Wikiversity; or education meets the free culture movement
First Monday

Wikiversity; or education meets the free culture movement: An ethnographic investigation by Norm Friesen and Janet Hopkins

Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, has challenged the way that reference works are used and understood, and even the way that the collective enterprise of knowledge construction and circulation is itself conceptualized. The article presents an ethnographic study of Wikiversity, an educationally–oriented sister project to Wikipedia. It begins by providing an overview of the orientations and aims of Wikiversity, which seeks to provide for participants both open educational contents and an open educational community. It then undertakes a detailed examination of this project’s emerging, overlapping communities and cultures by providing descriptions produced through a combination of ethnographic techniques. These descriptions focus on the experiences of a participant–observer in the context of an 11–week course developed and delivered via Wikiversity, titled Composing Free and Open Online Educational Resources. These descriptions are discussed and interpreted through reference to qualitative studies of the more developed dynamics of the Wikipedia effort — allowing this study to trace the possible trajectories for the future development of the fledgling Wikiversity project. In this way, this paper investigates the communal and cultural dynamics of an undertaking that — should it meet only with a fraction of Wikipedia’s success — will be of obvious significance to education generally.


Wikiversity and the open course: Composing Free and Open Online Educational Resources
First account: “Wikified” collaboration
Second account: Clash of cultures
Third account: Feedback and evaluation
Conclusion: Open culture, education and accreditation




Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, has provoked strong and contradictory responses from those concerned with teaching, learning and the Internet. Lanier (2006), for example, has critiqued Wikipedia as representing a form of “digital Maoism,” forcing readers and writers to suppress their individuality in favor of conformist collectivity. For rather different reasons, many instructors have forbidden their students to reference Wikipedia in papers and other academic writing (Cohen, 2007). At the same time, however, some instructors and students have gravitated towards Wikipedia as an object of both academic utility and research interest, with students being encouraged in some cases to contribute to and edit Wikipedia articles as exercises in writing and in subject–matter competence (Guess, 2007).

Regardless of one’s take on the project, Wikipedia can be understood as having achieved one of the most cherished dreams of educational technologists and e–learning specialists: It has produced a massive collection of freely available, collaboratively created, modular and online “resources” or “objects” readily suited to “open education” or “learning” in general [1]. The myriad resources comprising Wikipedia, like some of the most ambitious visions for learning object technologies (e.g., Hodgins, 2002), are interconnected, international, multilingual, and are organized and tracked using (at least rudimentary) forms of metadata. Moreover, Wikipedia is widely known and accessed by both teachers and students, and is comprehensive enough to provide information on nearly any topic.

But Wikipedia is not the only brainchild of the Wikimedia Foundation, its non–profit host organization. Wikipedia currently has nine “sister projects,” which range from Wikimedia Commons (a “free media repository”) to Wikispecies (a directory of species in the plant and animal kingdoms). One of the most recent of these may be of even greater interest to educators, educational technologists and others than Wikipedia. This is Wikiversity, an “open learning community” inspired by the free culture movement, and presenting many potentially valuable lessons for educational researchers and practitioners alike.

This article begins by introducing the aims and priorities of Wikiversity overall. It then provides a more detailed but selective examination of this project’s emerging community and culture by adapting the investigative methods and descriptive techniques of ethnography. Specifically, the article provides “thick” descriptions developed through a combination of techniques of online ethnography, educational micro–ethnography and auto–ethnography, focusing on a number of particular events and characteristics associated with a single course offering on Wikiversity. By documenting or describing a number of incidents in the course, the study sheds some light on the culture and collaborative dynamics of the overlapping open communities of the course itself and of the Wikiversity project more generally. These kinds of communities, practices and their dynamics, of course, are of increasing importance in education. This is especially the case as the “free culture movement” impacts the world of teaching and learning as it has other realms of cultural (re)production, such as the production and distribution of reference works, music and other resources. Should Wikiversity meet with only a portion of the success of its encyclopedic sister project, Wikipedia, the consequences of these developments are sure to be significant.



