User:Mackiwg/Working papers/OSS-Series

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WikiEducator: Memoirs, myths, misrepresentations and the magic

We're living in exciting times! The free culture, mass collaboration and self organisation are transforming traditional models of society and the economy in fundamental ways. I don't pretend to have the answers, but I'm confident that the convergence among these forces combined with the shifts from organisational hierarchy to the individual will help us find the answers together. Finding the answers, holds huge promise for radically advancing access to education and knowledge. I use radical in the original sense of the word referring to the radix or root of fundamental change as opposed to revolutionary change.

This is a post about freedom and how it can support education as a common good. If you suffer from hypertension best to read this post under parental guidance. Now that I've cleared the health warnings, I want to move onto the more important stuff.

In education, if you give knowledge away freely - you will still have it for yourself to use.

This is why Sir John Daniel of the Commonwealth of Learning (COL) argues that education will not suffer the tragedy of the commons.

An overview

WikiEducator is working with others in the freedom culture to develop a free version of the entire education curriculum by 2015. It's an ambitious target riddled with complexity, but the importance of our work is underscored by our vision to turn the digital divide into digital dividends using free content and open networks.

I want to set the context with a short history of WikiEducator and its growth over the last year. With particular reference to free cultural works, I will reflect on two academic myths associated with the our industrial models of education, clear up a few misrepresentations where things I have said are sometimes used out of context, but more importantly try to capture some of the magic I have experienced being part of the WikiEducator free content community. This is the magic that will turn the divide into dividends -- magic which is produced through self organisation and mass collaboration.

Rationale for the post

Ken's invitation to post a contribution for the Terra Incognita series covering the impact of free software in education couldn't have come at a better time. We're preparing to celebrate the first birthday of WikiEducator. This OSS series is an appropriate forum to reflect on Wikieducator's beginnings because we:

  • use free software (in particular, Mediawiki, the same engine used for Wikipedia's online encyclopedia);
  • promote and advocate the use of free software in education; and
  • our meaning of free content is derived from the experiences of the free software movement.

This post will reflect on some of my personal experiences in founding the site and its potential contribution to widening access to education in meaningful ways. If anything, I hope this reflection encourages constructive debate in building the value proposition for why we need to support free content production in preservation of the educational values that should underpin our knowledge practice.

Memoirs: The origins of WikiEducator

A good place to start is with the original reasons for establishing WikiEducator. I set up the wiki primarily to support the collaborative authoring requirements for free content in support of COL's facilitation role in guiding the development of the Virtual University for Small States of the Commonwealth (VUSSC). VUSSC is a project involving 27 small states, working together as a network, including the development of free content to support the educational needs in these countries. I always hoped that the WikiEducator would grow organically from this small nexus into something bigger. Reading the statistics, this is proving to be true.

I don't see this early history to be compelling reading for our audience, so have linked to this content. Nonetheless I have used Ken's invitation to document the early beginnings of WikiEducator. I cover this under the following headings which you may want to read when you have more time on hand:

  • History is important;
  • The first prototype;
  • Reflections on choosing the domain name; and
  • Why not Wikiversity

History enthusiasts aside, it's more important to look at the outputs after our first year and the numbers provide some indication of what our community has achieved.

Early signs of exponential growth?

Polularised by Mark Twain, we know that there are three kinds of lies: "Lies, dammed lies, and statistics".

On the verge of WikiEducator's first birthday, we have logged about 2.3 million hits. This week we were ranked by Alexa as the 354,568 most visited website. This puts WikiEducator within the top 8% of websites on the planet. That's not too bad for a small wiki working on the development of free content for education, especially when considering that there are approximately 48 million active websites in the world (according to Netcrafts 2006 figures). The statistics for March 2006 show an average of 20 000 hits per day from approximately 900 unique visits. We are currently recording visits from 61% of the 193 countries in the world.

Reduction-in-days-stats s.jpg
An interesting way to look at WikiEducator's growth is to compare the number of days it has taken to reach cumulative totals in steps of a half-million hits. It took WikiEducator:
  • 157 days to reach its first half-million hits;
  • 102 days to reach the next half-million;
  • 41 days to reach the 1.5 million mark; and
  • 21 days to reach the 2.0 million threshold.

History is important

In order to dispel any new myths which may or may not arise from this post, I feel that I should document some of WikiEducator's early history.

Determining the inception date of WikiEducator is open to interpretation. I took up my current role at COL on 1 May 2006, leaving my previous position as Associate Professor and founding Director of the Centre for Flexible and Distance Learning at the University of Auckland.

