23. April 2007 · Comments Off on Re-learning what encyclopedias are good for · Categories: eduausem2007, Events, Issues, Web sites

Jimmy Wales - founder of WikipediaToday education.au launched their first seminar series with Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia. I have to say I was blown away by the quiet sincerity, passion and sweetness of the man who spoke and patiently answered our questions today. I also learned that my concept of what an encylcopedia was — was wrong.

Jimmy started off with his vision of where education is headed in the next 10 years. He sees the cost of textbooks and learning materials dropping to 0, the cost of computers dropping considerably and a narrowing of the digital divide.

He then gave us an overview of the work of the Wikimedia Foundation, which is a non profit organisation and that of Wikia, his for-profit organisation. Factoid for the geeks out there — he estimates the cost of servers for Wikipedia to run around $25k – $30k per month.

One exciting project in the pipeline is devleoping a model where anyone working in free software and content gets free hosting.

Another was recently a cover story in Fast Company. Wikia is developing a search program that is transparent, open source and community-driven where the algorithms are PUBLISHED.

He then went into detail as to why his mission statement is worded the way it is.

His mission statement is for: Every person on the planet to be given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.

By every person – he wants 250 thousand articles in every language spoken natively by at least 1 million people. At least 347 languages fit that description. Currently, there are 1.5 million English language articles, 100 thousand in 11 more languages, 10 thousand in 54 languages and 1 thousand in 128 languages. He drove home the very good point that the next 1 billion people coming online will NOT be from an English-speaking background.

He defines free access as being free as in speech, not as in beer (GNU). In other words, allowing for non-commercial and commercial distribution of modified versions.

Then he got to the bit that really rocked my world (as if all that wasn’t enough!).

The sum of all human knowledge. It isn’t a data dump, archive, library or textbook with everything in it. He sees an encyclopedia (and the SUM of all human knowledge – as in end figure) as: an essentialised summary of human knowledge with the depth dependent on the type of content.

Therefore, an encyclopedia ISN’T SUPPOSED TO BE A CITE-ABLE SOURCE OF INFORMATION. It is a starting point. And that includes Britannica – the gold standard when I was a student.

Jimmy informed us that a sampling of articles in Britannica and Wikipedia found 3 errors per article in Britannica and 4 errors per article in Wikipedia.

He then talked about the neutrality he feels is in inherent in Wikipedia due to the fact that people of wildly divergent backgrounds work together on it.

When it came to the risks of people contaminating it and how mistakes can sneak in, he made a rather amusing point about managing risk and scenario building that goes something like this:

If you decided to open a restaurant, and decided to serve steak, chances are you’ll need sharp knives. However, people could possibly feel the urge to stab each other if you give them sharp knives. Therefore, you may want to design the restaurant so that customers were each put in a cage, so they couldn’t get at each other.

He made this point a few more times during the day — basically, in an online space he feels it is easier to fix things when they break then try to fend off ALL possibilities. In other words, an accountability model instead of a gatekeeper model.

He also reinforced that NO ENCYCLOPEDIA SHOULD BE USED AS A SOURCE IN AN ACADEMIC PAPER – WIKIPEDIA INCLUDED. Encyclopedias are summaries, starting points for research. They give a quick overview and are NOT repositories of original research. They are essentialised summaries. That’s why Wikipedia will flag articles that do not cite their sources.

I felt naughty after hearing that — and shared my delight with others in my age bracket during the break. I’d practically been taught to worship Encyclopedia Britannica. In my head I pictured all these distinguished, older British guys in the tweed jackets with leather patches (okay, so I had a Rex Harrison fetish) poring over ancient texts, correcting each other’s grammar and calling each other “old chap” and encouraging each other with a “jolly good” or two.

I was sad to hear that Wikipedia was banned in China because, unlike Google, they were unwilling to filter articles of which the Chinese government does not approve. I can remember seeing the Tieneman square massacre so was happy to hear that Jimmy and the Wikimedia foundation are standing strong. When he said “access to information is a fundamental human right” and accused China of perpetrating a human rights violation by censoring information, I couldn’t agree more.

He finished off the morning with another mind-blower – Wikipedia is not so much a technological innovation as a social innovation. At the end of the day, like any online community –what’s needed to succeed is:

A clear and imple vision about what is to be accomplished

And the two “golden rules”:

Don’t bite the newbies (exercise understanding when new people make mistakes) and

Don’t feed the trolls (don’t buy into it when people are unpleasant)

More tomorrow – after a day of thinking and uploading more than 50 photos to Flickr, I’m a bit worn out…

The tag is eduausem2007

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