Wikiversity and the open course: Composing Free and Open Online Educational Resources

The Wikiversity project was officially launched in August 2006, with the bold aim of

“... empower[ing] people to achieve their educational goals using resources produced by the free culture movement. The goal ... is to create a community of people who support each other in their educational endeavors.” (Wikibooks: “Wikiversity,” 2006)

It is important to note that the “free culture movement” described here is one that seeks to “promote the freedom to distribute and modify creative works” (Wikipedia: “Free Culture movement”). One of its principle goals is the liberation of these creative and cultural works from restrictive copyright laws and limitations. Although aspects of this movement have focused on the rights of file sharers and on opposition to schemes for the enforcement of digital rights, it has also had significant educational manifestations. These include most prominently the advocacy of UNESCO and other not–for–profit organizations in the development and use of Open Educational Resources (e.g., see “The Cape Town Open Education Declaration,” 2007). Wikiversity combines this prioritization of open and “liberated” educational contents and resources with an emphasis on community building and collaboration. Significantly, Wikiversity is not limited to addressing postsecondary learning needs, but is designed to serve many educational levels (early learning, lifelong learning, professional learning, etc.), and has separate portals for pre–school, primary, secondary, tertiary, and non–formal education. Each of these portals provides many kinds of resources and services: courses, discussions, lessons, essays, handouts, lesson plans, presentations, reading groups, study guides and syllabi, to mention but a few (Wikiversity: “Resources,” 2008).

This ambitious range of resources, services and educational forms and levels encompassed by Wikiversity is also evident in its most recent articulations of its primary priorities and goals; namely, to:

  • Create and host a range of free–content, multilingual learning materials/resources, for all age groups in all languages;
  • Host scholarly/learning projects and communities that support these materials; and,
  • Complement and develop existing Wikimedia projects (Wikiversity: “Approved Wikiversity project proposal,” 2006).

These priorities and goals are evident in the course that forms the principle emphasis of this paper. Entitled Composing Free and Open Online Educational Resources, this course represents one particular example of a “scholarly/learning project and community” that supports the creation and collection of learning materials. In addition, the course also “complements existing Wikimedia projects,” in its focus on the development of student skills and resources, which can and have been adapted in the service of Wikipedia as well as other Wikiversity projects.

The course was first delivered from 3 March to 19 May 2008. Originally designed as a nine–week undertaking, the course was extended at the very end to include a tenth week, as well as a final video conference to enable course feedback. The course contents remain available online for purposes such as independent study and continued development at: In addition, the course and course facilitator have indicated that they are ready to undertake additional “cycles” of the 11–week program once they have received sufficient interest from participants.

As the title of the course indicates, it was designed as a kind of introduction to open content and methods for the creation and distribution of multimedia resources for education. Over 10 weeks, participants were led though topics ranging from the sharing of images, and audio and video clips (weeks 6, 7 and 8), through issues of “copyright and alternatives” (week 4) and of “the philosophical background of the open educational resource movement” (week 3). The activities planned for these various units included weekly readings and Internet resource reviews; quasi–formal assignments and feedback, Web–based media sharing and creation, and participant reflection and evaluation. Most of these activities were completed in the form of blog postings, added by participants on their respective blog sites (which had been set up as a part of the activities in the course’s first week). In addition to student blogs and the Wikiversity pages that provided the course links and contents, the course utilized “Google Groups” as additional means of facilitating communication between course participants. Finally, via the services of a “course facilitator,” a course blog and an RSS feed of student postings was set up and maintained. It is again indicative of the culture of Wikipedia and Web 2.0 that the “course facilitator” in this case did not designate a single unambiguous role or identity, but that it was associated with two individuals: Hans Põldoja and Teemu Leinonen, both based in Finland.

The course “community” involved participants from all over the world, including Africa (Tanzania), Europe, North America, South America and New Zealand. Also significant is the number of students in the course: At the beginning, a temporary “blogroll” listing included some 70 names, but towards the end of the course less than two dozen individuals were participating with any level of consistency. At the same time, the community under investigation in this study is not strictly limited to the participants in a single Wikiversity course. Instead, this study has as its focus a plurality of overlapping communities or groups. Wikiversity itself identifies three communities as constitutive of its broader “open learning community”:

  1. A “Learning Community,” which on one level includes those who are using Wikiversity resources specifically to meet their learning goals (Wikiversity: “Learning community,” 2008);

  2. A “Service Community” which “strives to provide useful services to WikiMedia sister projects [for example] by finding and evaluating sources and providing verifiable references for Wikipedia and Wikinews articles and Wikibooks textbook modules” (Wikiversity: “Service community,” 2008); and,

  3. A “Research Community” which reflects the character of the Wikiversity project as an experimental undertaking for research–in–action, simultaneously bringing together “researchers in the physical world and learners in online learning environments” (Wikiversity: “Research community,” 2008).

