OUConf10 – Jimmy Wales – Openness in Education

Finally from the OU Conference 2010, my notes from Jimmy Wales’ closing keynote: Openness in Education. Jimmy Wales, in case you didn’t know or have forgotten, is the founder of Wikipedia (or co-founder – a debate explored fully on Wikipedia itself)

We had a few technical issues to start with fiddling with slides, but Jimmy was extremely friendly and patient and chatted while we got things sorted out. Then he started in properly.

Jimmy Wales, photo by Wikimania2009 on Flickr (CC-BY)

Wikipedia was the great experiment – the core idea behind Wikipedia was to create a free encyclopaedia, for everyone in the world, in many many languages. Charles van Doren was editor at Britannica – was saying it should be radical and stop being safe. Admire very much, but isn’t radical.

Wikipedia has radical idea – every single person on the plant it given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. Each part is important. Defines what Wikipedia is.

Everyone knows what it is, but may not have full ideas. A free and high-quality encyclopaedia written by thousands of volunteers in many languages. Over time, have come to think of important: neutrality and quality, Need minimum level of reliability – if was random nonsense and rubbish, people wouldn’t rely on it. Within community, have processes and controls designed to bring about higher level of quality. If dig in to Wikipedia, interesting discussions about how we do our work – those conversations centred around quality. What tools we need, rules, norms, to generate high quality as possible. Nothing is top down – many people think that’s required. We’ve proven that’s not necessarily the case. Neither top down, nor complete anarchy. Is the major innovation.

Core idea of neutrality has always been with us – neutral point of view – NPOV is non-negotiable. Not advocating from one side or another – none of those, Wikipedia should not take a stand on any issue, but present all sides fairly. Many ways defines who is and is not part of the community. If someone wants to push an agenda, even if community agrees with the agenda, say can’t use Wikipedia as a platform for advocacy. Important to know the principle is social, not technical. Can’t enforce in software. It’s up to the readers, editors, to discuss and debate.

What is free access? Old joke – free as in speech, not as in beer. Free beer is good, but this is more fundamental and important. For all work in Wikipedia – the text, and software – all our work is freely licensed. You can copy, modify, redistribute, commercially or not. Contributing to a base storehouse of knowledge that can be reused for many possibilities. Likely long-term impact of Wikipedia in education. Encyclopedia not necessarily best format for learning something – assumes a basic level of knowledge, doesn’t build. Hard to use as only resource for learning, say, geometry. But a lot of the content in Wikipedia could be reused and structured – though that is a big piece of work to do.

The “sum” of all human knowledge. It’s an encyclopaedia, not an archive, library, textbook – type of reference work. Not everything belongs. No jokes about the Eiffel Tower in that entry, for instance. A centralised summary of human knowledge, with the depth depending on the context. Most entries should be accessible to the general public with a high school or college education. Isn’t always true, some advanced concepts in mathematics where it’s not likely that you can really understand, stay, stochastic differential equations. It’s for the community to say.

Wikipedia is created in a fairly unique way, with a pretty much unprecedented business model. Is a charity, supported by donations. Vast majority of money comes from small donors, through annual giving campaign, average size around $30 raised $8m. Is other funding – foundations, gift from Google. And major wealthy donors. Also important that core funding is from small donors, community is independent, no pressure from donors to change content – issue doesn’t come up. Could this be a model for other sites? Could be. Has enormous audience, only a tiny percentage donate – 275m people visit. Hard to imagine lots of other projects could be funded that way. But we have very very low costs – only reason it costs so much is because 275m people a month visit it, logistical issues with servers, staff, lots of resources. Very low costs, in many cases don’t even need a funding model, can happen organically without money.

Wikimedia Foundation is charity that runs Wikipedia – have 35 employees (or 37, 38) but hundreds of thousands of volunteers. The staff keep the site on the air and communication.

