Learning and learning about learning in Wikiversity
Learning and learning about learning in Wikiversity
- Cormac Lawler
- University of Manchester
- cormaggio (at) gmail (dot) com
This paper reflects on the work of Wikiversity, and the way in which its educational goals are mediated by virtue of wiki culture, or “the wiki way”. It examines problems that its participants have negotiated, and discusses their implications with regard to the project’s identity and definition. Issues discussed include structuring of content, granularity of resources, participation, exclusion, and academic freedom versus Wikipedia’s notion of ‘NPOV’. It concludes with a look at whether Wikiversity might constitute a new paradigm in education.
Wikis, Wikiversity, learning, education, community
This paper is a reflection on the first eight months or so of activity on Wikiversity, and a look at how to build on this activity. It is fundamentally about the process of learning, specifically collaborative, active learning, and what it means to learn in this way - the “wiki way”. I will focus on key aspects of the culture and practice of wikis, and how these relate to and even mediate the educational process. I intend here to raise useful questions about Wikiversity’s practice and identity, rather than to state definitively what it is and how it works; however, I hope that through this paper, some of its aspects will be brought to (new) light, and it can be better understood and situated in context.
But before I do anything else, and because this paper is so centrally concerned with learning, I feel it appropriate to sketch briefly my own understanding of learning which frames this paper. I believe that learning is a process of participation in a particular social - and, hence, cultural - context (Vygotsky 1978; Cole 1990) – and it is the quality of this participation that defines the learning experience. Furthermore, learning is about becoming – a negotiation between one’s identity and one’s surroundings – and involves as much the learning about this context as it does that of a given subject (Wenger 1998). Finally, I believe that learning is not the simple and unproblematic acquisition of knowledge, but its active construction (Dewey 1897/1966), and that it is in this process of “critical and developmental engagement” that knowledge is formed and validated (Winter 1991: 479).
Context: Wikiversity and wikis in education
Wikiversity is the youngest of the Wikimedia Foundation projects, and was officially set up in August 2006 (though having been in incubation and discussion between Wikibooks and Meta for at least two years before this). Its focus is around three main activities:
- creating and hosting free-content educational materials,
- developing communities and activities around these materials, and
- facilitating and hosting research projects and products.
In this respect, Wikiversity exists alongside a number of projects that are currently attempting to make educational resources not simply available to the public but free for use and reuse – a group of projects which Atkins, Seely Brown and Hammond (2007) now recognise as having “nascent movement status” (p. 6). However, Wikiversity is not simply producing and/or collating freely licensed educational content – it is engaged in exploring through practice how a wiki can be used to construct an open, participatory system of learning. (Atkins, Seely Brown, Hammond 2007)
A wiki is an editable website which works through the communal activity of its participants around its shared goal (Lamb 2005), and they are increasingly being used in a wide variety of fields and tasks, including education (Bruns & Humphreys 2005; Honegger 2005). Unsurprisingly (in general, but particularly in education), they are used as a tool to promote collaboration and, to a large extent, for collaborative knowledge management (Wagner 2004; Raman, Ryan, Olfman 2005) – in which participants can build repositories of materials that are relevant to their needs, and to use these materials to prompt further work and discussion. Another strong trend in their educational use is to promote the explicit building of a community of practice (Da Lio, Fraboni, Leo, 2005) - though this development of a community of practice is also something that happens as an inevitable upshot of participating on a wiki (Bryant, Forte, Bruckman 2005; Lawler 2005) – a recognition that learning is an inevitable (though not always positive) feature of participation in a shared practice (Lave & Wenger 1991, Wenger 1998). This collaboration involves working with people of different worldviews and nationalities, i.e. across different cultures (Buffa, Sander, Grattarola 2004).
The “wiki way” is a specific culture, with its own practice, or way of doing things. These include “being bold”, dealing with vandalism, writing collaboratively, discussing (through various pages, even media), tracking changes. Clearly, there is quite an amount of learning involved in coming to terms with wikis, not only in getting to grips with the syntax, but also in understanding community norms etc. (Wenger 1998). Culture, of course, is not something predefined - even though it can be inherited to some extent, it is always in the process of being interpreted and reinterpreted by individual people, in their understandings of the context and their relationships within that context.
