Wikis and Collective Intelligence

Wikis are a preeminent example of Web 2.0 technology, as well as of the underlying social constructivist pedagogy. Named after a Hawaiian word for ‘fast’, a wiki is a website that allows the posting and editing of content by multiple users. Wikis can be for personal use, but they come into their own as collaborative project-based sites. The best known example is Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, by now one of the most popular websites on the Internet.

Wikipedia is an interesting case, because its exponential growth and popularity have raised all sorts of issues, including reliability and libel. In order to deal with these issues, Wikipedia has evolved complex protocols governing editing procedures (such as No Original Research and Neutral Point of View), a caste of administrators (Admins), and an Arbitration Committee (Arbcom), which is the closest thing to a ruling body.

Wikipedia is perhaps the closest humanity has come to fulfilling the dreams of the 18th century French Encyclopédistes, who aspired to a universal compendium of knowledge.

But what are we to make of the notion of ‘collective intelligence’? Does the term make any sense at all? Intelligence is normally something we ascribe to a person, although we may also describe someone’s actions as intelligent, just as we do the material or institutional products of human endeavour. In other words, something can embody intelligence, or exemplify it. We may, therefore, describe a website as embodying collective intelligence, in the sense that it contains information that has been gathered and organised in a collaborative and intelligent manner.

There are several advantages and disadvantages to such ‘collective intelligence’, and we find all of them in the case of Wikipedia. Among the advantages are the sheer volume of information, the rapidity and frequency with which it can be updated, and the constant checking of facts.

The primary disadvantage is a lack of editorial control, making it difficult to rely on the 100% accuracy of articles. Vandalism is an issue, as is libel in the case of biographies of living persons (BLPs). Although many topics are non-controversial, where controversy exists there is a tendency for edit-warring to occur, as opposite camps jostle to ensure the representation of their views. The protocols have evolved to deal with such issues, as have the Admins who are supposed to ensure adherence to them. The result is that everything is ideally arrived at by consensus, although the ideal is not always actualised.

One particular problem with the system is the culture of anonymity that is endemic in Wikipedia. Anonymous editing is not compulsory. There are sometimes good reasons for it, however, for example where privacy is essential. The problem with its widespread use is that it effectively removes any real accountability for one’s writing or editing. Traditional writers (novelists, academics and journalists) put their name to what they write – they stand by it and take responsibility for it. Anyone with an online computer can edit Wikipedia, whether or not they create a Wikipedia account. Even when they have an account, the chances are that they will use a pseudonym. They can also create multiple accounts, and fall foul of the Sockpuppet protocol.

Having said that, research has shown Wikipedia to be about as reliable an encyclopedia as Britannica, which is no mean feat given its vast extent. It ought perhaps to be seen as an ongoing social experiment, or perhaps a continuation of the revolution initiated by the introduction of print in the 15th century. Debate within the loose-knitted Wikipedia community continues, as exemplified by a recent discussion on the Talk Page of an experienced editor and Admin.

I believe there is unquestionably a role for wikis in education. In the primary school, they could be used by the teacher to gather online resources before beginning a project. Students could then be given access to the wiki, to make use of the resources, communicate questions and ideas to one another and the teacher, share further resources that they discover, and begin to formulate solutions to problems. Not only could this be highly engaging, students could access it from anywhere with an internet connection. Those unable to attend school for any reason could avoid getting behind in their work. Students in remote locations would be another obvious group to benefit. Most significant of all, however, is that the work is collaborative, allowing collective learning, and it is also more likely to reflect the world of work or higher education that 21st-century children will enter on completion of their schooling.

Thanks to Matthew Outred for the following:

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