User:Morley/Clarifying the Wikiversity proposal

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I'm in agreement with Jmabel | Talk 15:51, 18 August 2006 (UTC) — "The article really doesn't give much of a clue what this is. "…free, open learning environment and research community…" is so vague as to be vacuous."

I'd like to open a discussion towards revising and expanding the original Wikiversity proposal. Here's a proposal for how a "free, open learning environment and research community" could be structured and how it could use volunteers to enhance existing tools such as Wikipedia, Wikibooks and much else on the internet.

I note Wikia founder Jimmy Wales has announced a wiki services for universities under a "for profit" banner. In contrast, the following proposals are for a non-profit, volunteer-based Wikiversity. The strength of the Wikipedia is its solid volunteer support in a non-advertising environment. A Wikiversity will flourish in a similar fashion if it catches the attention of body of committed volunteers. The build a core of volunteers requires a framework. That's what this proposal is all about.

In the interests of jump-starting volunteer participation in the Wikiversity I invite comment on the following framework proposals.

Structuring the governance

Fundamental. The Wikiversity run under the auspices of the Wikimedia Foundation (similar to the Wikipedia), that its source of funding be from grants and donations, that its content be licensed similarly to the contents of the Wikipedia, that participation be open to all as volunteers without prior qualification.

That the Wikiversity be self-administered and self-regulating. That it be organized into self-administered "colleges", each of which establishes its own rules, objectives, organization within the overall Wikiversity. (This solves the "forking" issue. When strongly held views become contentious, each side is permitted to fork within the overall structure. It also encourages the flowering of differing styles to learning and research.) That each college be represented on the overall governing body of the Wikiversity. That the Wikiversity itself work by consensus.

The above principles are a starting point. Each of the above needs much more discussion to build a working template to accomplish these stated objectives.

Let me now turn to the workings of a typical Wikiversity college. Again, this is a starting point. Other colleges within the Wikiversity may well want to work differently. Some may wish to argue some of the following should be elevated to apply to all colleges, to the whole of the Wikiversity. For now, I'll leave that open for further discussion.

There are two primary wings to universities, already alluded to in the original Wikiversity proposal — learning and research. Most university research projects have their genesis in teacher/student, teacher/teacher and student/student dialogues. The more such dialogues are fostered, the more the university experience blooms. Therefore because vigorous, focused dialogue is at the core of both learning and research, the balance of this proposal is about fostering and sustaining dialogue in an open environment, and building a committed community of scholars utilizing the internet as their primary means of conducting their learning and research dialogues.

For my proposed college, then, the overarching objective is to foster a continuing community of intense, focused dialogue between those designated as teachers, students and each other.

Is it necessary to identify certain individuals as "teachers"? Yes and no, but mostly yes. Let's define these terms as they might be understood in a Wikiversity.

Teacher — anyone with established knowledge and skills willing pass them on to willing learners. Student — anyone desiring to gain knowledge and skills by using the resources of the Wikiversity. In other words, with or without a teacher.

To nurture a sense of community I'm proposing an "enclosure" to the above. Both teachers and students should be registered users of the Wikiversity and the college of their choice. Anyone can join at any time, no prior qualifications. However, to build and retain a sense of community we need defined borderlines, for instance a mechanism for dropping a student or a teacher (for instance because of non-current participation) with the option of rejoining the community. A benchmark for completion, graduation, thus attaining the status of a post-graduate student and/or of an alumnus. With these broad strokes the community now has a structure, defined lines between inside and outside but easy penetration in both directions. And structure within, presumably with layers of voting rights and privileges, penalties for misbehaviour, a mechanism for appeal to a higher authority, and so forth.

Specifics for each of the above need to be addressed in much further detail, but with the above we have a starting point for discussion.

Essentially what we're discussing here is a structure for volunteer participation, both as a teacher and as a student. Because everyone's time, talents and skills (including students) is being volunteered, easily withdrawn, without remuneration or fee, the care and feeding of volunteers (students and teachers) must be carefully crafted.

Structuring the teaching

Let's now dig deeper, this time into the structuring of courses and the roles of teachers and students. First, another fundamental principle. Anyone at any time should be able to propose a course.

Implicit in proposing a course is a commitment to teach that course, thus defining how someone becomes defined as a teacher. A proposal should include a definition of course objectives, assumption (if any) of prior subject mastery and/or education level, limitation (if any) of class size, duration (open ended or with a fixed date to conclude) and a description of how the conduct of the course will proceed. Video conferencing for class meetings? Skype dialogues with the instructor or teaching assistant? Assignments, essays, reports. How students will be assessed, what's required to have successfully completed the course.

The college in question may choose for ethical or other reasons not to accept the course proposal. Students may protest the behaviour of any teacher or request (demand?) a change in course content. In the style of mediaeval universities, students may well end up appointing who becomes a teacher. However, courses with just one student and one teacher may be acceptable. And team teaching may also be allowable (several teachers performing the same or different roles within a single course).

At first glance this is an intimating list of requirements for launching a course. But break it down. Start with a course outline and seek comments. A team of teachers may arising out of discussions of what should and should not be included, what internet tools are necessary for teaching this specific material, and all the other issues outlined above. The point is to get started and to be specific.

An ideal way to jump start the Wikiversity would be to have input from retired teachers and professionals, to offer up their expertise and get this project underway.

In conclusion

Given the wealth of internet tools now available, there's little doubt a very successful learning experience can be generated at a Wikiversity. The Wikipedia proved the capacity of the wiki software concept, of openness and the power of volunteers. But the Wikiversity is much more complex and has another level of power. It mobilizes many more software and internet tools than just wiki software. It has the potential to build an enduring worldwide, multi-lingual, multi-discipline community. It has the power to reshape lives, all countries, rich and poor, advantaged and disadvantaged.

To be successful the Wikiversity will need a sustained effort by volunteers on two fronts — general governance provisions (fleshing out the above) and establishing initial courses (getting actual learning programs designed and launched). Therefore this is an invitation to draw together volunteers on both fronts for sustained discussion — to begin a university that lives on the internet.

On a personal note, I'm somewhat startled to see how quickly and how easily the above came together. The seeds were watching the Jimmy Wales interview on the Charlie Rose PBS show yesterday on 5 October. I've been an occasional user of the Wikipedia for years and have been vaguely aware there's more to the wiki mix than just the wikipedia. To my mind the Wikipedia has as much potential for making a civilizing impact as the Wikipedia itself.

If you've read this far, then please respond. Start editing the above. Enlarge it, flesh it out, identify its holes and its strengths. Post pointers to this item elsewhere on the Wikipedia, Wikiversity and the internet generally. And come back again and again to sustain the discussion. And let's hear from the originators of the Wikiversity proposal.

Morley Chalmers
Toronto, Canada
6 October 2006