So, what implications does this “wiki way” have for learning? How is learning mediated by the wiki environment or culture? What even is the viability of the wiki model in education? I think to understand and address these questions, we need to look at the actual activity of people’s participation (or non-participation) in Wikiversity - I feel that this can be most vividly pictured through an exploration of individual problems, issues raised, and the discussions these have generated.
Getting to grips with Wikiversity
Wikiversity is a complex project – as proven to me by the many confused messages that I have witnessed from people trying to understand what Wikiversity is and what they can do in it, for it, or with it. (Of course, this number represents a mere fraction of the number of people who have felt this way but who haven’t posted a comment.) Even the process of defining what Wikiversity should be has been difficult and peppered with conflict (Lawler 2006), with deep questions about the nature of its educational model still left unanswered at the time of its creation. This definition of Wikiversity has continued as a collaborative and diverse imagining - as shown probably most concisely by the contest to find a logo meta:Wikiversity/logo and a motto and slogan Wikiversity:Motto_contest for the project, both of which were many months in discussion.
A large part of my research is to do what most people who track wikis do – in that I have been keeping track of and participating in discussions and recent changes on the wiki, mailing lists, blogs, as well as on IRC, the ‘chat-room’ service used by Wikimedia project members. The problems that I’ve observed people experiencing are widely distributed, from lack of familiarity with wikis, to confusion about how Wikiversity works; what follows is a brief thematic overview of some of these problems, with an attempt to give some flavour of the discussions they have generated, as well as their theoretical and practical implications.
Much of the discussion in the first few months of Wikiversity has been around the structuring of content. Take, for example, this comment from one contributor, Mystictim’s, Wikiversity blog:
- "I've been struggling with this project for quite some time now. I seem to be just rearranging existing content, moving deckchairs around on the proverbial ship. Or to mix some metaphores I can imagine that it's like climbing a mountain. From a distance its clear where the peak is but up close its just a shear cliff with no obvious route to follow." 
There is an obvious lack of structure in Wikiversity embedded in this comment – not just of content but of activity. Content has been organised in Wikiversity around the creation of distinct structures, known as “namespaces” (eg. “School”, “Topic”, “Portal” and “Category”) Wikiversity:Namespaces. I have observed (and experienced myself) the confusion of simply ‘where to put something’ that Mystictim alludes to in this comment. Presumably with this in mind, Mystictim then outlined an initiative for dealing with this problem in the following discussion from roughly one month later:
- Hi I've started a project to categorise the pages that have learning activities for participants at Wikiversity. This will help identify the range of learning activities available at Wikiversity point learners in the direction of learning activities and give learning facilitators ideas for the learning activities they are creating. I've started working through this Alpahabetical list and got up to Daoism. If you think this is a useful endevour please help out. Mystictim 13:47, 8 January 2007 (UTC)
- “Yelling into a dark and empty cave?”
- “Learning activities” must have certain elements otherwise they are no better than “yelling into a dark and empty cave”. There must be specific goals and someone must be listening.
- Therefore, to be a learning activity, a page must:
- 1. Ask the participant to do something. (Just reading and thinking about something is not enough.)
- 2. There must be someway to reach someone who will actually listen and reply. This can be:
- A. A teacher or moderator who will reply.
- B. A clear procedure for posting the answer for other participants to read and reply.
