Wikimania

Last November I was invited to speak at a meeting of the UK arm of the Wikipedia Education Program who support the integration of Wikipedia into mainstream education. Much of their focus is on providing advice and resources around contributing to Wikipedia as an alternative to writing essays or reports.

My talk was titled “What’s left to teach now that Wikipedia has done everyone’s homework?”. The basic premise being that if the answer to your homework/assignment is a Wikipedia article then you need to change the way you teach.

I was invited to reprise an updated version of that talk at the international Wikipedia conference (59 countries represented) in London this August. (A huge thanks to Peter Sigrist who wrote an excellent and detailed account of my talk http://goo.gl/PcIY4w)

For me this was hugely exciting and a little daunting. Wikipedia is, in my opinion, the most popular and valuable educational platform since the invention of the printing press so I wanted to contribute to the best of my ability. On the day I discovered that the venue (the Barbican) provided its main-stage speakers with dressing rooms which was a new, and slightly strange, experience. I also knew that I was on the programme with Wikipedia’s Senior Designer Brandon Harris (@jorm) and all round nice-guy genius Jack Andraca (@jackandraca) – not easy people to keep up with (but extremely inspiring).

During the conference it became clear that the Wikipedians are generally so focused on what Martin Poulter described as the ‘axiomatic’ vision of “…a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.” that they rarely consider the impact Wikipedia is having on a range of institutions and professions.  I hope that my talk went some way towards addressing this in regard to education.

The main concept I added to the talk for Wikimania was about ‘Loss of ontology’. The idea that our ability to efficiently search for pinpoint answers means that we don’t build the kind of ‘knowledge maps’ we used to when we had to seek out sections of specific books or journals etc. Given this if our pedagogy is still based on discovering answers then the existence of platforms like Wikipedia might mean our students aren’t learning as much as we hope. This, I pointed out, is a fault in our teaching methods which often don’t properly account for the Web and not a reason to attempt to ‘ban’ or besmirch Wikipedia.

The phrases from my talk which appear to have been most Tweeted were:

“The problem with Wikipedia is not that it’s inaccurate it’s that it’s too good” (i.e. you can find a decent answer without having to ‘think’)

and

“Wikipedia isn’t a threat to education, it’s a gift”.  (assuming we move from a pedagogy of answers to a pedagogy of questions – teaching students how to critique and edit Wikipedia is one way we can make this move.)

Resources I menioned during the talk can be found here: http://goo.gl/WYHCJu

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