News and notes
Participants at the Wikipedia in Higher Education Summit in Boston, Massachusetts, 7–9 July 2011
Wikipedia in education is far from a new idea: years of news stories, op-eds, and editorials have focused on the topic; and on Wikipedia itself, the School and university projects
page has existed in various forms since 2003. Over the next six years, the page was rarely developed, and when it did advance there was no clear goal in mind.
- Recent background
2009 marked a turning point in this narrative, when the Wikimedia Foundation launched the Public Policy Initiative (PPI) for 2010–11 with support from the Stanton Foundation. The pilot received relatively wide media coverage and was seen as highly successful in improving its target articles, on American public policy. This success emboldened the organizers to expand the pilot worldwide. The Cairo pilot appears to have met with greater success, but a second pilot in India ran into significant difficulties and ended in failure. The considerable community backlash from the debacle in India—including many calls for its closure—threw the program's future into doubt.
More recently, an Education Working Group has been formed to look at reforming the coordination of the US and Canada Education Programs and to organize an eventual transition to a fully volunteer-run system.
- RfC on the next step
The working group is now attempting to move into a new phase with a request for comment seeking community consensus to form a Wikimedia thematic organization—an independent organization recognized by the WMF as supporting Wikimedia's mission in relation to a specific topic area. This would be a non-profit entity incorporated as a 501(c) in the United States. The scope of the proposed organization would focus solely on American and Canadian institutions and leave open the option of assisting collaborations with any WMF site. The aims of the thematic organization would be to "advance teaching and learning; (b) bring in new editors, from university students to professors to content experts outside academia; (c) improve the breadth, scope, documentation, and accuracy of Wikipedia articles; and (d) promote the flow of free information and knowledge."
- Opinion split
The RfC, however, has partly developed into a referendum on the education program itself, with a split between working group members and educators supporting, and Wikipedia community members opposing. Mike Cline, a supporter, working group coordinator, and long-time English Wikipedia editor, strongly stated:
This RfC is about the future—the Future of the Wikimedia movement, Wikimedia Outreach and the US Canada Education Program. This RfC is not about, and should not be about the past. ... Those who have opposed this new organization to date, and indeed are calling for the elimination of the Education Program are focused on the past. ... [They] only cite the mistakes, the missteps and rarely give credit to the successes, to the good works by all sorts of ambassadors, students, faculty and WMF Education Program staff. ... I realize there have been missteps in the Education Program, but for opposers to characterize all the work done under [it] as a failure is not supported by the facts. ... Why is this partnership essential for the future of Wikipedia? If we truly believe in the mantra—the sum of all knowledge for the human race, and if we want to create an encyclopedia of world class quality and scope, we have to involve the Academic Community. It is doubtful we can continue robustly growing the encyclopedia without them.
Education professionals who support the program believe that without this form of outreach (assuming that professors will continue to assign their students to edit Wikipedia), their students will not receive the on-wiki interaction necessary for them or their articles to succeed. Theredproject commented that editing the site opened his students' eyes to the "questions of Free Culture, collaboration, and wikis." Ocaasi took a different approach, believing that the previous problems with the program have been addressed and that it deserves a "second chance" over one to two years to prove itself.
Opposers have largely focused on whether there is a need for the program. Fluffernutter commented that there is a "lack of evidence of any material benefit from the existence of the program. All signs I've seen have indicated that the program creates a lot of cleanup work for the community and very little in the way of useful content or new long-term contributors."
Other editors echoed her post: MER-C believes that the program "needs a massive haircut to bring it back to a scale where it is a net positive for the encyclopedia—i.e. similar to the Public Policy Initiative. Developing a formal, self-justifying bureaucracy around the program to further expand it is exactly the wrong way to go." At least one further oppose believed that spinning the program off from the WMF as planned would lead to less accountability for the program as a whole.
This contrast in views begs the question: is the education program worth the effort? The WMF published a US–Canada results page a few days after Fluffernutter's oppose, detailing the effects of the education program on Wikipedia over the first half of 2012 and including detailed graphs of the changes in quality. As assessed by a volunteer group of Wikipedia editors, 87.9% of articles were improved by student editing. On a 26-point quality scale, the articles were improved on average by 2.94 points; only eight articles saw a decrease in quality, with the worst dropping by two points. The report notes that existing articles were usually improved from the equivalent of weak Start-class articles to strong Start-class or C-class articles. New articles fell into the same area.