- So far, none of the classes you have identified do this. Robert Elliott 16:10, 8 January 2007 (UTC)
- I would add: C. Click the edit button and participate. --JWSchmidt 16:26, 8 January 2007 (UTC)
- Rather than an empty cave Wikiversity is more a slab of marble which is just beginning to be carved into the most beautiful monument to human achievement. Your right of course effective learning requires much more than just learning activities. However as our slab of marble hasn't taken shape yet I suggest that it isn't that useful to say what is and what isn't a learning activity. What would be useful is to identify the range of learning activities that people have already created. These will give other people ideas about creating and improving learning activities on Wikiverstiy. In a few years time we will be able to look at the Wikiversity and say yes these are the effective learning materials and this is how they can be created but for the time being we are all just chipping away at a huge block. Mystictim 00:02, 9 January 2007 (UTC)
- Yes, but in the meantime, how do we direct potential students to actual lessons (and not just to stubs or blank pages which say "Click the edit button to participate.") Robert Elliott 02:05, 9 January 2007 (UTC) , archived at Wikiversity:Colloquium/archives/January_2007#Categorising_learning_activities
This conversation, with its rich array of metaphors and questions, moved from being a proposal about structure to a broader discussion about what learning materials are, and how learning is provided for in Wikiversity. Just as there is a lacking of structure in Wikiversity’s learning materials, there is also a lack of definition as to how they can be produced – and this is down, as far as I can see, to differences in people’s understandings of Wikiversity, learning, and most of all, pedagogy. Is pedagogy about helping other teachers teach, getting learners to interact with materials, or facilitating participation in the production of the materials themselves? Or is it even productive to be prescribing a particular pedagogy – or type of learning material, as Mystictim raises? I simply include this extract of a discussion to highlight that these issues have been at the core of Wikiversity’s development - and I intend to relate them to further questions I will raise later.
However, it is useful, I think, to reflect here on structure in a wiki as a general issue before moving on. Regardless of whether we think of Wikiversity as a repository of material or as a space for wiki-based learning, people need to know where to find specific pages that they are interested in. A wiki creates a new page based on a new page name, and even the most minor difference in an internal link (like a capitalised letter, or a different punctuation mark) is enough to indicate that this page that doesn’t yet exist – an experience that will be familiar to many wiki users. In other words, the internal ‘logic’ of the structuring of content is almost entirely flat and open, which makes it necessary for structure to be imagined and imposed by some sort of intervention (Krötzsch, Vrandecic, Völkel 2005). At present, though there are other initiatives and tools for extending Mediawiki’s functionality, the semantic structure of the Mediawiki core is based on the assigning of categories, which acts as a form of social tagging – and it is through these categories and other “namespace” organiser pages that the finding of resources is enabled. However, it is an open question as to whether a system that involves a more structured, semantic system (such as metadata) should be implemented, or whether there needs to be better semantic links between categories themselves (Chernov et al. 2006).
There is a question here, when we think of how material will be found, about what people will want to access in Wikiversity in the first place. I think it is inevitable that there will be a wide range of contexts of use of Wikiversity content – from a whole course to an activity to a single worksheet (to give just some examples). The question is then one of granularity – i.e. to what extent material which is appropriate to one course structure can be reused or even ‘remixed’ in the context of another course, curriculum, or learner level, and how big or small these ‘grain sizes’ can be to be broken up in this way (Duncan 2003). For example, there are some Wikiversity materials that are structured in a weekly sequence of lectures and activities – an intuitive fit for some educational contexts, but not so appropriate for the learner or educator who wants to find one specific resource, or set of resources, targeted at their current needs. Another example of structuring is the creation of a hierarchy of pages and ‘subpages’ (eg. History of Spain/20th Century Spain/Spanish civil war/Rise of Franco), which outlines a logical sequence of information, but which doesn’t tell us whether it is aimed towards the academic level of Ph.D or that of mid-secondary school cycle. Here we can see that the structuring, or even the naming of material is non-trivial and inherently problematic, regarding its general utility.
For maximum utility, Wikiversity needs to enable the searching and retrieval of specific resources, which is enabled through tagging, and ultimately technology. But of course concerns with machine-readability need to be set in relief against the subjective needs and values of humans, which, as far as education is concerned, is a complex field. As Wiley (2003) advocates: “we must be extremely careful that our learning environments based on reusable resources contain opportunities for meaningful discourse” (p. 78) - and Wiley et al (2004) point out the “paradox” between on the one hand creating decontextualised learning resources for maximal reusability, and on the other hand the recognition within activity-or-community-based theories of learning of the fundamental role of context in the learning process (Mwanza & Engeström 2005).
I raise all this to highlight what I think are the salient points that permeate the problem that was originally posed. However, it doesn’t bring us to an understanding of the definition of Wikiversity (and the learning therein) that the above discussion addressed, and to which I will now turn.