I mention this because I was intimately associated with New Zealand's global leadership role in moving the implementation of free software in education forward through the vision of the Tertiary Education Commission's eLearning Collaborative Development Fund (eCDF). This is the fund which supported the foundation of Eduforge, the NZ Open Source VLE project and other open source projects. I had privilege of being the founding project lead of another eCDF, free software project called the eLearning XHTML editor (eXe), which has developed an authoring tool for educators to package interoperable learning content. The eXe project was successful in securing two sizable grants from the eCDF.

New Zealand's role in furthering the global implementation of free software in education will not go unnoticed. The first large-scale enterprise implementation of a free software Learning Management System took place at the Open Polytechnic of New Zealand. This was the direct result of the foresight of the eCDF and a few pioneers from New Zealand who had the courage to pursue substantive government funding because of a deep seated commitment to the values and potential benefits of open source software in tertiary education. These individuals challenged organizational orthodoxy, notwithstanding the Fear Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) typically found in the higher education sector. External funding is a powerful catalyst that helps mitigate against organizational transformation and very often, unfounded perceptions of emerging futures. It's an open question, but, would the British Open University, Athabasca University and others have gone with their decisions to implement the Moodle open source software, LMS without New Zealand's significant contributions to the code engine of Moodle combined with a concrete example of its implementation in a large-scale distance education institution?

The first prototype

Getting back to the inception date of WikiEducator, in preparation for my move to COL in Vancouver, I set up a prototype installation of WikiEducator on a desktop machine before moving this over to a centrally hosted server financed by COL which was installed shortly before my arrival at COL. Because history is important, I kept all the file history of this early desktop prototype when we moved it over to a hosted solution in April 2006. The very first edit I made on the desktop prototype was 13 February 2006. At this time I was testing Mediawiki as our preferred technology choice under some tough competition from MoinMoin, the Python based wiki. The WikiEducator prototype was not linked to a domain name server until April, and was simply an unpublished local IP address.

Reflections on choosing the domain name

I registered the WikiEducator domain name on 12 February 2006 in New Zealand, which was not put into production until April 2006 when we moved the prototype onto a hosted server. There has been some discussion on the blog sphere with Leigh Blackall's request for WikiVersity and WikiEducator joining to make WikiLearner.

I had one primary requirement for the choice of domain name, namely that it had to be available under all of the .org, .net and .com domains.

My first choice was Wikilearn, which I felt encapsulated the spirit of I was hoping to achieve. However this was not available at the time under all three domains. I did not want to associate the domain name with an organizational entity like "university" or "school", largely influenced by criticisms of the academy leveled against the fledgling Wikiversity project which was establishing itself under Wikibooks. I settled for WikiEducator as a compromise. Given my disappointment in not finding Wikilearn available under all three domains, I went for WikiEducator which I felt was more representative of our the intentions of collaborative authoring of free content at the expense of paradigmatic preferences for learner centered pedagogy. Anyway, that's history. In hindsight, Wikilearner was available at the time - but I felt that a wiki called "learner" as opposed to "learning" might not attract educators in authoring free content. Interestngly, was registered in May 2006, 10 days after my theoretical inception date of WikiEducator. (I don't suggest any connection with the registration of Wikilearner and our work on WikiEducator.)

Taking this history into account, I like to use 1 May 2006 as the official inception date of WikiEducator which coincides with my first day at COL, but this is open to interpretation.

Prior to taking up my position at COL, I requested that the WikiEducator url be printed on my new business cards. At the time, my request was refused. I can only speculate that the wiki concept was still very new to the organisation and prudence prevailed rather than promoting an "untested" technology. However, during the first VUSSC Bootcamp, COL headquarters requested that a clear notification of our support for the technology be acknowledged on the site, which had now become mainstream in our operations. COL's logo and footnote was inserted on 17 August 2006.

Why not Wikiversity?

I should point out that I seriously considered joining forces with Wikiversity in the early days before "going it alone", so to speak. This was when Wikiversity was still under the Wikibooks project as evidenced by this page I set up in Wikibooks on 27 June 2005. I was invited to speak at the first Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) and Free Knowledge Workshop, initiated by Kim Tucker of the Meraka Open Source Centre. This is where I first met Erik Möller (more popularly known as Eloquence in the wiki community) who, was Chief Research Officer of the Wikimedia Foundation at the time. Erik spoke passionately about the potential of the wiki model for education and I decided then that if I were ever to set up an educational wiki, Eloquence would be the first person I would approach for hosting services. As things turned out, Erik is hosting the WikiEducator servers and is our chief advisor on technical matters.

