User:JWSchmidt/Blog/13 November 2007

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---- start 2007 ----
24 October, 2006 - Wikiversity history
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17 March, 2004 - Semantic prosthetic
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How do Wikiversity and Wikibooks relate to each other?
It is hard for me to address this kind of question without placing my thoughts into the context of the history of Wikimedia sister projects like Wikipedia, Wikibooks and Wikiversity. Wikipedia and Wikibooks were given narrow missions. Wikimedia has a broad mission. Wikiversity was created as a sister project where participants could explore the education-oriented use of wiki technology in ways that are not allowed at other Wikimedia wiki projects; in particular, Wikiversity was kicked out of Wikibooks because what the Wikiversity participants were starting to do was not welcome at Wikibooks. Some Wikiversity participants use Wikibooks textbooks and participate in the creation and development of Wikibooks. Some Wikibooks editors want to do things besides just make textbooks, so they also edit at Wikiversity where they are free to use wiki technology in ways that are not allowed at Wikibooks.


It makes sense that an encyclopedia was the first "book" attempted in wiki format. An encyclopedia is modular and can be built and used without defining a specific order or scope. Just start anywhere and go from there. Thousands of people can start in thousands of different places and eventually the whole encyclopedia will come together, without anyone needing to make some master plan. Wikipedia is successful when it deals with topics for which it is easy for many collaborators to agree on what has been previously published about that topic. Encyclopedias tend to have general articles that tell a broad audience the major facts about a topic. Of importance for Wikipedia in particular, but also Wikimedia in general, it was decided early on that Wikipedia was not a place for novel ideas and novel presentations. Wikipedia just repeats what others have previously said in verifiable and reliable sources. Wikipedians are supposed to be drones who copy existing information from other sources and put it into wiki format. Why do Wikipedians do it? Some people are intellectually engaged with topics and they get benefits and satisfaction from writing about their interests. While the Wikipedia model depends on collaborative editing, it is a successful model because an encyclopedia can be formed by a fairly stereotypical process of stitching together the largely-independent efforts of many people all doing their own things. The target audience can be expected to guide itself....starting anywhere and moving on to any other part of the encyclopedia from that starting point. Encyclopedias are designed to be general and readers are not expected to need a lot of hand-holding. Difficult and technical parts of an encyclopedia can be marked as such....with a little warning: you really should find a guide who can lead you into this thicket.


Of course, encyclopedia articles are not the only form of educational resources. It did not take long for some Wikipedia participants to feel restricted by Wikipedia's limited mission. Textbooks focus on a specific subject and attempt to provide a particular target audience with an organized and systematic (often linear) treatment of that subject. Can you make a good textbook just by stringing together a set of related encyclopedia articles? Not really, but you might make a good start at a textbook by pointing to a list of encylopedia articles and deciding to have the textbook cover those topics in a particular order. Are textbooks created by having a large group of strangers just start writing down what they know with the expectation that eventually it will all mesh together into a useful textbook? Not really, unless they all just agree to copy an existing paper textbook into wiki format. Even if you tried to make a wiki-format copy of an existing textbook, how would you make sure that the textbook was accurate, up-to-date, and useful? What working conditions do you need in order for a group of strangers to collaborate on creating a useful textbook? It is a more difficult problem than making an encyclopedia. You can get away with saying, "our encyclopedia is full of errors, so just use it as a starting point." But that is not how people use textbooks. Textbooks are used by people who make a commitment to study a subject in a systematic way in order to try to master that subject. Learners making that kind of large commitment want to know that they are making a wise investment of time. Almost nobody wants to use a textbook in a vacuum. Textbooks are almost always used by learners who exist in a social medium where they can discuss the subject, ask questions, and engage in other modes of learning besides just reading a text. Textbooks are created by experts who know a subject area and a target group of learners. Knowing how to make a useful textbook arises from experience with a particular type of learner with particular needs, interests and background. People who make textbooks make a commitment to the accuracy and utility of the text so that learners have good reason to trust the text and commit to an extended effort to make use of the text. Has Wikibooks ever defined a system by which the basic rules of collaborative wiki authoring that were developed for Wikipedia can efficiently produce useful textbooks?


Some of us who tried to create textbooks at Wikibooks were quickly told to get lost because the Wikipedia rules do not allow authors to be creative. One of the first textbooks I started working on was a textbook about wiki technology. The NO ORIGINAL RESEARCH hammer quickly descended. It was soon made clear that the only allowed activity was to "reverse-engineer" existing copyrighted textbooks and put them into wiki format. So some of us wanted a "wikiversity" where we could do some "original research". Other people wanted to use wiki technology to make other kinds of learning resources that learners usually employ in parallel with textbooks. Wikiversity was eventually approved with a rather broad mission that includes any type of learning resource not already hosted at another Wikimedia project. Wikiversity was launched with the goal of making learning communities, of making Wikiversity not just a hosting site for static textual resources, but a destination where learners would come together in a collaborative learning environment where they would participate in "learn by doing", active learning projects. Wikiversity was given a chance to make room for original research projects. In my view, a Wikiversity is what you need in order to have the conditions for creating and using wiki-format textbooks....this is why Wikiversity formed within the Wikibooks project. Other people saw Wikibooks and Wikiversity as two different things and so Wikiversity was kicked out of Wikibooks. Different people had different visions for what the Wikibooks project should be. The minimalists won.