Another supporting view has come from a previously published and highly publicized op-ed written by English Wikipedia editor and current working group member Mike Christie for the Signpost last December. There, Christie concluded that the education program was necessary, because "if we manage the influx of academic interest correctly, Wikipedia will acquire an institutional connection to academia that will be a source of new content for our articles and an intellectual resource to assist with long-term growth. Wikipedia does not need to beg for respectability any more; it is already widely used by academics as a starting point for research, and sometimes for more than that. We need to accept our respectability, and plan to learn from—and teach—the academic community."
Opposing arguments mainly stem from experiences with the Indian pilot. The most notable document produced after its closure was by consultant Tory Read, which the Signpost covered in January. The results were stunning: a quantitative analysis done simultaneously with the report showed that only 21% of student-produced content survived after the necessary clean-up. The report itself chronicled the failures in communication and scale; the Indian pilot was five times larger than the Public Policy Initiative. Wikipedians voiced their opposition on the talk page, such as Theo10011:
With the sole exception of [Frank Schulenburg, the Global Education Program director], there isn't a single person who designed and implemented this program that I would be confident about editing themselves. They barely know how to edit themselves, who to ask for help, or how, what is the right and wrong practice. ... they are not versed in the en.wp policies and general editing culture, they were hired as consultants by WMF. ... This is a really important point, when the students and CAs they are overseeing, have the same or more experience than them, that is likely to be a bad start. I honestly believe they need more experience and time to learn the ropes first, before they design and run any future iteration of the education program here.
Yet while the opposition stemming from the Indian pilot is based on solid facts, it does not account for modifications made to the program over the last year. The Working Group RfC is still open for comments from the community, and the Signpost welcomes comments on the Education Program as a whole on the talk page.
- Ed. note: the author volunteered with the Education Program as an Online Ambassador in late 2010 and early 2011.
- English Wikipedia:
- Jimmy Wales marries: Wikipedia's well-known co-founder married Kate Garvey, a former aide to Tony Blair, on 6 October.
- Freedom on the Net: Freedom on the Net 2012, a study looking at the degrees of internet freedom allowed in countries around the world, has been published. Estonia is currently ranked as having the greatest degree of internet freedom in the world. Wikipedia received attention mainly from the various languages' blackouts and the censorship threats they stemmed from (see previous Signpost coverage: Italian blackout, Russian blackout and follow-up, English blackout and follow-up).
- Blog notes issues with link rot: GigaOM has published a piece by Matthew Ingram highlighting the issues with 'information decay', or the tendency for links to go bad as they are moved or deleted. It shows that the "disappearing web" has serious implications for Wikipedia article writers, especially for those writing about current events: Ingram noted a study from two American researchers which hypothesized that at least ten percent of online information disappears by a year after a major newsworthy event. After a year, .02 percent is lost per day.
- Photo competition attains Guinness World Record: The WMF blog reports that Wiki Loves Monuments 2011 has been certified by Guinness World Records as the world's largest-ever photo competition.
- WMF to narrow its focus?: Sue Gardner, the executive director of the WMF, has published her planned recommendation for the WMF's October board meeting. Gardner hopes that by "ceas[ing] some activities (or possibly distribut[ing] them to other movement players)", the WMF will be able to "focus more tightly on high-priority activities that are central to its mandate and mission ... [making the WMF] somewhat less over-mandated and thinly stretched, and therefore better able to plan, predict and execute."
- Wikipedia articles included in automated DMCA takedown request: Microsoft issued an automated Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedown request to Google this week for 65 websites, including the Wikipedia articles Caesar's Civil War, Glock, Britain's Got Talent, and 45th Fighter Squadron. The document stemmed from an alleged infringement of Windows 8 Beta, and comes as part of nearly 5 million webpages Microsoft has requested Google remove from its search engine.
- Wikimedia Travel Guide logo: Voting in the competition to design the new travel guide's logo begins on 12 October, but few images have been proposed.
- Milestone: The Latin Wikipedia reached 80,000 articles this week. Latin is considered to be a dead language, but its status as the parent of the Romance languages—which are widely spoken in Western Europe, Quebec, Latin America, and Western Africa—and its role in Catholic Christianity—has ensured the survival of the language. It is still taught in some Western schools.