Reflecting back on my decision to facilitate the emergence of a a new community from scratch -- considerably more difficult than joining an existing community -- the following factors informed my choice:

  • At the time, Wikiversity was having difficulty in getting approval as an independent project of the Wikimedia Foundation;
  • There was uncertainty in the Wikiversity community concerning what the project wanted to be;
  • I was concerned about the preconceived ideas of what constitutes a University and how the choice of the concept "Wikiversity" might impact on individual decisions of Educators to participate in free content projects;
  • Given my background and experience in distance education, I was acutely aware of the differences between a textbook and learning materials designed for independent study (at the time, Wikiversity was part of Wikibooks and WikiEducator's intentions were not to develop textbooks).
  • WikiEducator's intended purpose of developing independent study materials necessitated a strong association with the eXe project given their first-hand experience with "instructional devices" and I did not feel comfortable with imposing a third party technology on an existing community.

In hindsight, this was the right decision. Both projects have the space to grow and differentiate themselves, while working towards the common ideal of free content development for education. There have been an increasing number of discussions on the similarities and differences between the respective projects which is welcomed by both communities. (See for example my responses to a question from a community member). This hidden talk page attracted meaningful interactions between Wikiversity and WikiEducator, and is a testament to the open approach of free content communities. We have commenced with a collaborative project on the OER Grapevine to explore the potential of pedagogical templates in our respective projects.

An evolving vision

These interactions have encouraged WikiEducator to think critically about its evolving vision. Particularly with regards to how it differentiates itself from similar projects. Given the magnitude of our collective task to develop a free curriculum by 2015, we cannot afford duplication of effort. Where things stand at the moment -- taking into account that WikiEducator is a dynamic community -- I think the project differentiates itself in the following ways:

  • WikiEducator has a strong commitment to the developing world in making sure that all citizens can engage as equal participants in the development of free content. This commitment is endorsed by COL's "Learning for Development" -- the thrust of our current strategic plan
  • WikiEducator has a commitment to build capacity in parallel with free content development, thus leveraging the advantages of a learn-by-doing approach. (See for example WikiEducator's Newbie Tutorials.)
  • WikiEducator has a forward looking disposition and encourages responsible experimentation with evolving technologies in our search for sustainable solutions for e-learning futures.
  • WikiEducator facilitates networking nodes of a range of projects in conjunction with our mission to develop free content for education. (See for example FLOSS4Edu and the Future of Learning in a Networked World FLNW2.)


I use the notion of "myth" with caution. In fiction, there is no requirement to validate the truth. Similarly there is no impediment to basing a fictional work on fact. The myths I'm referring to are the traditional stories (sometimes ancient) of the academy which attempt to explain selected aspects about our educational realities. By interrogating these myths, hopefully we can establish plausible grounds for mainstreaming the free content movement in contributing to the sustainability and common good of education. Perhaps we should take the time to engineer new myths that will sustain and direct our educational futures. I encourage readers to help me in this creative story writing process.

The first myth: Universities have been around a long time - technology doesn't restructure our pedagogy

Yes, universities have been around since medieval times and are one of a handful of organisations that survived the industrial revolution. Why should this be any different in the knowledge economy? The reality is that technology has succeeded in restructuring pedagogy and there is no reason why it can't do so again. In deconstructing the myth I refer to one substantive example of technology precipitated change that has altered the pedagogy of the university in fundamental ways. I'm referring to the inception of the large-scale distance education universities. Two observations:

  • Institutionalised forms of distance education did not exist prior to the onset of the industrial revolution.
  • The specific roles that the learning technologies assume in the teaching-learning situation can actually alter the pedagogical structure. For example: Media resources that are used as adjuncts in support of face-to-face pedagogy, for example slide show presentations do not alter the pedagogical structure of classroom teaching. However, asynchronous learning resources must actually carry or mediate all the functions of teaching including the presentation of content, forms of interaction (both simulated and real dialogue) and assessment. Incidentally, this is the reason why slide show presentations don't migrate well into eLearning contexts.

The second myth: Publically funded education is economically sustainable as a common good

The massification of education as a publicly funded system has achieved considerable success in widening access, with impressive results evidenced by the exponential growth in the participation rates for higher education after the Second World War. However the long term sustainability of higher education is coming into question. The trouble with our traditional model is:

  • The greater your success in widening education the less sustainable it becomes over the long term, especially for cash strapped governments in the developing world;
  • Education provision does not function as a perfect economy. If it did - why don't we see a radical reduction in the cost of provision - given the global demand for education. Is this a supply problem? Does this suggest a return to elitism for survival?

