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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Wikipedia – To Tell The Truth


Dick Davies attended The Hamilton Project at Brookings conference about education and the Wikipedia came up as a 'problem'. I have talked with many teachers and they tend to poo-poo Wikipedia as a serious reference source – in fact, they prohibit the students from using it when doing projects.

I recall in school, before the internet, reading a synopsis in the Encyclopedia Britannica and not finding any of the cited references at the local libraries. With no opportunity to review source materials I was left to rely on the viewpoint of the writers.

The Britannica was limited by print space available for it's content – its style was abstracts. The editors' work was reviewed by a panel of editors for accuracy and unbiased writing (for those so inclined, metrics: 100 editors, 4,400 contributors, 65,000+ articles).

Wikipedia has a whole community to write articles, offer additional content, and challenge errors or misstatements, as well as an army of volunteer editors to improve the entries (metrics: 275 editors, 100,000 contributors, 23,000,000+ articles). Since the internet is virtually infinite, Wikipedia has not been hampered by the space limitations of print media – it has plenty of room for more lengthy articles and extensive hyperlink bibliographies to supplement the articles. Live links are available instantly from the computer

Before the internet, a significant research consideration was finding data; now with its vast content available, the consideration now is filtering to get relevant data. The Britannica filters the content as a result of the space considerations, whereas Wikipedia is inclusive and the content is filtered on relevancy by external tools.

The Google Search Box typically returns a Wikipedia cite among the top three or four results – a good first filter and introduction to the topic. The live links following the article cite additional sources of information and easily expand the depth of the research. Teachers instill in students that single-source research is not a reliable path to knowledge and these links make multiple sources easier to find since the material has already been filtered.

Structurally the Britannica approach may offer control and consistency, but is limited by available resources (i.e., staff). Wikipedia is an open-source collaborative venture of contributors creating content and a community devoted to making it better and collectively assuring acceptable results – much like ancient tribes did before cities and laws were established.

The Wikipedia project is a good example of how users can create, populate, and regulate a resource by collaboration and an evolving community of dedicated volunteers.

Are there other situations where a similar collaborative approach could produce results. How about an application in your organization?
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