia Foundation is paid for by contributions from charitable foundations and its reading public. Help comes from all quarters: Yahoo recently donated its old servers (banks of which reside in clusters in Paris, Amsterdam and Florida) and the Foundation holds bandwidth-buying fundraising drives. In February, wikimaniacs were so keen to stump up the cash that they overshot their target of $75,000 (£42,000) in just a few days. The organisation's entire budget is also online. In more ways than one, Wikimedia is an open book.

Which is why it is easy to discover that there are 600,000 articles in the English language volume alone - not counting another 70,000 entries on its sister Wiktionary. More than 1,250 new articles - over 500 an hour - are added every day, and entries are becoming ever more detailed. The average number of edits - the inevitable revisions and corrections - in the English encyclopedia is now more than 10, with the entries increasing in quality as the project matures. That it achieves all this on it's small annual budget is astounding. The fact that it only employs one person is doubly so.

Wales started Wikipedia in January 2001, as an offshoot to a failed commercial encyclopedia, Nupedia. He made his first fortune from his days treading the Chicago trading floors in futures and options, and made another with a dotcom that peddled content - including soft porn -in the late 90s. He now describes himself as "independently wealthy".

Given that background, it's unsurprising that very little content gets censored. And the site takes a provocative stance on the copyright of old paintings, allowing images to be posted freely on the site. "I've told the National Portrait Gallery I'll see them in court," says Wales.

It has so far avoided any serious trouble, though Wikipedia has twice been blocked from China - "We don't know if this was just a mistake" - and once from Saudi Arabia, but only for a few hours in each instance. In February 2002, most participants of the Spanish Wikipedia broke away to establish the rival Enciclopedia Libre, but there is now talk of welcoming them back.

It could be said that the mark of a good technology is when Microsoft starts "borrowing" your ideas. Microsoft's Encarta announced in April that it was adopting wiki-style open editing for its for-profit encyclopedia. Others, such as the Free Encyclopedia, have copied the ideas pretty much wholesale.

So can the other encyclopedias hope to match Wikipedia's pace? Maybe not, because Wikipedia has become something else.

"Books like the Encyclopedia Britannica are nothing else than simple knowledge compendiums without any political soul," says Jean-Baptiste Soufron, a legal adviser to the Wikimedia Foundation. "I am convinced that Wikipedia is the only real encyclopedia of our days because it's the only one that relies on a real political goal: to pursue freedom over content and information."

http://www.guardian.co.uk/online/story/0,,1546162,00.html

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Hi John

Many thanks for posting this information about the growth of Wikipedia. I have found Wikipedia to be a very useful tool in my own researches. I am though concerned that given, as stated, anyone can post information to Wikipedia, what are the safeguards to stop fallacious or untrue information being posted? All of us who have used the Internet know of the abuses of the net and it would seem to me that Wikipedia is as open as any other website to abuse or troublemakers, not to mention bad scholars. Am I the only one with these concerns?

Best regards

Chris

Edited by Christopher T. George
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The idea of a free-content encyclopedia on the Web that anyone can sounds great, but it’s not all good news. While Wikipedia covers an enormous range of subjects in different languages there is no guarantee that what you read is accurate, as the content can be added to or amended by any member of the public, and there is no indication of the authorship or the authors' credentials – which, for me, is vital when seeking any kind of information, in print or in electronic format. On the one hand Wikipedia can be perceived as a wonderful example of collaborative writing, but on the other hand it can be perceived as a golden opportunity for the propagation of oddball ideas and self-promotion. I checked out an article on Computer Assisted Language Learning (my own specialist area of expertise) in early 2005. It was hopelessly out of date, sketchy and inaccurate, so I amended it. Two weeks later it was amended back to what it was, so I amended it again. A few more additions have since been made by someone else (authorship unknown) but the article is generally OK - for the time being. There's some good stuff in Wikipedia, but it's not a reliable source of information compared, say, with a properly refereed and edited encyclopedia, either in book form or online. I checked out a few more Wikipedia entries relating to subjects that I know quite a bit about. Around half were good, and the remainder were poor.