I contend that the economic model for higher education is fundamentally broken. The increase in student fees in the United States over the past decade has been in excess of the national inflation index. How long will the system be able to sustain itself?

We are now twenty year's away from Drucker's predictions in that famous interview in Forbes magazine back in 1997 where he predicted that "Thirty years from now, the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won’t survive …" (March 10, 1997, pp.126-127). These predictions were made just before the the hype and subsequent bursting of the dot com bubble. Drucker's predictions became the Trojan Horse for many commentators arguing for the transformation of the university to survive in the e-world. Less cited are the real reasons for Drucker's concerns, namely:

"Do you realize that the cost of higher education has risen as fast as the cost of health care? …Such totally uncontrollable expenditures, without any visible improvement in either the content or the quality of education, means that the system is rapidly becoming untenable. Higher education is in deep crisis…" (Drucker, Forbes Magazine, March 10, 1997, pp.126-127)

The deconstruction of these myths set up the value proposition for free content. It is certainly plausible that we can reduce the design and development costs of asynchronous learning materials, while improving quality by an order of magnitude through mass collaboration adhering to the principles of self organisation. Moreover, we could see the emergence of new (de)institutional arrangements emerging from the free cultural works movement that supplement or compete with the traditional univeristy. This is possible because of deep seated changes we are seeing in the World Wide Web. In the "old days" the web was this amazing information resource where you would go out and find what you needed. Today, information finds you. The same information we may choose to co-create as individuals through the read-write web.

There is nothing new in these ideas - they are well documented in the literature. My concern is that the traditional academy does not have a good track record in educational innovation and is one of the reasons I have taken a short leave of absence from the academy. I want to see whether its possible to achieve sustainable innovation with free content from the "outside" - because it's important for humanity. In justification of my assertion, I should point out that the big university icons that have pioneered the Open Education Resources (OERs) movement have adopted non-free content licenses. What's the point of OERs that regulate the very freedom they are supposed to encourage? This is a contradiction in terms. It's important that we get this right - our academic freedom depends on it.

Stated differently - Assuming the freedom culture achieves a free version of the education curriculum, what are the implications for your institution?


I do not use non-free software because I do not want to face the ethical dilemmas arising from the tensions between honesty and educational service when helping my neighbour. As an educator, I do not want to be tempted into the illegal reproduction of software or closed learning resources when helping a learner. As a teacher, I don't want to be in a situation where I must refuse access to knowledge at the expense of helping someone to learn or for that matter earning a living. It's a personal choice. Sometimes my choices are a catalyst for emotional debate among my peers. In these situations, I frequently make statements that challenge the hegemony of closed content and the traditional pedagogy we have grown accustomed to in education. On the rare occasion, what I say is used out of context fulling misrepresentations. I'd like to set the records straight. I'll concentrate on two examples.

It's far better to have a poor quality educational resource that is free, than a high quality resource that is non-free

Yes, you've guessed it -- I have been accused of disregarding quality and its importance in education.

I usually make this statement challenging those OER projects that have adopted the Non-Commercial (NC) restriction in their choice of license. First of all, quality has nothing to do with the freedom of a resource. In my experience of education, quality is a function of the design and processes implemented during the development of those resources. Quality is not a function of the commercial restrictions placed on a resource. In fact, these commercial restrictions limit essential freedoms to widen access to education, not to mention the incompatibility with a growing number of resources available under free content licenses which you can legally mix and match. Free content must be available to sell because we should not deny any individual the freedom to earn a living. This is the cornerstone of a modern economy. Besides, competition encourages quality and I would argue that we should encourage commercial activity to promote the quality of free content.

However, my major concern is the waste of human effort in many OER projects which essentially render the products almost useless for the very people they are intended to serve. I've yet to find a set of lecture notes developed by another teacher that I can use without the need for adaptation for my local context or personal style of teaching. The problem is that adaptation requires effort and consequently incurs cost. It would be nice if I could find bits and pieces of free content that I could mix and match thus reducing my personal effort in the adaptation process - in other words creating a digital mash-up from free content for my learners. The problem with the NC restriction is that you cannot mix the NC materials with any of the "copyleft" content licenses because you are creating a derivative work. Effectively the NC restriction shuts off modifications and adaptations by leveraging on the availability of existing investments in free content.

One advantage of a poor quality in a free-content resource is that you have the freedom to improve it!

Monolithic learning management systems are a barrier to widening access to education through eLearning

I've become increasingly disillusioned with Learning Management Sstems (LMSs) and I suspect that they're constraining innovation in education. I am an eLearning practitioner and have previously been responsible for leading eLearning strategy in the university environment and have extensive experience with many LMSs - so I'm not an eLearning luddite with a nostalgic reluctance to adopt technology in education. On the contrary, I firmly support Sugata Mitra's advice that we must use the most advanced digital technologies for the most disadvantaged learners. I'm on the side of eLearning here.