How global is Wikipedia? Vision that want to be for every single person on the planet in their own language. Better in some languages than others. 3m+ in English, >500k in German, French, Polish, Japanese, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese – all European/Japanese language. Also Chinese. In all the other languages of the world we have less content and participation. Partly connectivity, literacy, culture, speed of the site. Often slow to load in India because servers far away, looking at closer-to-Asia data centre. Many reasons, but focus on those is important, impact of Wikipedia not yet seen to bring encyclopaedia to languages that have never seen one before.
Chinese – 308,000 articles – China is not particularly open. Articles is small compared to number of Chinese speakers online. Were banned in China until 3y ago. Have never compromised on censorship, is a fundamental human right. Will never compromise on censorship. Long process of quiet diplomacy, agree to disagree. Currently, Wikipedia generally available but some are filtered – e.g. Tiananmen Square, Taiwanese independence, Falun Gong, etc. But rest comes through.

Wikipedia popularity? Top ten in lots of places (US, Germany), but only 53rd in China. Chinese minister wanted to know why Wikipedia didn’t have more Chinese articles. Have had a cultural impact of sorts in China – Beijing menu offering Wikipedia fried with eggs – Beef Brisket in Wikipedia flavour. Also Wekipedia bread company. People ask, “Jimmy, what does this mean?” I say I have no idea. Asked Chinese Wikipedians, and they said “Jimmy I have no idea”. Maybe that if you put in any menu name, first thing out of Google is Wikipedia, so that could be it.

Popularity of topics by language – pop culture in Japan extremely popular (no surprise). French and Spanish have no sex at all, could be they’re actually doing it rather than reading about it.

Have same interests, neutrality – deep culture transcends – things like Star Trek and Star Wars are universally interesting. But are differences in reader patterns.


Michelle: French/German/Russia have more geography articles than other kinds?

Jimmy: Usually joke that Germans are most interested in Geography, not sure that’s a good thing. More seriously, not sure that these really map to differences in viewership map to differences in quantity – it’s just that they’re more popular.

Nigel: What’s next?

Jimmy: That’s the hardest question possible. In the short term, strategy.wikimedia.org – engaged in a long-term strategy project, just beginning to make longer term plans. Three things are priorities, two are inter-related, all of them are. One is quality – in the large languages. Once at a certain size, adding more quantity to e.g. English wikipedia is a lower priority. Not that it is not growing, but it is quite comprehensive already but now looking at improving the quality across multiple dimensions. Another focus is growth in the developing world – running pilot projects in three or four different languages, put boots on the ground to help grow the local-language Wikipedia. Size of community, barriers to entry are different. In Arabic, there could be keyboard-entry issues can address technically, have 125k entries but could do with PR/communications/marketing support so Arabic world know about it. A lot of people will also use English or French, don’t realise there’s an Arabic Wikipedia. Where we have a very small Wikipedia – say 1000 or so entries – very low-level engagement, get early community engaged, bloggers, academics. Finally – usability. Cuts across both of those. We know our software is not as user-friendly as we’d like. Want to make it much easier for a wider-range of people. When you click on ‘edit’ get complex table, complex markup – not intentional, has grown that way. Want to move to WYSIWYG editing environment, don’t want tech skills to be a barrier to entry. Quality issue – e.g. Elizabethan poetry geeks may not be computer/tech geeks as well.

Dominik Lukes: Many educators have been setting students (from postgrad to undergrad) assignments to edit or create Wikipedia pages based on their course content. What are your views on that?

Jimmy: Sometimes excited, sometimes dismayed. Depends on the project and how it’s structured. An old example – was more or less a disaster. At Dartmouth, instructor told students to write something about Dartmouth with no preparation. Many wrote about, say, a bus stop, a garbage can on the corner of two streets. Wikipedia community reacted badly, blocked many of the Dartmouth people from editing. Few people learned much. But some great ones where students had appropriate background, could do something of quality, and learn about participatory culture and how knowledge is constructed. Very important skill, is wonderful if can find ways for students to participate, work well with others. Realise it’s not all handed down by gods, there are human beings, can engage and tussle with knowledge, not just something for you to absorb. Need to have support. Good way to do it is to talk to the Wikipedia community, say what you’re planning, can we put a group together to help out, generally will get lots of people who want to help. Giota posted a link http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:School_and_university_projects – good place to look.

