An Invitation to the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) Wikipedia Page

Well, it was bound to happen at some point – I’ve had my first taste of Wiki-disillusionment. As anyone who follows me on twitter will know, I’ve put quite a lot of time in to editing the Learning Analytics wikipedia page, and the MOOC page (to which [[User:Smallbones]] has contributed far more than I – for which I’m personally very grateful).  So last night I was a bit bemused to see a lot of people I follow tweeting a post from Audrey Watters – [Expletive Deleted] Ed-Tech #Edinnovation a blog post on a keynote in which Audrey critiques the re-writing of mooc history, to downplay the Canadian role (as per Argo), particularly focussing on Wikipedia as a site for that downplaying.  I wouldn’t normally write a blog about that, except I’ve just responded to someone on the talk page pointing me to the post, with the claim that the ‘truthliness’ of the early moocs section is questionable in its current form.  Last night I might’ve just gone with “Argo fuck yourself”, but I’ll try for something a bit more constructive instead…

History – What is it good for?

Not absolutely nothing, that’s for sure – but it sure is for something.  It’s entirely right to raise issues around what history is, who it is for – what it is being written about and by whom.  Now, we can talk about the re-writing of history, in so far as it goes I think there is a serious underplaying of early moocs (and indeed, good lecture pedagogy in general) in much of the current discourse.  However:

a) That’s not an issue to do with Wikipedia, and targeting Wikipedia as an example of the issue detracts from the point given that the article does (and, can) include the ‘Canadian’ story (see ‘c’)

b) The point at which moocs became noteworthy arguably is the point at which they became a major commercial interest.  I don’t necessarily agree that should be the case, but perhaps what changed the notability wasn’t “Stanford” it was “someone else outside of that group”.  Should that be the case? Well gee I don’t know, but I’d say reducing it to a “Wikipedia only cares when rich American instituitions are involved in stuff” comment isn’t terribly useful.

c) You’re just plain wrong about some of your claims! The ‘early moocs’ section doesn’t list Thrun’s.  Audrey’s post says “it is as it should be, you could argue, as the first MOOCs were theirs and not Sebastian Thrun’s. The “wikiality” of MOOCs history, however, would say otherwise.”” – i.e., the wikipedia page currently lists Thrun over George & Stephen.  Except it doesn’t!  In fact Sebastian Thrun isn’t mentioned ONCE, not ONCE on the mooc wikipedia page. And the ‘Early MOOCs’ section makes clear the Canadian lineage.  For what it’s worth, Stephen is mentioned is twice, and George thrice.  If anyone thinks it should be more, do edit.  In particular I’m hoping to add a section on moocs as a “research platform” at some point, and the work on learning analytics – which George at least has been heavily involved in – obviously should be emphasised there.

d) As for the issue on the talk page, you’ll note *I* recently archived a load of items, and left that one because at some point I wanted to address it, it isn’t a ‘dead issue’ but wikipedia is written by volunteers…with other stuff to do.  Someone else could’ve done that, it’s easier to retweet something though eh?  Find a citation and put it back in, or engage on the talk page.  As for the Khan comment, well 1) sure journalists should be doing better research, and there’s always an issue that a journalist a) says something, it’s b) cited in wikipedia, and then c) repeated by another journo, and then d) that ref is added as another reference…I get that issue, but there are still ways to address that, and one of those is by editing or using the talk page.

Wikipedia as a historical record, Wikipedia as a record of history

I rather like Julian Barnes’ book “A sense of a ending” on this, including the great lines:

  • “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”
  • History is “more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious or defeated.”

What is Wikipedia providing?  It’s both a record of history (as in, recording what has happened), and a historical record (as in, a document that tells us how a particular narrative has been told).  The blog critiques the latter, changes implying a de-emphasising of the Canadians, except:

1) As more happens under the ‘mooc’ banner, that’s bound to happen.  Critical narrative is important (see below), but the use of the term has changed, and wikipedia (as a record of history) should at least to some extent be updated to add those changes, something Audrey notes in her post.