My disillusionment with LMSs fuels speculation among my peers and colleagues. I see the looks of surprise when I chat with my colleagues suggesting that LMSs are the barrier to eLearning. Their unspoken diagnosis of a temporary bout of digital amnesia is tangible. I observe the disappointment most among my free software associates that have slaved for years in the implementation of free software LMS solutions. In my view, we made an error in judgment assuming that unrestricted access to the source code of free software LMSs would facilitate innovation in eLearning. Unfortunately we have reached the point where every eLearning problem is a nail - because the only tool we have on campus is a large LMS hammer.

I think we can learn a lot from the Personalised Learning Environment cohort and the work on the eFramework - essentially a description of a web services architecture for eLearning. However this work is essentially a framework specification not an implementation. Given our experiences on the eLearning XHTML project ([1]), which has developed an authoring tool using internationally accepted specifications for interoperability, I'm not too optimistic that we will see an e-framework implementation as mainstream technology very soon. I have yet to see an elegant deployment of the LMS/SCORM specifications in any LMS (both proprietary and open source). When you view a SCORM import in all the LMSs I have tested - you feel that you are viewing alien content that is not part of the instructional strategy.

Why go through the pains of an SCORM export/import when you can simply upload and reference the relevant web content on a server using W3C protocols? (Even better start using RSS/RDF content feeds.) The reason is that some local authority has taken responsibility to manage your freedoms to educate. We don't tolerate these intrusions in the traditional classroom, yet under elearning we accept this in the name of cost-efficiency (or some other "justifiable" reason). This is why LMSs won't survive - they are not aligned with the Web 2.0 culture of enabling individuals to teach as they see fit. LMSs are typically organisational installations and restrict educational freedom to work as individuals across institutional boundaries. In my view, this is why we will witness exponential growth in the technologies that service these educational needs. The phenomenal growth in Youtube, MySpace, Open Wiki installations, Flickr being an early example of the shift from organisation to you as individual.

You may be wondering what this has to do with free content, but it's an important debate. We have to figure out ways in which we will deliver free content to our learners. I'm not too optimistic that interoperability specifications are going provide the solution. We've got to get smarter.

The magic of WikiEducator

There is real magic in the WikiEducator community and it's both addictive and contagious. However, I don't have the skills to articulate this dynamic. WikiEducator is a living organism as evidenced by a few examples:

  • I have observed a free software champion based in Kenya conceptualise the FLOSS4Edu project and capitalise on the space provided by WikiEducator to mobilise educators in East and West Africa to commence development of free content for Africa by African educators.
  • I have been involved with two VUSSC boot camps where 25 countries are collaborating online in the development of free content.
  • I meet with Country Mike, based in New Zealand on WikiEducator's Internet Relay Channel and we share thoughts about the strategic directions for WikiEducator.
  • After a recent keynote presentation in India, I was taken back by the passionate defense of WikiEducator from the floor by a senior Indian academic.
  • I was moved by a reflection from a teacher based in Germany who announced in one of our forums that "After discovering the WikiEducator site I was quite exited, and I told my family at supper: Listen, I have something to celebrate, I just found something very promising!"
  • I interact with experienced technical gurus like Eloquence from the Wikimedia foundation in identifying sustainable innovation alternatives for open content authoring in the future.

Networked communities have their own energy and they organise themselves without the need for a centralised hierarchy. Community projects take on a life of their own, and WikiEducator is not exception. The compelling value proposition of free content and the freedom to participate actively in the destiny of WikiEducator is triggering exponential growth in the intiative.

Administrator's frequently have difficulty understanding this community impetus and attempt to over regulate this energy, leading to projects that are destined to failure in the medium term. Fortunately WikiEducator has adopted a clean slate approach. The starting point was simply a declaration of community values - the rest followed from that. In hindsight this has been the success of the WikiEducator community. It's a delicate balance because the Commonwealth of Learning has funded the development of WikiEducator and the agency has a clearly defined strategy to support learning for development. We have refrained from interference in the evolution of the community and this is paying handsome dividends in the realisation of our aims.

In many respects the evolution of open networked communities is like Golf (Although, I'm not an authority as I do not play the game). You can spend many hours perfecting your swing, but you have very little control over where the ball will rest. The old adage that your luck in getting it right will increase proportionally with the time you spend practicing, will help us move forward in the right direction.

I hope you will help us.