Will Woods: do cultural differences impact on entries? – e.g. history being written by the winners

Jimmy: To compare to Wikipedias, have to speak two languages really well. How much impact do those differences have? Difficult to say. One example – English Wikipedia thinks it’s obvious that the Wright brothers invented the airplane. But in France they’re taught a different, plain answer – some guy we’ve never heard of invented it. So French and English Wikipedia say different things. But now when you look at it, it’s a fairly nuanced story, lots of people working, various advances, which you want to call the first airplane is tricky. Wright brothers flew further than it would have if it was a glider, but the French/Brazilian guy was the first to fly up, rather than gliding down more slowly. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aviation_history


Q: Quality control issues?

Jimmy: Vandalism – people write curse words, bad things. Most famous quality problem, but it’s the one we have the most handle on and is the least important. News media find it interesting if there’s a curse word in an article. They’re generally repaired within minutes, and most of our readers get it . Deeper issues are about issues of bias, particularly relating to less popular and less controversial topics. If you take a look at any seriously controversial issue – Israel/Palestine, Scientology – within WIkipedia, always a lot of noise, but a lot of good people working together to reach a compromise. Generally those articles closely monitored and good quality. Once you’ve had a Wikipedia entry heavily edited over many years you’re not going to get anything better. But much more obscure topics where only people who care really like or hate something. More problematic, can have long-term persisting problems. Article about some actor I’d never heard of, had something to do with Charlie Chaplin – most of article was a diatribe against Charlie Chaplin. Transparently badly-written, was there for a couple of years. Nobody was monitoring, not many people read it. How do we get a system where we can go through a lot of the less popular articles and really vet them? That’s a question for the future.

Martin: Comparison with Britannica vs Wikipedia – HE is like Britannica, or let the community filter it. Is there more of a model for HE – does this approach only work for certain types of resources?

Jimmy: Best answer is a non-answer: the kind of question is the question we should all be asking. Lot of innovation. Not just software innovation, though that’s a part. But social innovation, around the university, how people think about education, teaching, research. These techs are changing how people are learning, and university isn’t changing so fast. Wish I knew some of the answer, but I only know a few of the questions.

Karen Cropper: I wonder how you feel Jimmy when people say negative comments about Wikipedia. I think it is always easy to knock things and we have even seen that yesterday and today with people being cynical about what we are doing with this conference. Yet it is much harder to pioneer and take action in a positive way to make things better.

Jimmy: I feel very happy about that. It’s true, it can be quite distressing sometimes when people criticise WIkipedia. Two kinds of criticism – one is things that are blatantly unfair and unwanted. Here in UK, famous newspaper columnist bashed Wikipedia, singled out two volunteers by name, they were lovely to him and he savaged them in the press, was really unfair. Other times, we screwed up, and say something’s really bad on Wikipedia for say four months, and that’s bad. But take solace – for the most part it’s good, but want to listen to criticism. As long as people aren’t mean, and are willing to engage, believe in good faith but point out a problem – that’s great, we think the same, come and help.

Mira: How are the controversial entries negotiated – are any consensus generation techniques used? (I’m guessing not, because of Wikipedia’s concern to diminish barriers to entry)

Jimmy: There are a lot of techniques that are used to generate consensus, but it’s all informal. Most important method is people go on the talk page and discuss it, with reference to general principles, ideas about neutrality, reliable sources, Wikipedia not taking a stand. Of course, issues where people struggling to gain advantage, but in general community frowns on that behaviour. Yeah, they do good work but they’re a POV-pusher. Lot of techniques for dealing with it. We say, go meta – don’t make a statement, say who made the statements. You don’t say this happened in Israel, you say the Israeli government says this happened. We can agree on what was said about what happened.