All three communities overlap and interconnect in this investigation: The participants in the course (the “learning community”) were naturally engaged with the course facilitators (who represented the service and/or research community). The “learning community’s” engagement in generating open content for Wikiversity and its sister projects, for example, merges this community with Wikiversity’s “service community” — with those who are working to “provide useful services to WikiMedia sister projects.” Naturally, the course also involves significant contact between participants (who have otherwise been outside of Wikiversity and Wikimedia communities) and those designing and delivering the course. In fact, as will be shown below, some of the most significant interactions captured through our ethnographic analysis show a clear emphasis on processes of integration, induction and acculturation from the more loosely constituted “learner community” to the “service” and even “research” communities of Wikiversity.




Over the 10 weeks of the course, Janet Hopkins (one of this paper’s co–authors) was intensively engaged in the activities, assignments, and the emerging culture and communities of the Wikiversity course. It is her experiences or accounts of this experiment in educational organization and delivery that form the basis for this paper. These accounts have been developed and refined as a series of specifically ethnographic observations and descriptions. Ethnography, as Fetterman (1998) explains, refers to “the art and science of describing a group or culture. [Such a] description,” Fetterman continues, “may be of a small tribal group in an exotic land or a classroom in middle–class suburbia.” [2] In the case of the ethnographic accounts provided here, the group and culture being investigated is in many ways similar to that of a classroom: It is a community that is relatively small, and that comes into existence relatively briefly. In this sense, the study undertaken here can be described as a “microethnography” (e.g., Smith and Geoffrey, 1968): an ethnographic study that involves a relatively small number of participants, and that is undertaken over a relatively short period of time (a school year or a semester).

Naturally, unlike a classroom microethnography, the study described here focuses on a course that is not taught in a classroom, but that is delivered online, with participants physically distributed literally across the globe. Given the ongoing proliferation of this and myriad other communities and collective cultures on the Web and the Internet, these kinds of investigations — through the techniques of ethnnography — have similarly proliferated. This has given rise to forms or adaptations of ethnography known as online ethnography, virtual ethnography, or net– or webnography. Referring specifically to what they call virtual ethnography, Crichton and Kinash (2003) describe this type of investigation as involving “a method in which [the researcher] actively engages with people in online spaces in order to write the story of their situated context, informed by social interaction.”

The ethnographer’s active engagement with those under investigation means that the investigator becomes something other than a typical “researcher.” Ethnographers instead often refer to themselves as “participant observers,” emphasizing that the meanings contained within a community or culture can be most effectively described and understood not simply by observing from a distance, but by joining in and participating with the community under investigation. As is the case in ethnography generally, data from these situated contexts (or from “the field”) is gathered and interpreted in virtual ethnography using a variety of methods. These include questionnaires, interviews, recordings of various kinds, and also the study of documents and written communications. Of course this data is in each case solicited and gathered online, with documents taking the form of Web pages of various kinds, and recorded interactions often taking the form of participants’ written communications.

Ethnographic studies will use a combination of methods and data types to produce what one famous ethnographer, Clifford Geertz, refers to as “thick descriptions.” These are written representations that do not simply report on isolated events or behavior, but that include significant contextual and situational information, providing a reader with an understanding of the meaning or significance of the event or behavior, rather than just a depiction of the event in isolation. Using the terminology of “signs,” “texts” and their intelligibility, Geertz characterizes the development of thick descriptions in ethnography as follows:

“Doing ethnography is like trying to read (in the sense of ‘construct a reading of’) a manuscript. [In this context] human behavior is seen as... symbolic action which... signifies [within a cultural context.] As interworked systems of construable signs [or] symbols, culture is not a power, something to which social events, behaviors, institutions, or processes can be causally attributed; it is a context, something within which they can be intelligibly — that is, thickly — described.” [3]

However, this investigation and description of the Wikiversity course was not entirely and directly comparable to involvement in communities or cultures generally. Unlike other groups that an ethnographer may study, the community and culture associated with the Wikiversity course was not a stable object waiting to be discovered; instead, it was under rapid formation and development during the course of the ethnographic study. At least within the confines of the course — and especially at its beginning — there was no observable, pre–existing culture; to participate in the course was, in a sense, to constitute its culture and community. This means that the conceptions and reflections of the participant observer in this research may be as important as the culture and community she observes. As a result, a third ethnographic category becomes relevant: In addition to this ethnographic study having the characteristics of a micro and virtual ethnography, it is also marked by a “self–reflective” or autoethnographical emphasis. It not only reports on a group, but on the actions, thoughts and reactions of the researcher or participant observer in the context of this emerging community. As a result, this ethnography, like autoethnographies generally, give significant emphasis to the issue of the researcher’s changing position as it relates to the groups and cultures involved. As a further result of these autoethnographic emphases, the accounts presented below are of a different tone and quality than “typical” academic writing. They are consequently set apart typographically from the other text of this paper by being italicized.