On a different but related matter, I work as an external examiner for a British university. In recent years plagiarism has become more commonplace, as students can scour the Web for articles containing information on virtually any subject under the sun and simply copy and paste what they find into their assignments. This has led to the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) setting up a plagiarism detection service, which is hosted at http://www.submit.ac.uk. This service enables institutions and staff to carry out electronic comparison of students' work against electronic sources including other students' work. It appears to be very effective. Wikipedia is a source of information that students often use. I can nearly always spot a Wikipedia article that has been used as a source as there’s usually something about it that doesn’t ring true, but JISC’s service will find it anyway. I wonder to what extent Wikipedia articles are themselves plagiarised from other sources.

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Many thanks for posting this information about the growth of Wikipedia.  I have found Wikipedia to be a very useful tool in my own researches.  I am though concerned that given, as stated, anyone can post information to Wikipedia, what are the safeguards to stop fallacious or untrue information being posted?  All of us who have used the Internet know of the abuses of the net and it would seem to me that Wikipedia is as open as any other website to abuse or troublemakers, not to mention bad scholars.  Am I the only one with these concerns?

I have posted details of my battles with Wikipedia:

http://educationforum.ipbhost.com/index.php?showtopic=3620

The good news is that I eventually won. This could only be a short-term victory but for the moment it has accepted my definition of Operation Mockingbird.

Thursday August 11, 2005, Sean Dobson, The Guardian:

There is a rumour, started by a factual error in Time Magazine, that the Wikipedia entries for US presidential candidates George Bush and John Kerry were "frozen" during last year's election campaign, so fierce was invective-laden spam being slapped around by both sides. In fact, the page was closed "less than 2% of the time," according to Wales. Even in the heat of battle, Wikipedia can be relied upon as an impartial and trustworthy source...

"Books like the Encyclopedia Britannica are nothing else than simple knowledge compendiums without any political soul," says Jean-Baptiste Soufron, a legal adviser to the Wikimedia Foundation. "I am convinced that Wikipedia is the only real encyclopedia of our days because it's the only one that relies on a real political goal: to pursue freedom over content and information."

The idea that you can have an objective encyclopedia is ridiculous. Anyone who writes about politics or history will have an opinion on what they are writing about. This will influence what they write. My account of Operation Mockingbird is no more objective than the one that it replaced. It is terribly dangerous to give the impression that it is possible to be objective. Instead we should be teaching young people how to deal with subjective accounts. My own view is that Wikipedia will eventually be replaced by a Forum Encyclopedia. The student can then look at the different interpretations of the individual, event, etc. and make up their own mind about what the “truth” is.

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John writes:

It is terribly dangerous to give the impression that it is possible to be objective. Instead we should be teaching young people how to deal with subjective accounts.

It depends on the subject area. In my subject area, modern foreign languages, there are a number of essential pieces of information that are simply right or wrong and where there is no room for debate. Most verbs are conjugated according to a set of fixed patterns and most nouns are declined (e.g. in Russian) according to a fixed set of rules. There are acceptable variances, of course: e.g. we Brits use “got” as the past participle of “get” while North Americans say “gotten” and pronounce many words differently from us – but no more differently (and often a lot less differently) than speakers of regional variations within the British Isles. Learning a modern foreign language involves committing a large amount of information to memory (around 2000 vocabulary items for basic communication), mastering a set of grammatical rules that allow little room for manoeuvre and getting one’s tongue round a lot of new sounds. This is what makes modern foreign languages a “difficult” subject area, namely there are a large number of hard facts that have to be learned, combined with the skill element involved in understanding language spoken at normal speed and engaging in conversation. Our discipline, like music, requires hours and hours of practice rather than reading books and analysing what they say. And modern school timetables simply do not have enough spare room in which the required hours of practice can be made available. Times have changed. When I was at school I calculate that I spent around 550 hours in French classes over a period of five years – and passed my O Level without a problem. 350-400 hours is reckoned by the Council of Europe as being the average amount of learning hours needed to achieve CEF B1 (Threshold) level, i.e. the point at which most people being to communicate in a foreign language with a degree of confidence. Sorry, I digress…

However, in the case of literature (which represents the main content element of most traditional university courses in modern foreign languages) there is enormous scope for opinions and in this respect literature is more like history or politics. In the case that I cited above, however, i.e. the Wikipedia entry on Computer Assisted Language Learning, certain facts were wrong, key reference works were missing, titles and dates of cited reference works were incorrect, and the information in general was out of date – and few experts would argue about the amendments that I made. The original article had probably been written by a North American teacher of English as it cited only North American reference works and focused exclusively on English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). Current amendments that have been made by other authors seem to indicate information emanating from the Asia-Pacific region – which is good.

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