There have long been many different viewpoints on what Wikiversity is and what it should do (Lawler 2006), and it would be impossible to go into them in detail here. I will, however, include a comment and response that I picked up between two users’ pages:
- External recognition
- I've been actively involved in university life from undergraduate to post-graduate student, to researcher, lecturer and Prof. since 1975 (both in Europe and the Americas, in addition to industry-baseed R&D on both sides of the Atlantic). For the past couple of years I've been an active and enthusiastic contributor to Wikipedia etc. I had great hopes for Wikipedia, but it has, in many ways, exceeded my expectations.
- I feel that the versity suffix throws us into a whole new, and very much more exigent and critical arena. (And rightly so. -I expect that the people who'll come here won't be seeking general knowledge but rather, expecting something much more advanced). I fully support the initiative, but feel duty-bound to express my concerns that contributors MUST adopt a very much more conscientious, rigorously self-critical and professional attitude than in other wiki-projects (be they formally "qualified" or not) when preparing their submissions, edits, suggestions etc. etc.
- Versity-level respect and recognition can only be won by long, hard work, but can be lost in the blink of an eye ! WIKI does, potentially, deserve this level of respect, but will have to earn it.
- Have no doubt, numerous representatives (probably the majority) of the traditional academic community will be very vocal in denouncing any error or misconduct, no matter how insignificant or short-lived. It would be an enormous pity to see such a noble project flounder under such criticism. wikityke 22:40, 23 February 2007 (UTC)
- "the versity suffix throws us into a whole new, and very much more exigent and critical arena" <-- Adopting the name "wikiversity" was one of the most contentious issues faced when this project was being planned. Wikiversity is not an attempt to replicate a conventional university as it exists at bricks-and-mortar institutions today. Wikiversity aims to provide learning resources for people of all ages. When I think about the ultimate goal of Wikiversity, I think about the historical origins of universities, collaborative efforts to facilitate learning that brought together learners and teachers. In a sense, we are starting over from that fundamental starting point but doing it in a new medium, a virtual world that is not constrained by the need to work in a restrictive physical space. We are able to explore what can be done in this new virtual space.
- "the people who'll come here won't be seeking general knowledge but rather, expecting something much more advanced" <-- In some cases. Wikipedia takes a one-size-fits-all approach to topics. I've noticed that some people go to the discussion pages of the more technical Wikipedia articles and leave comments such as, "Can anyone explain this in English?" Wikiversity can complement Wikipedia by providing introductions to technical topics. But in some cases people will come to Wikiversity because they want to go beyond what is possible at Wikipedia.
- "contributors MUST adopt a very much more conscientious, rigorously self-critical and professional attitude than in other wiki-projects (be they formally "qualified" or not) when preparing their submissions, edits, suggestions etc. etc." <-- As a wiki, Wikiversity is open to contributions of all types. I expect that many people will come to Wikiversity and have to learn what it means to function as a scholarly contributor. They will learn by making inept contributions at first and then slowly figuring out how do better. It will be important to have other participants who already have expertise and experience. I am interested in the idea that Wikiversity can establish a system by which the community calls upon its experts to take leadership roles in "more conscientious, rigorously self-critical and professional attitude than in other wiki-projects". See Wikiversity:Review board.
- "denouncing any error or misconduct" <-- Wikiversity is an experiment in how to apply new technologies to support learning. I hope we can plan ahead so as to avoid many problems. When problems arise, I hope we can learn from them and become stronger. Wikiversity aims to offer for free what many people sell. Sadly, we will receive some harsh comments from people who do not wish us well in our altruistic endeavor. --JWSchmidt 00:26, 24 February 2007 (UTC)  and 
This extract doesn’t itself reveal a problem per se, but it raises some interesting issues around the identity of the project and how this relates to the identity of its contributors. The different visions that people have of (and for) Wikiversity are mediated by their visions of education and sites of education - particularly universities (because of the “versity” in Wikiversity’s name). Universities are a particular paradigm for the creation, production, construction, transmission, preservation, critiquing, and/or communication of knowledge (Tiffin & Rajasingham 2003) – and even these words indicate differing worldviews on how knowledge and education work (or should work). As alluded to above, Wikipedia is part of a phenomenon, a movement which is changing the mode of production of global knowledge - and Wikiversity is also part of that movement. But Wikipedia has been subject to substantial resistance from proponents of a model of knowledge production based around “experts” (McHenry 2004) – even if a selection of its content has been deemed by other experts to be on a par with if not better than Britannica’s (Giles 2005). I raise this these points merely to indicate that Wikiversity will inevitably be seen in the light of both educational tradition, as well as the ambivalent reception in academia of its sister project, Wikipedia.
