Wikiversity:The Future of Wikiversity

Wikiversity is a new and still unstable project. If we forget for a minute about social problems that the English Wikiversity sector is experiencing (blocking vandal-researchers), and about the difference in level and structure of contributions (a commonly heard complaint, but quite unavoidable in a young project), then the central problem will become visible. This central problem is the main cause that the project is hanging balancing between life and closing, and does not enjoy enough new users. This problem is very simple: the project has no obvious objectives, and even the goals that it does have, are badly defined by its rules or not defined at all. This is completely normal for a brand new wiki-project, but before any kind of solution is found to this problem, we will see no noticeable progress. Below I am explaining my vision about how exactly Wikiversity can be used, what it can be useful for, how should it be linked with other Wikimedia Foundation projects, and what is its place in general in wiki-reality and in the halls of academe. This vision is very subjective; however, it is based on many years of experience with wiki technologies, as well as with working in various universities and research institutions all over the world. If you have anything to add, please feel free to contribute to the discussion, there always is a chance of missing something important, and I would have loved to make the list of issues below comprehensive.

On Wikimania 2011 conference in Haifa Jan Lochman has given a presentation about the current problems of Wikiversity. For everyone who would like to participate in the debates, it is a recommended reading: «From the Wikiversity content to its conflicts» (the material is available in English and Czech). The document you are reading right now is available in English and Russian.

For simplicity, in the text below a Wikiversity contributor will occasionally be called a wiki teacher, a wiki researcher, a wiki author or a wiki reviewer depending on context.

Structure edit

The current Wikiversity structure as it is being self-organised today, looks satisfactory, but not perfect. Dividing a university in institutions, departments and faculties is necessary in real higher education oganisations mainly due to administrative and paperwork reasons, which are luckily lacking in Wikiversity. Administrators of all levels from department chairs to rectores magnifici will be rather idle while the project is relatively small, and will never be able to handle it completely once the project progresses. Besides that, currently in real educational and research organisations, strict separation of departments and faculties is often being criticised for preventing multidisciplinary research attempts (even at best, this system provides no aid). However, the importance of multidisciplinary research is rising day by day. It seems more productive to develop a framework of scientific topics (or borrow it from free content scientific projects like arXiv), and let wiki teachers and wiki authors to classify their works themselves as belonging to this or that topic. Each of those topic can have one expert or a whole committee of experienced professionals that will coordinate it: then, in any multidisciplinary case, such a committee will consist of a union of all committees for all relevant topics.

Furthermore, traditional universities show a strong planning aspect: grants, scholarships, curricula, lesson plans, etc. Even if we discard all issues irrelevant for Wikiversity (like reporting obligations and necessity of financing), planning ahead seems a very appealing idea. Instead of giving all users complete freedom in creation of any arbitrary articles, and subsequently complaining about their quality and incompleteness, we can ask to write a proposal first. Such a proposal will be about a paragraph long, where goals of a project or a course will be concisely formulated and supported by links, if they are available. The supervisors of relevant topics can then review that proposal and express their opinion, which can range from explicit rejection (useful in filtering out trolls and long-term vandals) to acceptance notification with a list of useful additions and advice. Once a proposal is approved, the wiki author can start working on it. If there is a case when it is impossibly hard to crystallise a research idea in a form of proposal, it seems even more impossible that more detailed materials will ever be developed.