First account: “Wikified” collaboration

The first “thick description” provided in this study has its origin in the course’s second week. At this early point in the course, participants were instructed to register with Wikiversity or with “LeMill” (; a project with emphases and goals very similar to those of Wikiversity), and to make at least a rudimentary contribution to one of the open educational resources already available on one of these sites.

Some participants joined topic groups on one of the projects or edited articles already existing on either Wikiversity or LeMill. For my own part, I decided to join Wikiversity, not just as a “student,” but rather as an editor and contributor. I wanted to review the existing content about “assistive technology,” or technology for people with disabilities. The question of assistive technologies is a topic of personal interest for me, as I regularly work with students who use these kinds of technologies. I quickly discovered that there were no resources on these technologies yet available from Wikiversity — but noted that there was already an article on assistive technologies available on Wikipedia. I carefully evaluated the Wikipedia article to avoid duplication of the material on the Wikiversity project, and began writing.

It wasn’t as quick and easy to start developing a new page on Wikiversity as I had expected. I spent a couple of hours reviewing content creation guidelines and other articles, and I took the “Wikiversity Guided Tour” ( to learn more about contributing content and to get an idea of how to start the page. Only then did I feel sufficiently confident to begin authoring my own page. Once I decided to “be bold” and start writing the page, I became more self–assured. After writing an introduction, I left the page overnight to think about the content categories appropriate to the topic “assistive technology” and how I would organize them. I knew that I didn’t have the time or resources to create a complete learning module on my own right now. So I instead decided to focus on listing and contextualizing some of the more valuable tutorials, databases, and explanatory videos on the subject that were already available on the Web.

After doing this work on the Wikiversity site, I posted a description of what I had done on my blog. This posting or description served as a basis for what was to happen next. (Also, this description — as well as the others that I composed subsequently — served as a kind of set of “field notes” that I was later able to use in the development of “thick descriptions” for this ethnography).

When I logged in to Wikiversity to start work the next day, I noticed that the assistive technology page I’d created had already been visited by one of the course participants, Erkan Yilmaz, who (although not designated as a “course facilitator”) was an experienced Wikiversity contributor. Erkan had added some formatting code which created an automatically updating table of contents for the article, one example of a process known as “wikification.” Erkan’s contribution had addressed one of the problems I hadn’t been able to solve during my first authoring session. Erkan also provided me with positive feedback on my blog, as follows:

Hello Janet,

you did at least 3 great things:

  • [you] decided to create Wikiversity content that would not duplicate the information on Wikipedia.
  • [you linked] to the new page → so it gets found better
  • [you took] the [Wikiversity Guided] tour

Sometimes people join Wikiversity thinking it is just another Wikipedia or another Wikibooks and trying to do what is being done at these sister projects [sic].

But [Wikiversity] is — for me — actually all about learning (projects). People learn in many various and — most important — individual forms.

— Erkan

One of the course facilitators, Teemu, soon added his own response to Erkan’s encouraging statements:

Nice story. I really like the fact that you got some help from other Wikiversity people to get the page done. I think this is very important in wikis.

These comments boosted my confidence and motivated me to return to my work on the Wikiversity page during the following weeks. Although I did not have time to create a complete and detailed learning module on Wikiversity on the topic of assistive technology, I was able to create significant new content that points Wikiversity users toward some very good resources.

Perhaps more importantly, this assignment created a connection for me with another course participant and with a Wikiversity mentor. My contact with both helped me experience the collaborative side of open educational resource development. I learned that the process of creating these resources involves not just the production of content, but also the development of working relationships with those who can help to improve content features and quality.

Although I feel my initial contribution only scratches the surface of what is possible and what is available in Wikiversity, I have a sense of pride and ownership of the page I created. After the course ended and I returned to my Wikiversity assistive technology page, I noticed that several people had added their names as potential content helpers. This surprised me and revealed that my contribution had not only received favorable attention from others, it also appeared to have formed the basis for a new Wikiversity community (however small and tenuous). I discovered that there is a sense of adventure to open content development that an author working alone in a private setting would not likely encounter.

This first “thick description” reveals much about the community and culture of Wikiversity. First, it underscores the multiplicity of the groups that are involved in such an undertaking: not only are learner and service communities invoked and brought together very early in the course, but through the creation of a Wikiversity page on “assistive technology” the participant–observer in this research has potentially instantiated yet a second, more specialized group.

