How a giant free encyclopedia might transform learning

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This article is forthcoming in [1]. Update: the article is posted here.


Imagine, if you will, that the year is 2020, and the free, open content encyclopedias, <a style="color:blue" href="http://www.nupedia.com">Nupedia</a> and <a href="http://www.wikipedia.com">Wikipedia,</a> have successfully weathered the challenging vicissitudes of young, ambitious Internet projects. Imagine that Nupedians and Wikipedians have created and edited to a brilliant luster many hundreds of thousands of high-quality articles, having managed to attract tens of thousands of qualified contributors, deal with many and various kinds of controversy, and establish and maintain a good reputation. I have argued that, while the jury is of course still out about whether this will happen, <a href="http://opensourceschools.org/article.php?story=20011020160315930">there is reason to believe it is possible</a>. (See also <a href="http://www.kuro5hin.org/?op=displaystory;sid=2001/7/25/103136/121">this article</a> and <a href="http://www.kuro5hin.org/story/2001/9/24/43858/2479">this one</a> for further considerations along those lines.)

I'm not now concerned to argue further about the possibility of such an absurdly stellar performance. Now I want to ask: how would such a resource, if it were to be created, contribute to the education and learning of humanity? If we understand this better, we will understand better why the projects are so important.

First, we should understand what the purpose of an encyclopedia is--it is not, essentially, education. Its purpose is instead a closely-related one that directly benefits education: the codification of human knowledge. "Human knowledge" might be taken to mean, roughly, what is taught in universities and schools, as well as the body of common assumptions of scientific researchers; see <a href="http://meta.wikipedia.com/wiki.phtml?title=What+is+an+encyclopedia">this article</a> for a very rough, first attempt at a discussion of these issues.

Now, a reliable as well as enormously deep and broad codification of human knowledge, rendered in hypertext (and other media)--such as I hope Nupedia and Wikipedia will become--would create several potentially huge benefits for education at all levels. I will list these benefits first and then elaborate each:

  1. Spin-off resources could be easily developed for educational purposes--which could be distributable without charge.
  2. The encyclopedia, used casually just as a reference, would foster continuing education by providing an attractive, free, interlinked resource that would encourage people to learn and keep learning.
  3. A truly deep and broad codification of human knowledge, rendered in hypertext, would make self-study considerably easier than it is now.
  4. As supplementary readings for traditional education, the encyclopedia's articles would provide a particularly clear, as well as unbiased, second view of their subjects.
  5. Finally, the encyclopedia could be used to represent the cutting edge of research and thereby assist in codifying and reporting on new research.

Now to elaborate.

Spin-off resources could be easily developed for educational purposes--which could be distributable without charge. Textbooks could easily be developed using the encyclopedia's contents; textbook developers could choose articles and add transitional material and exercises, without having to pay textbook writers. These (open content) textbooks could then be distributed at hugely reduced costs--free of charge on the Internet, or for a very small sum on CD or cheap paper. Other educational materials could be developed as well, including one-off study units for school kids (at no charge), multimedia presentations or simplified versions thereof (which will almost certainly be included in the encyclopedias themselves), and greatly simplified versions of articles (and encyclopedia-based textbooks) for the purpose of teaching younger students. Indeed, it seems very likely that a childrens' encyclopedia will be developed based on the materials that Nupedia and Wikipedia are now developing. Finally, it is very important to note that the same materials could be distributed anywhere in the world for free, and that there are versions of (or complementary) the encyclopedias being developed in languages other than English. It's entirely possible that these projects will result in extremely cheap educational materials for the whole world.

The encyclopedias, used casually just as a reference, would foster continuing education by providing an attractive, free, interlinked resource that would encourage people to learn and keep learning. This is a claim that has been made repeatedly on behalf of the World Wide Web; but it is particularly true of hypertext encyclopedias. One encounters, for example, the name of an important-seeming political figure in a news article, and one wants to learn more. One could then go to the encyclopedia, and not only learn about the political figure (for free), but also, at will, click through to articles about the country, wars, legislation, associated concepts, and so forth, each presented in a similar clear, straightforward, unbiased format. Many Internet users have already experienced something like this, first hand, on a limited basis; but an exhaustively broad and deep compendium of human knowledge, interlinked and free, would represent a quantum leap forward in this experience. There would be more knowledge, conveniently arranged, than one could possibly hope to have. The experience of encountering this body of knowledge would, I think, be inspiring to many people who encountered it; thus my claim that it would encourage people to learn and keep learning. Another aspect of the encyclopedias that would have the latter effect is that, by 2020, articles on most topics might have been written and rewritten and polished so many times that they will be models of clarity, neutrality, and usefulness for those who need introductions to their topics. Often, I think, what turns people off to learning is bad writing and bias.