2) Unfortunately plenty of people who “know their history” may have been conflating the two ‘records’ by using wikipedia as a direct source without further sourcing…but that’s just not what Wikipedia is supposed to be, and I don’t think we’d want it to be.  This isn’t about wikiality (see below), or rejecting primary sources (primary sources are fine depending on the claim they’re supporting – if wikipedians disagree then bring it up on the talk page and talk it out).  See, rather than just note a re-writing, I went out and tried to find some academic work on mooc history yesterday.  I found one article in the ‘Electronic Journal for English as a Second Language’, a French ‘sticef’ article (g’translated), the CETIS report ‘MOOCS and HE’ (.docx) – which makes far too much use of Wikipedia as a source, and the JIME article ‘Making Sense of MOOCs: Musings in a Maze of Myth, Paradox and Possibility‘ – which similarly relies far too much on Wikipedia as a source. The problem with the ones relying on Wikipedia as a source is that, for understandable reasons, if document ‘a’ cites document ‘b’ to support a claim that document ‘b’ cites document ‘a’ to support, we end up in a tricky loop….. We need more people writing this history (but wikipedia isn’t the first place to do that), and we need more people engaging in critical discussion on the wikipedia page – but that involves actually engaging on it.

Argo fuck yourself – your analogy is broken

I also don’t think the analogy works – in the Argo case, “the truth” (the one true truth that is) is incompatible with the film.  The things the film portrays just didn’t happen, and that’s both a reflection of the facts (states of the world, or whatever), and of the narrative around them (who comes out as a ‘hero’, etc. – those socio-cultural interpretations of the events).

Thing is though, Wikipedia isn’t like that.  The Wikipedia article isn’t incompatible with the facts, it tells a set of histories, and I hope it manages to portray their differences.  If it doesn’t, there’s nothing to stop it from doing so – wikipedia doesn’t need to attain “the one truth” it can describe sets of narratives.

“wikiality” — “truth by consensus”

So, I don’t think ‘wikiality’ is the issue here.  There’s nothing to prevent the telling of two stories – which reflects what’s going on, the genealogical history tracks the Canadian lineage (and gosh I dunno, maybe all those other people who were doing good distance education before that), and on the other side reflects the wider development and uptake of the term (isn’t it interesting how that happens?) and its adoption by these commercial enterprises.  Perhaps at some point there’ll be an argument to split the article into cmooc and xmooc with some shared history, and some separate – the issue here is how information is reported in the popular media.

Welcome to Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.

First off, I’d say the ‘opening paragraph’ of an article isn’t a definition – it’s a description of what’s going on.  The early page talked about moocs as they were then, well the more recent version gives a somewhat different description and still makes reference to their lineage.  Again, if you don’t like it, change it (I think I wrote or compiled it – I’d certainly welcome more contributors on the page).

Similarly, if you don’t like the Khan Academy line – remove it!  Or at least bring up a discussion on the talk page – I’ve thought about taking it out but frankly I think there are more significant changes to be made first.  I’ve been parking sources on the talk page, along with [[User:Smallbones]] for a while now, why don’t all these people retweeting actually write something about the history, or/and park sources, make contributions, engage on the talk pages?

Wikipedia – the encyclopedia written by user volunteers

Wikipedia’s 26 million articles in 286 languages, over 4.2 million in the English Wikipedia alone, are written collaboratively by volunteers around the world. Almost all of its articles can be edited by anyone with access to the site.[4]

At the moment Audrey’s post manages to down-play efforts to improve this article while doing nothing constructive towards that end I’ve spent a lot of time on that page, I hope I’ve made it a better place to find out about moocs.  [[User:Smallbones]] has done far more than me, and I believe from a “cold start” (I don’t know who they are, but I don’t think this is their area of expertise) – has read around, found relevant links, and is emphasising the connectivist lineage.  THAT is the story I’m interested in.  We should be being critical about the news coverage, but actually the Wikipedia page isn’t a good place to target that critique.

So can I encourage people to do two things:

1) Contribute!  The talk page has some areas to address.  In particular I’m hoping to add a section on moocs as a “research platform” at some point, and the work on learning analytics – which George at least has been heavily involved in – obviously should be emphasised there.

2) Discuss! What are the concrete issues with the page?  What’s there that shouldn’t be, and should be there but isn’t?  This isn’t my area of expertise particularly, but if people aren’t even prepared to engage on the page how is anyone supposed to improve it?

3) Write! There’s a lack of secondary sourcing on mooc history, so go out and write some.  AND PLEASE Stop Citing Wikipedia!

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This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Lisa K says:

    I’m glad you responded to Audrey, it helps to provide that complete picture. Putting myself in your shoes, I can feel how pointed many of her statements were. However, being an outsider I think you are both trying to do the same time – make sure the true history gets written.

    Your last sentence actually points to the crux of the matter – “AND PLEASE STOP Citing Wikipedia!” There is a tricky loop. The large media outlets are presenting the sensational and misleading titles and the people who question them are looking to see what the masses are saying on Wikipedia. I believe that Wikipedia is one place where we can help make sure that the history is documented. I believe there will need to be many other blogs, discussions, posts, tweets and comments that will be needed in order to help the truth overcome the media bias to the elite institutions and US-centric statements.