However, it’s not just Wikipedia’s influence that Wikiversity must negotiate – there have been long-standing uncertainties regarding its relationship with another sister project, Wikibooks. Wikiversity was, in fact, originated and incubated in Wikibooks before its final creation as an independent project, but some of the material still being produced on Wikiversity resembles content more appropriate for Wikibooks, which has caused some criticism from within both communities. It is probably the single-most asked question that I have seen about Wikiversity’s overall identity over the last eight months or so, and it is one that Wikiversity’s participants as a whole need to address. There is a clear, if complex, vision of Wikiversity expressed above, but I wonder whether everyone else who is contributing to the project has such a clearly defined view, and whether and to what extent these visions complement and contradict each other.
Participation and exclusion
A slightly later comment in the ‘structuring of resources’ thread above, stated:
- "I always mentally pictured Wikiversity as a sort of global student union where discussions would result in draft material, questions and answers which could be massaged wiki style into lesson plans, texts, and question sets for groups or individuals to work with at their own pace. For some reason the site is not sticky enough to attract large enough participation to create such groups or crowds around areas of interest to wikify. Perhaps we should be thinking about how to attract existing groups to serve as a nucleus of activity rather than depending on individuals of similar interests running into each other on the site." Mirwin 06:19, 10 January 2007 (UTC) 
From my own observations (and others’, including Mirwin’s), there are a great many people who have participated on Wikiversity for a brief period, and who have never returned after that period of activity, whether it was for a day, a few days or a few weeks. I wonder: is this due to their own lack of time? Is it because of the perceived lack of structure, discussed above? Or is it more connected with a perceived sense of exclusion, or means of participating?
‘Exclusion’ in the context of the internet usually refers to a physical barrier, like, for example, lack of internet access or a particular physical disability. However, in a collaborative environment, I think our notions of exclusion need to also take into account more social questions about participation and why people don't participate - even if participation is technically possible. Even though wikis were designed to enable the editing of a website without knowledge of html, they can still be intimidating to newcomers, as this extract from an email conversation I had with a wiki “newbie” shows:
- "In 1989 I brought home my first ever company car, a Toyota Camry with fuel injection and electronic ignition and all fuel and servicing provided, free. Up until that day I had usually done my own engine tune-ups because I liked fiddling with points and carburettors. After six months I decided to open the bonnet 'to see if it had an engine'. I noted the sealed systems and need for special diagnostic equipment and closed the bonnet on that area of interest. In a strange way wiki is like re-opening that bonnet." (Personal correspondence)
Perhaps, from reading this, it is inevitable that there will be some level of exclusion – however, this does not mean that Wikiversity participants shouldn’t do their utmost to minimise this where possible. Quite obviously, and to return to the ‘structuring of resources’ discussion, the opportunity for participation is seen as an opportunity for learning, and setting up a course is creating a mechanism for participation – but clearly, some people do not feel empowered to take the first steps in wiki-editing. The intention that people will participate by ‘clicking and editing’ needs to be offset by the recognition that exclusion is a very real aspect of a wiki, regardless of how user-friendly it is often held to be. As another Wikiversity colleague, Executivezen, commented on my blog: “We’re a long way from these technologies becoming invisible”. 