Full circle[edit]

I'm forced to conclude that the original "winning vision" for Wikibooks was as a place where a bunch of college students would altruistically collaborate to make free versions of traditional textbooks, in the same way they collaborate at Wikipedia to produce reviews of movies and video games. With luck, a few professors might assign their classes the task of writing the needed textbooks. For this rather limited goal, you need no Wikiversity. I suppose the idea is that at some point the Wikibooks textbooks will be good enough that students will stop buying commercial texts and just use wiki textbooks.

But now we have Wikibooks participants deciding that they do not want a Wikiversity, that it makes more sense to just put "extras" like lesson plans and pedagogic guidance for using the textbooks right inside Wikibooks. Even some English language Wikibooks participants feel the need for collaboration/development pages and dedicated user/discussion/help pages for each Wikibook...right in the Wikibooks website. Can this really be a surprise to anyone? Jimbo said, "Wikiversity stuff doesn't belong here. Wikibooks has an identity and mission, and other stuff doesn't belong here," but many Wikibooks participants never agreed that Wikiversity should be kicked out of the English language Wikibooks. So what should be done now? The simple "solution" would be for Jimbo to simply make a binding international version of the decision he made when he decided that the English language Wikiversity did not belong in the English language Wikibooks project. Maybe there could be a special cadre of vandal fighters who can perpetually purify Wikibooks websites of anything that is not a textbook. All of us who believe that a Wikiversity is a way to produce and make use of quality wiki-format textbooks can continue to work towards that dream in our isolated Wikiversity gulag archipelago of Wikiversities.

One Wikiversity with no content[edit]

Wikiversity should give-up content production

Above, I described the origin of Wikiversity in terms it trying to be a project where participants could do things with wiki technology that were not allowed at other Wikimedia projects. Theoretically, the rules could be changed at Wikibooks so as to allow all the types of content that are now only allowed at Wikiversity. This would allow Wikiversity to just focus on learning communities and learning projects. It is hard for me to get enthusiastic about this theoretical possibility because historically there has always been a strong policy at Wikibooks of "if it is not a textbook, it is not welcome"...this is why we had to spend years creating Wikiversity as an independent project in the first place. Some of us feel like we have previously fought this battle and lost. We had to spend years setting up Wikiversity just to avoid being told "go away" by the other Wikimedia projects. Has anything changed now that makes it possible to reverse course?

Are "learning projects" something Wikibooks probably will never do? Within Wikimedia, the first step towards learning projects were Wikipedia WikiProjects in the sense that it is possible to learn while editing Wikipedia and WikiProjects can coordinate content development for a particular topic area. Of course, at Wikipedia, the idea of "learn by wiki editing" always takes a back seat to the narrow mission of Wikipedia - the creation of encyclopedia articles. Teachers are invited to make their own "learn by editing Wikipedia" projects, but again, the scope of such projects is limited to the creation of encyclopedia articles.

Other Wikimedia projects have been slowly realizing the importance of finding new ways of fostering communities of editors with shared interests and specialized content development projects for narrow topic areas. When I started editing at Wikinews, I asked where the special pages were where participants with an interest in a particular topic area could collaborate to plan and create news articles. I was told that there were none and that none were welcome. It was very depressing to argue with administrators who were so sure that special support pages to aid collaborators in specific subject areas was a bad idea. Maybe things are getting better: Wikinews now has special pages for collaboration that are linked to each developing article. And as mentioned above, some Wikibooks participants now think it would be good to have designated collaboration/development pages and dedicated user/discussion/help pages for each Wikibook.....these would be specialized wiki tools for supporting communities of collaborators and learners. And of course, just helping to create a textbook can be a good "learn by editing" project. The point is, it makes sense to allow "learning projects" inside any Wikimedia Foundation-sponsored wiki project, so it cannot just be a matter of placing all content at Wikipedia and Wikibooks and all learning projects at Wikiversity. There are learning projects inside Wikipedia and Wikibooks and there is content at Wikiversity that is not allowed inside any other Wikimedia Foundation-sponsored wiki project.