    So your call to join the wikipedia page is exactly what needs to happen. Just know that it appears that you and Audrey appear to have similar goals, you are just going about it differently.

  2. Simon Knight says:

    Thanks for the reply Lisa it’s appreciated.
    (I was very careful to only capitalise to the ‘please’ though ;).)

    Anyway, I agree entirely that Audrey & I are after the same things,

    Problem is:
    1) Wikipedia is an easy target, but in this case, wrongly (to some extent at least) targeted – hell, the 4th line points out that most moocs aren’t moocs in the original sense.

    2) The point about who did what, when, isn’t about who did what when – it’s about the underlying principles. The “America won the war” story (moocs, wars, Argo, whatever) isn’t just historically inaccurate, it’s trying to sell a particular view of America as ‘free’ (and saving). But while I think that’s one of the points Audrey was trying to make, I don’t think it was actually made.

    3) Focussing on other outlets would have been more constructive, and perhaps saying exactly what’s wrong with them (and the wiki article in that context). Or, on what the big mooc providers are doing and the narratives directly around that compared to the “original” aims.

    4) Plenty of outlets will publish user submitted stuff, for example the Times Higher Education supplement often has pieces from practitioners…it leads to some *cough* interesting, pieces occasionally, but it does mean there should be some outlets to publish which would be ‘secondary sources’. I’m sure there’s a lot I’m not aware of (in which case, add it to Wikipedia or the talk pages) but to me there seems to be a bit of a paucity of such sources at the moment – as I say, that’s exacerbated by people citing Wikipedia itself as the source (which just doesn’t work, and means it’s then less easy to use the citing-article as a citation in Wikipedia)

    • Thanks for linking me to this post. Good to see. I’m wondering, and you touch on it, as a thing gets more and more contested, the ‘quality’ of the citation used to support a claim in Wikipedia becomes more prime. The trouble with MOOCs, and most educational developments I’d say, is the the early history and the underlying principles aren’t easily found in the ‘credible’ literature. Its all primary sources like blog posts. You rightly say that we need to direct our attention toward publishing better papers to those ‘reputable’ peer reviewed outlets. But that’s not as simple as it sounds. Here we enter the issue of hegenomy and established power, the the original MOOCs sought to demonstrate. It also touches the paid editing issue commonly debated in English and German Wikipedia – were paid editor power over volunteers extends to the ability to see work published in the ‘credible’ sources that Wikipedia would cite.
      MOOCs is small fry on this issue, one I’m willing to assume good faith with. But Climate Change, 9/11 and other high stakes issues, I assume public relations big money editing and cultural bias.

      • Simon Knight says:

        Thanks Leigh, (& I’ve also just read your recent related post link: )

        I agree re: need for high quality citation, and difficulties of producing that – I certainly hope there are people working on scholarly work in the area. I’ve been frustrated to see people citing wikipedia in some work where actually just a flat assertion (or, citing a blogpost such that it can be referred to in wiki) would be fine, and the citation of wikipedia makes the otherwise good source dubiously citeable in wiki (for obvious reasons). So there’s that side, then there’s the news/media side where there are fairly often inaccuracies – but on that side, getting the Times Higher to publish articles isn’t (I believe) so difficult…so I’m not sure why there isn’t more discussion of the history in that sort of reputable source (I don’t think I’m the one to be writing it though :-))

        Of course then there’re all the other people who will continue to wilfully ignore anything wot’s not venture capital/breaking universities/restricting access in new perverse ways, etc.

        • It took me a while, but I got something of a paper through on a reasonably reputable channel (Ascilite):

          I’ve ended up back here after an interesting discovery that the Wikipedia article for Flexible Learning has been merged with the Educational Technology article, which has also had the eLearning article merged into it. It seems that Wikipedia editor FeatherPluma is attempting a big cleanup of the education related articles, but is ultimately flattening the knowledge around these topics. I can’t blame them. If those in the know don’t work to address the shortage of sources and edit history there, then this is what we can expect.

  3. mweller says:

    Hi Simon, I am guilty of perhaps taking Audrey’s post without checking facts. I take your point about the wikipedia process, and as someone who’s embedded in it deeply, I can see how this would irritate you. But I followed some of the discussion that led up to Audrey’s piece including comments about removing Wiley et al from the story. So, I think the wider point about forces competing for the history of MOOCs, with different narratives hoping to win out, remains true. This is not a criticism of wikipedia or its process, nor is saying ‘well you should edit it’, the response (of course people can). Rather it is about recognising that these competing narratives exist and why, which is what both Audrey and I have been saying in our recent posts.

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