A further, different kind of exclusion (or, at least, potential for exclusion) that I have observed happens when a pre-formed class (face-to-face or virtual) uses Wikiversity as a space for uploading learning material for that class. Such materials are often devoid of any context, and it is usually unclear to someone who is not in that group as to what to do with such materials, or whether anyone can participate. This will, of course, depend on the group, but not all groups are accessible – editing anonymously (i.e. without logging in), which can render communication problematic. This raises for me the issue of what degree of autonomy various groups have over this material (i.e. to what extent it is ‘theirs’), and to what extent groups can hold leverage over the use of these materials. Or, if the nature of Wikiversity is to enable participation, should these materials themselves be excluded? Clearly, the business of ensuring that content is as accessible to as many people as possible is itself an educational activity – engaging in discourse, widening and/or clarifying participation, and raising awareness of the context of individuals’ or groups’ activity in Wikiversity. This socio-cultural context is so central to the thrust of this paper that I will devote the next section to examining what it means for Wikiversity, and the mediation of its activity.
Social context and organisational models
All content on Wikimedia projects is created by volunteers – the non-profit organisation supporting these projects is also largely run by volunteers (with a small, but growing staff-base), and the financing of it all is exclusively through donations and grants. This model contrasts sharply with, for example, M.I.T.’s Open CourseWare, which makes use of a pre-existing and centralised structure of professors, lecturers, technical staff, administrators, etc., who have compiled material for specific courses, and who are now making them available online. The open model has been shown to work well for certain activities, beginning with open source software (Raymond 1998) and continuing to the writing of a collaborative encyclopedia in Wikipedia - but is the open wiki model appropriate for developing educational materials? It is this question which Wikiversity is implicitly engaged in answering.
Wikiversity, like Wikipedia, conforms closely to the principles of a “collectivist-democratic organisation” (Rothschild & Whitt 1986: 62-3), in which, briefly stated, practice is largely ad-hoc, rules are minimised, and decision-making is distributed and based in consensus. In a wiki, this culture and organising principle are one and the same thing (Bryant 2006), which I would describe simply as the “wiki way”. It also moves towards the “ideal speech situation” envisaged by Habermas (1987), in which everyone who has a stake in a decision or utterance has the right to contribute to the discourse around that decision, and obviously contest the decision itself.
However, human relations, being what they are, are mediated through a more complex set of practices than the above ideals, and even Wikipedia could be said to have bureaucratic features (Viegas et al. 2007). As we have already seen, some people will not participate in the wiki – of course, openness is itself offputting to some (Da Lio, Fraboni, Leo 2005) - and we can be sure that of the people who are comfortable with editing in a wiki not all will participate in a policy discussion, for whatever reason. Similarly, it is possible for the organising principle of complete openness to become a slogan without relating directly to practice. I am not suggesting here that Wikiversity is not completely open, but neither am I affirming that it is so – in fact, it is an open question embedded in my research to explore how culture and knowledge gets embedded into practice – even, perhaps unknowingly – and to what extent Wikiversity’s participants can remain critical of the practice that they evolve and in which they participate (Carr & Kemmis 1986).
There are limits to the ideal speech situation - it is a centre of gravity or one end of a continuum – so, for example, if we are discussing how learners of all ages can be catered for in Wikiversity, will younger learners (ie children) really be able to participate fully (bearing in mind what I have said about exclusion)? If not, then how are their needs taken into consideration, and how are they represented? As indicated previously, education is a contested and political space (Cervero & Wilson 1998), and these questions of participation and exclusion attain a primacy with respect to the creation of a broadly defined educational space within a wiki environment. A central dynamic in this arena is the incidence and impact of conflict – an inevitable feature of such spaces (Matei & Dobrescu 2006), but which I am interested in building on previous work to see whether and how these conflicts can become productive or learning experiences (Shah 2005; Lawler 2005). In fact, it is interesting that the notion of consensus itself played a considerable role in the major - and, I would say, only - conflict on Wikiversity so far.
Culturally speaking, while Wikiversity is in many ways similar to Wikipedia, there are also substantive differences that I think are worth pointing out in this context. A technical example is the additional ‘namespaces’, but of a more cultural nature is the adoption of a different name and model for creating ‘admins’ (or ‘sysops’), which Wikiversity has renamed ‘custodians’, and which works on a more casual system of apprenticeship. Another indicative example that I found interesting in this regard was the following note at the top of a page to would-be educators:
- Be personal, you are a teacher now, not an encyclopedian. A nice warm welcome might be in order too. 