Patrick McAndrew: You haven’t mentioned wikia as a possible place for developing more academic areas – such as theories that need community input.

Jimmy: We welcome all kinds of projects. Not mentioned Wikia today, it’s my separate company where anyone can create a wiki on any topic, we welcome educational projects. It’s about 6-12 months ahead of Wikipedia in terms of usability. Has WYSIWYG editor, don’t know when or if Wikipedia will do that; they talk to each other but it’s up to separate tech staff. Would welcome creation of any kind of project, educational projects are an obvious thing.

Karen Cropper: What does going meta mean?

Jimmy: Take abortion. Wikipedia can’t say it’s a sin, or it’s a human right – those are controversial statements. Instead, can step back one step and say Catholic position is it’s a sin, Pope has said X, we are not taking part in the debate, we’re describing the debate.

Aldo de Moor: What about better visualized basic indicators (#changes/time, #authors over lifetime, #deletions/time (not additions) etc) as a way for the reader to immediately make some sense of the level of stability/quality of an entry?

Jimmy: Intruiged by these ideas. Can offer as tools. But are never going to be reliable enough to really give the reader a definitive answer. Number of changes, deletions – can be gamed, something we really discourage. If I don’t like it, don’t want people to trust it, can generate a lot of noise. And they can just be wrong. Every entry is what it is at a moment in time, anyone can change the whole thing at once, the metrics based on the past can be entirely wrong. So, take an article been left alone for 2y would look bad on metrics, could come in with a really-great update and the metrics wouldn’t keep up. Better ask people is this a good article or not, measure that. But even that – could get robots to click ‘great article’ so it comes up. Gain a lot by keeping quality at the human level. But also don’t have tools to spot things that are not good quality.

Dominik Lukes: More of a general discussion question: I’ve noticed gaps on Wikipedia in many relatively obscure fields, e.g. British educational philosophy, action research. I think this is because people who know about these fields don’t know much about Wikipedia. I think academics in these fields have a responsibility to keep Wikipedia complete. What would be the best way to get them involved? The wikipedia community spirit often does not fit with the traditional system of reward in academia. I was toying with the idea of applying for funding for a research project to create seeds for the relevant entries but was told it was a fool’s errand.

Jimmy: It is a general discussion question. Lot to it. For better or worse, Wikipedia is now a fundamental part of the infrastructure of knowledge in our society. To the extent that academics think that their role is not just the specific research they’re doing, teaching students, but being a public intellectual, assisting society at large – there is a responsibility to explain to general public, and Wikipedia is a good place to do that. There are barriers to entry, and we the Wikipedia community should reduce them. One is simply technology. Especially fields not especially computer-science generated. Can find themselves bewildered. Will get better over time. But there’s also a social barrier – complex rules, different shorthand lingo, processes, are something people need to learn about. Can be dismaying experience if you do it wrong – we try to be nice to people who start doing something not quite right, but that experience can be bad. There’s always a few people who are a bit too snippy. Also, there are people who are professors who are not good at neutrality, they’re accustomed to putting forward their agenda in a polemical way. An article on psychology written by Skinner or Freud would be wildly different, equally brilliant, equally idiosyncratic. But they’re not encyclopaedic. Can be difficult to write in that form. And some are arrogant, I am the expert, anyone correcting me and I’m angry. The best academics are not like that, willing to talk to even a bright teenager who disagrees. Not all are like that.

Fred Garnett: Reading about Google, Wikipedia is more inspiring.

Jimmy: Thanks for the excellent questions.

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Author: dougclow

Data scientist, tutxor, project leader, researcher, analyst, teacher, developer, educational technologist, online learning expert, and manager. I particularly enjoy rapidly appraising new-to-me contexts, and mediating between highly technical specialisms and others, from ordinary users to senior management. After 20 years at the OU as an academic, I am now a self-employed consultant, building on my skills and experience in working with people, technology, data science, and artificial intelligence, in a wide range of contexts and industries.

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