Education edit

Literature study
In the classical education model, students and pupils always have access to a broad choice of information sources about the subject: books, manuals, guidelines, encyclopedias, etc. When wiki technologies are concerned, all such information sources are already covered by different Wikimedia projects, mainly by Wikipedia, Wikisource, and to a lesser extent, WikiCommons (only for courses with a strong visual component). Hence, a Wikiversity course can contain a list of links to appropriate information sources in adjacent projects: such a list can be created by a wiki teacher and then enhanced and completed by the students in the process of using search engines and growing to understand the usefulness of side sources.
Reading lectures
In traditional universities it is considered inappropriate to leave a student alone with a book and expect successful digestion of study material. For more effective methods of information delivery one uses lectures, where the teacher directly interacts with the audience while presenting them with previously prepared data by using a blackboard and a piece of chalk or a slide deck and a projector. In the wiki world, there is a separate project for such prepared data, it is called Wikibooks, but there is no platform (yet) for the whole process of giving lectures. Wikiversity can serve as such a platform: any user can start learning a particular topic from a Wikibook page, and once they have questions, an page is created at Wikiversity, where the discussion unfolds. Two specific issues should be noted here: first, such a discussion has no place on Wikibooks itself, because a talk page there will concern expert opinions about changing the study material and not questions coming from people who are trying to learn; second, in Wikiversity there is a place for wiki students to answer question of other wiki students: the presence of wiki teacher, his or her approval and intervention will definitely have positive influence on the studyroom climate, but they are not crucial everyday must-haves. Explicit separation of creation of study materials and giving lectures as processes with them will also decouple these two roles. Two different specialists can simultaneously provide the same course using the same wikibook with drastically different teaching methods and different outcomes.
Laboratory works
It is relatively uncommon to assume that the lecture notes are sufficient for learning all the necessary material, especially in applied science such as information and communication technology. In order to consolidate new knowledge, laboratory works are performed. At this point there is no wiki project for distributing program code or running applications, and so far there have been no known initiatives, but it is possible to use open license friendly projects like SourceForge, GitHub or Google Code. If needed, screencasts can be made available via YouTube or any other video content distribution platforms. Beside the nature of the study materials, everything works the same way as described for the lecture part above: wiki students reach for the recommended material themselves, and ask questions on Wikiversity if there are any, requesting help from peer students and the wiki teacher.
In some courses, a practical part is crucial: assignments are distributed among students and solved individually to be handed in for checking and marking. In the ideal situation assignments should be slightly different each time, so it seems optimal to use Wikiversity for them, and not some adjacent wiki project. A request-response system seems viable: any wiki students willing to do some practical work, can volunteer themselves in order to get personalised problem descriptions, solve them and report. This is a labour intensive process, that can be in some less critical cases substituted by lightweight approaches like unified exams or multiple choice tests. There can be by definition no full-fledged substitute, since wiki technologies assume complete openness, and this principle encourages plagiarism and other forms of cheating if current assignments are identical to the ones for which many prior solutions are available. One can only rely on wiki students willing to gain new knowledge by limiting themselves in access. One of the ways to make the work of a wiki teacher easier could be to couple wiki students in such a way that one person performs a task while the other one is debugging it or lifting it to the next level.
Instead of making the exam look like yet another test, just bigger, I propose to insist that the exam will take a form of coursework. As a canonical example of a wiki examination I propose creating an appropriate contribution to one of the adjacent "real" projects: writing a Wikipedia article, composing a Wiktionary entry, photographing or drawing for WikiCommons, etc. It should also be acceptable to collect works at Wikiversity, in order to compile them for Wikipedia or any other project later. This approach will allow for more objective assessment, since the work will be assessed by people who are used to seeing serious articles without allowance for learning mistakes. On the other hand, it will let many other open projects to profit from Wikiversity by increasing open access quality content.
Records about passing a course can be done in a form of barnstars with annotations about the course title, examination topic and other details. Since it is assumed that those who have passed a Wikiversity course, will attain certain level of competence, it should be possible to use services like Brainbench for getting official certifications. An interesting variation would be creation of PDF certificates by the wiki teacher (with open systems like LaTeX or design software like Inkscape) and uploading them to Wikiversity: such certificates can be linked from a user page, as well as printed out for offline demonstration.

Research edit

Research activities as such are by definition a part of the real world, which means that the wiki framework has not much to offer to help. It is possible to collect intermediate results as drafts (a separate category or even an explicit namespace), in order to facilitate finalising the research, usually in a form of publicaion:

After finishing research activities on a certain topic, their results are commonly published in academic journals or in conference proceedings. In Wikiversity it is possible to use wiki technologies and their immanent lightweightness to get rid of the burden of having to fit into particular deadlines and requirements set by third parties. Any wiki author at any time when he or she decides that his or her work is complete or passed a critical mass point, he or she can write a report that will take a form of a usual wiki article with possible illustrations, tables, subsections and any other layout elements. The size of such a report is not limited, but canonically it is recommended to limit yourself to 30 kb of wiki text or to split the report into several relatively standalone pieces. If the rule about preliminary proposal acceptance is used (see above in the section about Wikiversity structure), then before writing a report one needs to formulate its abstract and ask the proposal processing committee composed of experts in chosen topics. In any case, the article needs to be correctly categorised in order to attract people who are interested in the topics it touches. Unlike Wikipedia, where original research is unacceptable, any Wikiversity report should contain original ideas, methods, experiments and results — it makes little sense to republish old materials on a new website, if you can just refer to them from your new wiki publications.
Peer review
Any report that was made public with Wikiversity or mentioned there, can be reviewed by anyone who is willing and feeling competent and interested enough to do so. Just as in the offline academic peer review process, reviews should not be too brief: two sentences about how someone does not like the article, do not make a review, it is a mere comment that deserves to be posted on a talk page of the main article. A high quality review should start by summarising the reviewer's understanding of report's contents, and then go into describing the novelty of proposed methodology, the topicality of the chosen area, quality of related work study, problem completeness, critique on designing experiments, quality of presentation and delivery. In order to simplify context understanding by the report's author, it is recommended to include minimal information about the wiki reviewer's identity, which can uncover his or her level and knowledgeability (interested outsider or a real university department chair?). If possible and feasible for the wiki reviewer, one can also include advice about the level of the report (amusing groundwork? recommended for presenting at a conference? enough for a journal article? time to write a book?).
Anyone willing can challenge himself or herself in organising a wiki conference. As proposed above, these wiki conferences will not play a role of the only possible place to publish an article, but rather as a themed scientific contest. Just like with the proposal approval procedure, it is reasonable to first create a discussion page in order to pre-assess community interest and the number of possible participants. When one is certain in the community interest, one needs to formulate the chosen area for a conference, to publish an approximate list of covered topics and a list of people forming a programme committee, as well as the important dates. After publishing all the requirements and before the first deadline, anyone who wants to participate, is welcome to write an article (see above for writing a report), contribute it to Wikiversity and add it to a category for the chosen wiki conference. When the deadline passes, all members of the programme committee go through the articles and review all that they find entertaining. If there is a paper lacking wiki reviews, the wiki conference organiser must provide a couple of them (by reviewing the paper oneself, by asking the programme committee nicely, by inviting external experts — there are many methods). Every review must contain (additionally to what was described above) at least an admissibility degree (accept — reject) and a confidence degree (expert — amateur). The organiser can explicitly ask for more judgments (in points or stars) in originality, literacy, importance, repeatability, bibliography quality, etc. A good reviewer will always leave detailed description of how he or she understands the submission, what are its strong and weak points, and how to improve it. Accepted submissions can be gathered on one page, or even better — compiled into a proceedings document and published via arXiv for free access in a readable form.
Wiki colloquiums (this name was chosen to avoid confusion with understanding terms like `seminar' or `workshop') are the same as wiki conferences, but their main purpose is a good discussion and not necessarily reporting on results. Wiki colloquium submissions are collected and approved or rejected in the same way as submissions to a wiki conference (see above), but the submissions themselves are considerably shorter and contain problem description, the list of open questions and possibly the wiki author's opinion on some of them. It is also recommended to prepare a presentation and distribute it in a form of a PDF with slides or even a videoclip. Wiki colloquium is not that strictly bound to a specific time as a usual brainstorm session, so it is possible for discussions to go on for weeks, but some limitations should be set by the organisers in order to stop the debates from going in eternal circles. A wiki colloquium should result in a detailed report about all questions covered. Such a report is usually composed by an organiser, but wiki technologies allow anyone to contribute and submit an alternative report assuming a completely different point of view (especially encouraged in cases when neutral point of view is unreachable).
Webinars and web conferences
A webinar is a complete counterpart of a traditional seminar in the online world. Thus, it does not look worthwhile to me to use a wiki framework for web conferencing and to try to forcefully pursue extrinsic qualities while avoiding obvious untraditional benefits. Having said that, it is of course possible for Wikiversity to serve as an advertising platform for those who want to attend online seminars and online conferences, especially when it is done not in a hit-and-run fashion (post a call for participation and never return), but with constructive collaboration in mind (for example, by organising a wiki colloquium in parallel).

Conclusion edit

  • There is a place for Wikiversity in educational and research process, it can be used for academic purposes beneficially to resolve issues nontrivially solved without wiki technologies. The project is viable.
  • One of the first steps towards project prosperity and its successful development seems to be the deployment of a framework for scientific topics, which will be used to classify submissions — analogous to categorisation in wiki encyclopedias.
  • In all aspects, Wikiversity should try to rely on adjacent wiki projects (Commons, Wikibooks, Wiktionary, Wikisource, Wikispecies, …) and on other free content distribution frameworks (SourceForge, SlideShare, Scribd, arXiv, …), and not try to substitute them.
  • It is recommended to form supervising committees to oversee every scientific topic. Representatives of such committees will keep an eye on new submissions, provide feedback to wiki authors, help them with sources and means, and in general to enable and encourage their productivity.
  • Lectures should be given based on Wikibooks content, completed with slides, assignments and links to recommended resources.
  • Wiki students' questions asked during teaching can be used as a feedback to improve Wikibooks content.
  • Examinations should be a release into the broader wiki world, namely — creating materials on par with content provided by qualified contributors of serious wiki projects.
  • Wikiversity is recommended for use as a framework for wiki publications of research reports. The results should be original, which clearly separates Wikiversity from Wikipedia or Wikisource.
  • Any published wiki article can be reviewed, which should be encouraged, as any form of constructive collaboration. Reviews should be published at Wikiversity.
  • Wiki conferences should be held occasionally to facilitate a limited time effort in writing a list of related articles. A wiki conference should have a programme committee, which objective is to systematically review submissions in order to accept and reject them. Rejected articles are not removed, just not included in the proceedings.
  • Wiki colloquiums should be held occasionally to facilitate a focused discussion effort on a chosen topic. The result should be a concluding report or reports from participants.
  • Pages about finished wiki events (e.g., past wiki conferences) can be protected from editing, in order to prevent vandalism and accidental inappropriate edits.