However, there is one difference that is perhaps more profound than any other and that is around the notion of NPOV (Neutral Point of View), which is one of the central policies in Wikipedia, and which states that articles should be written fairly and without bias w:Wikipedia:Neutral_point_of_view. Wikiversity has adopted a stance towards NPOV that it will be a major goal within the community, but that it would be possible for people to develop learning materials that break the boundaries of NPOV for particular educational ends, and that when this boundary is breached, it is necessary to ‘disclose’ the assumptions or biases inherent within the material Wikiversity:Disclosures. This is in itself a significant departure from Wikipedia culture (and it caused some debate around the time of Wikiversity’s creation), but the following comment from Rayc throws this departure even further into relief:
- I would like to voice my pigenhole-ing theory. Most wiki projects there is one page on one topic and people who want to work on that topic have to work together, thus NPOV and dispute resolution. Here you don't get that effect, meaning that projects rely more on advertising and less on the notability of the topic. 
This feeling of isolation, and perhaps even the reducing of the incentive to collaborate is a problematic dynamic in Wikiversity, if Wikiversity is to be about collaborative learning. The ‘disclosures’ policy is supposed to allow for academic or educational freedom, and there is clearly a tension somewhere between this freedom and NPOV, so this tension is one of the things that the Wikiversity community must deal with – both internally, and also within the context of the Wikimedia family. Wikiversity is going beyond what is possible on Wikipedia (as JWSchmidt points out) – but what are the implications of this, and is it even going too far?
Implications and further questions
Continuing the above thought, whereas in Wikipedia there is a continuity of style between pages, in Wikiversity, with differing pedagogies (and hence assumptions and biases) being utilised in different pages, hyperlinking between pages becomes problematic, bringing the user to not just a different subject matter, but different learner levels, and potentially a different epistemology of knowledge. This requires a much more advanced system of ‘disambiguation’ than is already in place in Wikipedia w:Wikipedia:Disambiguation (where, for example, “Reflection” needs to be refined as the optical, the mathematical, or the mental processes), so that materials are distinguished by more criteria of “difference” than simply referring to a different thing.
Continuing this thought, Wikiversity still needs to disambiguate itself from other Wikimedia projects, in particular Wikibooks, and also from other education-based projects, for example Wikieducator . How exactly do they differ, or should they be separate? When we are able to identify differences, we will be better able to answer the question of how they can better work together, using the strengths of one system to support another. This is a large and fascinating project that is as yet in its early stages.
Defining Wikiversity and its practice is an ongoing process, involving multiple considerations and stakeholders. One of the questions raised has been around how to encourage researchers to upload the results of their data collection. This then begets the question: should everything on Wikiversity should be editable, or might it permit selective locking of articles, or some other way of allowing people to point to a version of their work that they themselves approve of? Will stable versions be able to help in this regard? The flipside of this aspect of ‘ownership’ or control of materials (and connected to the discussion above about extra-Wikiversity classes uploading material) is whether this then creates a culture of nervousness around reviewing or editing materials in Wikiversity which are seen to ‘belong’ to a particular person or group.
To address the uncertainty that exists about various aspects of Wikiversity’s work, better guidance is obviously needed – from the basics of wikis, to how people can contribute their materials, and even learn in this wiki-based model. On the latter point – how learning by doing works in Wikiversity - I am still quite unclear, and I suspect many others are too. And even on the second point, there is much work to do in the helping people structure resources to clarify their goals, the context of their use, or how they can be aggregated into new paths of learning – echoing the previous discussion of granularity and semantic tagging. But of course guidance can only be given when the phenomenon itself is understood, and it is clear that more discussion and research is needed on the main questions of Wikiversity’s identity – like how it is different from other projects, how to encourage collaboration as well as academic freedom, and how learning is to be achieved in this model. The much-expressed “experimental” nature of Wikiversity has not been carried through in the true methodology of a running experiment – however, I don’t mean to suggest here that this necessarily involves all features of experimental research like control groups etc., but that all aspects of Wikiversity participants’ experiences need to be fed back into the development of the space, in order to ‘close the loops’ in its learning cycle. (Atkins, Seely Brown, Hammond 2007)
Complementing - or perhaps interfacing with - experimental research designs, other examples of methodologies to understand Wikiversity could include traditional (and not so traditional) ethnographic methods (Wittel 2000; Jankowski, van Selm 2004), social network analysis which focuses on the frequency and quality of students’ interactions (eg. Haythornthwaite 2003), discourse analysis which looks at how participants actively construct and shape the way that discussions evolve (eg. Mautner 2005). My own research is based in action research (Somekh 2006; Elliott 1991), which I see to be a particularly congruent methodology for doing research not just about the wiki way, but which corresponds quite closely to the wiki way in its collaborative, discursive process. However, I will not detail this here, but instead I look forward to continuing these discussions, and raising further questions.