One multi-lingual Wikiversity website[edit]

All of Wikimedia could be in a single Wiki website. So why are there different sister projects (Wikibooks, Commons, etc) and language-specific versions of each (English language Wikibooks, German language Wikibooks, etc)? Is there some compelling reason why language-specific Wikiversity websites should not exist? Yes, it is true that each language-specific Wikiversity website has language learning resources. Yes, by forcing all languages into one Wikiversity website you would increase interactions between people who speak different languages and yes this can be very educational. But many people want to engage in learning projects where their native (and for some of us, only) language is used without the distraction of having to deal with other languages. Wikiversity has the multi-lingual hub where all sorts of innovative language learning projects are possible. All language-specific Wikiversity websites are just a link away from each other - they can easily be knit together for language-learning opportunities. The existing multi-lingual "hub" functions as an incubator for new Wikiversities in additional languages. Should we impose a new rule saying that no new language-specific Wikiversity websites should be created? Should all the current language-specific Wikiversity websites be forced into the multi-lingual hub? I do not see a compelling reason to do this. If there is a compelling reason, it seems like the time to state that reason and act on it would have been a couple of years ago.

Small language-specific communities[edit]

Juan de Vojníkov wrote:
"There are just about 3-5 interested people in extendeing its content. There is noone interested in maintaining that system". Of course, there are very good reasons why new language-specific wikis are not created unless there is a large enough core of interested editors (10 is often the number mentioned as a cut-off). It makes sense for smaller groups to work at the incubator where there is vandalism protection.

Structure of Content[edit]

Structure of Content

"the thing that makes Wikipedia successful in terms of participation and collaborative effort is that the project makes sense to anyone familiar with an encylcopedia" <-- As mentioned above, it makes sense that Wikipedia came first, but even after Nupedia morphed into Wikipedia, some people could only imagine making Wikipedia an online encyclopedia that would essentially be modeled after conventional print encyclopedias. The realities of Wikipedia not only have to mesh with participant's concepts of an encyclopedia, editors also have to think about how Wikipedia differs from conventional print encyclopedias. Wikiversity has to deal with this same two-part difficulty: first we have to get people to think about the general Wikimedia mission of using wiki technology to support learners and then we also have to get people to think about the aspects of conventional education that Wikiversity is not adopting. On the positive side (getting people to think of the possibilities) Jimbo's comments at Wikimania 2006 are a good rallying point: "..... the idea here is to also host learning communities, so people who are actually trying to learn, actually have a place to come and interact and help each other figure out how to learn things. We're also going to be hosting and fostering research into how these kinds of things can be used more effectively." (source)
The idea of collaborative learning is foreign to many people.

On the negative side, making clear what Wikiversity is not, we have the guidance provided by the Board of Trustees. In November 2005 the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees rejected the first Wikiversity project proposal and instructed the Wikiversity community to modify the proposal to "exclude online-courses". The Wikiversity community was told to "exclude credentials and to clarify concept of e-learning". The approved Wikiversity project proposal makes clear that Wikiversity abandons conventional elements of education such as credentialed teachers and accreditation of degree programs. Many people have only known forms of education based on credentialed teachers, accreditation of degree programs, classes that meet for a fixed duration after which a grade is given to each student.....when such people hear that Wikiversity does not use that conventional approach they cannot even imagine an alternative.

For those who are willing to "think outside the box" at Wikiversity it is the case that there can be "a great many different interpretations of what the whole project should be". Wiki technology is new. Wikiversity is a place where we can experiment and try to discover useful ways to make use of wiki technology to support learning. Many people are made uneasy by the idea of experimenting with educational technologies. Many people want "a sure thing", not an exploration. Given the narrow missions of other wiki projects like Wikipedia, many people are not comfortable with the idea that Wikiversity is a place for exploring and experimenting.

"Wikiversity should abandon content production" <-- The formula adopted by Wikiversity is that the Wikiversity project is open to any type of educational content that is not welcome at other Wikimedia Foundation wiki projects. Wikiversity does not duplicate the content of other projects. Yes, some people might come to Wikiversity and start writing encyclopedia articles or textbooks, but it is easy to send such content off to Wikipedia or Wikibooks...or just redirect such editors to the sister projects as appropriate. Wikiversity editors can be gently re-oriented towards the creation of other types of content that are not welcome at Wikipedia and Wikibooks. I guess there might be some people who can imagine no types of content beyond encyclopedia articles and textbooks and such people might imagine that it makes sense to impose a rule on Wikipedia: "abandon content production". I think discussion groups are an important part of Wikiversity, but I think it is an error to imagine that Wikiversity should be all talk and "no content". Wikiversity has a "learn by doing" e-learning model. There are many "learn by doing" learning projects that will result in the creation of many different types of educational content.

Terminology to describe content[edit]

David Crochet wrote (pardon the translation): "Each lesson includes statements from the people who help to write the lessons and people who have knowledge which can help learners. There are pages for discussion so that the learners can ask questions, the goal being that questions will lead to modifications in order to improve the lesson."

We have been struggling some with "participant lists" at the English language Wikiversity. I like the idea of having a few standardized ways of saying, "If you are interested in using this lesson, you can get help from these people...."

The term "lesson" is popular at the English language Wikiversity. Personally, I've been trying to use other terms such as "learning project" and "learning resource" because I'm trying to break my own patterns of thinking with respect to conventional lessons and conventional courses. We have to make some kind of balance between using familiar terms and getting people to think about how Wikiversity differs from conventional lessons and courses.