A truly deep and broad codification of human knowledge, rendered in hypertext, would make self-study considerably easier than it is now. There has been a small movement devoted to the notion of self-directed study online, via distance education programs or even independently of universities. (I advocated this sort of thing in 1995 in something I called "<a style="color:blue" href="http://www.emf.net/~estephen/manifesto/aum00061.html">The Tutorial Manifesto</a>.") A complete encyclopedia of the sort described above would greatly aid such self-education projects--in ways that the Internet at present, as well as traditional (paper) libraries, do not. Self-study, for most people anyway, is all about pursuing knowledge haphazardly--at will, not bound by pre-set curricula and schedules. A project like <a style="color:blue" href="http://www.wikipedia.com">Wikipedia</a> is obviously, to anyone familiar with it, appealing to those with roaming interests. The Internet is a great boon for such study, as it provides much in-depth information freely and easily accessible--but, of course, the quality is uneven and the breadth and depth still incomplete. Moreover, the information is not interlinked in such a way as to allow one very easily and quickly to find information about topics related to those one is currently reading about. The encyclopedia described would be an improvement in these regards. Finally, a paper library will no doubt remain indispensible for some years to come, for self-educational purposes; but even now it cannot compete with the Internet for purposes of quickly getting basic background information for educational purposes. The giant hyperlinked encyclopedia of the future will make traditional libraries essentially obsolete for those purposes. (But probably not for all purposes.)

As supplementary readings for traditional education, the encyclopedia's articles would provide a particularly clear, as well as unbiased, second view of their subjects. The hackneyed example of what encyclopedias are useful for is a child preparing a report for school. Certainly, children could use the resource described here to prepare those reports, and the children would be benefit from the depth and clarity of articles written and rewritten multiple times (and perhaps also presented at a number of different grade levels). But this is only one way in which encyclopedias, and particularly a well-developed encyclopedia of the sort I've described, can be used to assist in pursuing a traditional education by traditional methods. College professors could, avoiding perennial worries about copyright violations, use free-to-distribute encyclopedia articles as background information on topics being taught. (In fact, this is <a href="http://www.wikipedia.com/wiki/Friends_of_Wikipedia/College_course_pages">a lready happening with Wikipedia articles</a>.) Finally, it is important to note that Nupedia and Wikipedia, at least, have a <a href="http://www.nupedia.com/instr/nonbias.html">nonbias policy</a>, which will ensure that students have at least one reliable source of nonpartisan information that respects their ability to make up their minds for themselves. When educational systems are not committed to a neutral presentation of facts and theory, such articles are all the more valuable to students who are studying in such systems.

Finally, the encyclopedia could be used to represent the cutting edge of research and thereby assist in codifying and reporting on new research. While this has more to do with research than education (except graduate education), it is worth mentioning in this context that a superlatively huge, publicly-editable, and free encyclopedia could become a sort of hub of scholarship, with summaries of and links to articles on cutting-edge topics. Online encyclopedias are not paper--they can be expanded indefinitely. Thus, indeed, one can imagine an encyclopedia so huge that it manages to summarize all current knowledge, to such a depth that it requires constant updates as the most specialized topics on the vanguard of research see daily developments. This would, of course, be of use for the education of graduate and postgraduate students, who might write what would be, essentially, constantly-updated reviews of the literature on various specialized topics. More generally, a truly in-depth encyclopedia could serve as a resource to educate our educators, as some of the better subject encyclopedias (e.g., in musicology and philosophy) have done.

This is all, of course, nice to think about. But such an amazing encyclopedia might never come into being. We should not talk as if it were already here or as if its existence were a foregone conclusion, because it certainly is not. We must not make the mistake of past failed projects of thinking that the project is about talking about making the encyclopedia, instead of actually making it. Creating it will require a lot of very hard work, coordinating the efforts of a lot of people with very different ideas. There are many ways in which it could go wrong, and we'll be very lucky if goes right. Hopefully the discussion above will help motivate us make it go right.