Conclusion: a new paradigm?
I hope I have shown in this paper some specific and perhaps unique aspects of Wikiversity’s identity as a project, informed by the socio-cultural dimension of a wiki devoted to education. Wikiversity is undoubtedly a radical project – even though it exits alongside an array of other educational wikis, collaborative learning spaces, and open educational resource repositories. But is Wikiversity a new paradigm of education? Or, at least, does the wiki model herald a paradigmatic shift from the rest of computer-mediated education in the same way that computers themselves have cause such a shift? (Harasim 2000)
John Dewey (1938/1997), writing about the “progressive” educational movement (of his time), argued:
- “..those who are looking ahead to a new movement in education, adapted to the existing need for a new social order, should think in terms of Education itself rather than in terms of some ‘ism about education, even such an ‘ism as “progressivism”. For in spite of itself any movement that thinks and acts in terms of an ‘ism becomes so involved in reaction against other ‘isms that it is unwittingly controlled by them. For it then forms its principles by reaction against them instead of by a comprehensive, constructive survey of actual needs, problems and possibilities.” (p. 6)
I think this is pertinent advice, and not limited to the time in which Dewey was writing. I think that regardless of how novel or radical Wikiversity might be (or appear to be), it is always worth considering what parts of the tradition in which it sits (i.e. the practice of education) are appropriate to its ends, what parts need to be rethought, and what parts need to be abandoned – and that this process should be framed rigorously, openly and honestly in relation to the central question of how education is provided.
I think Wikiversity is certainly a new paradigm (or at least part of one) in the definition of a “university” – if this is indeed what it purports to achieve. Wikiversity is well-positioned and well-defined enough to act as part of the movement towards not just an “open participatory learning infrastructure” (Atkins, Seely Brown, Hammond) but also a global “meta-university” (Vest 2006) - and to discuss afresh the meaning of the word “university” in both its ancient (i.e. Greek) and modern context. However, I do not believe that Wikiversity represents a new paradigm in learning, or that if it is, it needs to recognise the closeness with which it sits with the well-developed corpus of work on collaborative, online learning.
It is difficult for me to conclude with any tangible conception of how learning is to be provided for in Wikiversity. Even what I have learned myself is difficult to sum up - and it is so deeply embedded in the context that it is difficult to distill into an isolated experience. I have been learning about learning - and about what Wikiversity is - through the practice of getting involved, making suggestions, observations, and, of course, mistakes. Some of this learning is reflexive, incidental, or ‘embedded’ learning - about the Mediawiki software itself, about fellow participants and the nature of collaboration, and even about myself and how/where I fit into this practice. What I am here to do, and what this paper is about, is to continue to feed the lived-experiences of Wikiversity participants, of whom I am one, back into the development of the project’s scope and identity. Through this fundamentally discursive, and potentially empowering medium (Ebersbach 2004), I hope that Wikiversity participants will continue to define the local practice of education in a way that relates to both “Education” (in Dewey’s sense), and also to the culture or organising principle of the “wiki way”. I furthermore believe that whatever validity this definition has will be based on the quality of the discourse that it generates (Lather 1993), which will in turn mediate the practice, and therefore opportunities for participation and learning, that Wikiversity will open.
I would like to express my profound thanks to my PhD supervisors, Drew Whitworth and Andy Howes, as well as the many members of the Wikiversity community (and other on-and-off-line acquaintances) for provoking, discussing, and refining many of the ideas in this paper.
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