|By Franz Pfluegl, CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons|
"Ladies and gentlemen, I feel like a bacterium, accidentally being examined under a microscope. There are two more bacteria under this microscope, named Denis Barthel and Ziko van Dijk. And there are thousands of other bacteria, together creating the world's biggest yoghurt of knowledge, called Wikipedia.
So, what's so special about this yoghurt? Why has Wikipedia been able to prevail against all the traditional yoghurts - also called encyclopedias - in less than 10 years? The answer is: Wikipedia was the first encyclopedia, which adapted itself to the internet. As researchers have found, bacteria in the internet need a different temperature to create a really good yoghurt than the ones outside the internet. In the 20th century we had famous encyclopedias like Brockhaus or Encyclopædia Britannica. This was in a time when our culture was dominated by books. Then the internet came along and has spread around the world. This has changed many aspects of our lives and it will continue to change many aspects in the future. The success of Wikipedia is due to the fact that Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, not only created a new digitized encyclopedia in the internet like others did, but adapted his encyclopedia to the new world, dominated by the Internet. He harnessed the network properties of the internet, first by creating the content. The articles are written, improved and monitored by thousands of volunteers around the globe. There is no paid editorial staff. The second thing Jimmy Wales did was to harness the network properties of the internet to finance Wikipedia. Each year there is an appeal for money placed directly in Wikipedia. Thus, Wikipedia is financed by thousands of small and a few larger donations. This allows the content of Wikipedia to be offered for free and without ads. All other special features of Wikipedia are logical consequences of these two properties: The free licence, the editorial process, the quality management and so on.
Well, what about schools? Even they are in this world dominated by the internet. And to top it all off they have to deal with Wikipedia too. Internet means chatting, gaming and collaborating; Wikipedia means cheating, plagiarizing and passing yourself off as knowing more than you really do. This is where our research team at the University of Teacher Education Bern has tried to find solutions. In our opinion banning the Internet and Wikipedia does not solve any problems, not to mention that such bans are unenforceable. Banning does not enable students to use the Internet or Wikipedia in a reasonable and competent manner. Two measures however would solve this problem. The first one would be to foster the students' information literacy, explaining how the Internet and Wikipedia work, what the pitfalls are and how they can be avoided. The second measure is more difficult. Just as encyclopedias have to be adapted to the new world, so does education. Wikipedia now is what the pocket calculator was a few decades ago. Students let pocket calculators do the calculating for them. Initially many mathematics teachers banned the pocket calculator. Later however teachers did an about face and decided to have each student purchase a pocket calculator and have them use it as a basis to assign them more complex tasks. And the same is going to happen with Wikipedia. At first, some teachers banned the online encyclopedia, however now more and more teachers have students use it as a basis to give more complex tasks. Just as the process of calculating can be done by pocket calculators, the process of summarizing information can be done by Wikipedia. Therefore, I see my primary duty at the University of Teacher Education Bern is to show teachers how they can improve the level of education by using this yoghurt called Wikipedia.