Any boundaries of access or differentiation of function that might separate one group from another are shown to be rather fluid in nature. In each group setting, there seems to be significant emphasis on collaboration and mutual assistance in integrating newcomers, and helping them with new tasks and challenges. Collaboration, in other words, here serves as a mode of acculturation and induction into the Wikiversity culture and community in general. This is in rather sharp contrast to the approach taken in online hacker communities (to provide just one salient comparison). A relatively recent ethnographic study of these kinds of communities identifies a “RTFM Philosophy” as being one of the most important “norms of behavior” in such communities (Madanmohan and Navelkar, 2004). RTFM, variously interpreted as an acronym for “Read The F**king Manual” or more euphemistically, as “Read the Fine Manual,” stands as an expression of the belief “that new users should read FAQs, HOWTOs, Manuals, and learn by themselves.” [4] Although Janet as a newcomer is explicitly thanked by Erkan for reading the instructions on creating a Wiki page for Wikiversity, Erkan also provides expert knowledge (i.e., regarding the creation of a table of contents for a Wiki page) without the expectation that Janet should have already gleaned this from a manual.

Survey research and analyses of document histories in Wikipedia have shown that the kind of supportive, collaborative behavior engaged in by Janet in Wikiversity is also characteristic of community interaction in its more mature sister project. Ciffolilli’s early research shows, for example, that dedicated participation in Wikipedia is most readily attributable to “personal” motivations (Ciffolilli, 2003). Related work has indicated that these motivations are above all “intrinsic” in character, associated with the fulfillment provided by creative work, rather than with the motivation of external rewards (Lakhani and Wolf, 2005). Still other research into the history of editing patterns in Wikipedia articles shows that the contributions described above follow a pattern already familiar from Wikipedia: One author typically makes a significant, initial contribution, with multiple contributors subsequently undertaking many more contributions and revisions of a relatively minor nature (e.g., Viégas, et al., 2004).



Second account: Clash of cultures

A different side of the community dynamics of Wikiversity is illustrated in an incident occurring in the fifth week of the course, which forms the basis for the second ethnographic description provided in this paper. The topic for the course this week was “Wikipedia and Wikimedia” itself, and course participants had been asked to access video and text related to Wikipedia and its collaborative development:

As usual, after working through the items that were part of the week’s activities, I posted what I believed would be a helpful and informative response on my blog. I began by making a number of comments on what I saw as the remarkable coordination and complexity intrinsic to Wikipedia:

It is amazing that Wikipedia functions through self–selected participation, yet has a systematic meritocracy for senior position nomination and peer selection. I am very interested in the internationalization and translation efforts that have created such a linguistically diverse encyclopedia project. Although all are different language versions of Wikipedia, each is a unique project on its own...

I concluded my posting by talking about how I had checked out a number of articles on controversial topics to see how administration and quality control processes were managed in Wikipedia:

I decided to look at Wikipedia’s coverage of the Olympic torch lighting [a controversial event at the time of this course iteration]. The content was similar to the coverage on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). I didn’t read anything I didn’t already know.

A little while later, I checked out what other participants in the course had been posting on these same questions. Imagine my shock and surprise when I looked at one participant’s blog, and saw a posting that read as follows:

I am very interested in the internationalization and translation efforts that have created such a linguistically diverse encyclopedia project. Although all are different language versions of Wikipedia, each is a unique project on its own...

This same posting continues with nearly all of my other observations on Wikipedia’s handling of controversial subjects, complete with the links I had made to other Websites and news articles! And there was no indication whatsoever that the text had been lifted from my own blog! Initially, I didn’t know what to do. After thinking about it for awhile, I decided to post something brief and to–the–point on the blog of the student who had duplicated my post:

— You’ve copied my work without asking permission or providing attribution.

— Please remove it from your blog.

Two days later, Teemu, one of the course facilitators, added beneath this comment his own response:

Could you please explain[:] why did you copy another participants work in your own blog without making any references to the original work? — Teemu

This incident of plagiarism was certainly an unexpected and surprising event midway through the course. Although the participant in question later became inactive, and was eventually removed from the course participation list, the incident occurred without any particular corrective action being taken (e.g. deleting his copy of my post, or referencing the original).

This message was followed by only one other brief posting related to the course, and

The dynamics of community and culture — even where these are understood as “open” or “free” — entails the possibility of control and also of exclusion. Even the most inclusive, collaborative processes of acculturation and integration must, at least in theory, have recourse to such a possibility. It is perhaps precisely because the community and culture of Wikiversity and of the course described here are motivated by the “free culture” movement, that plagiarism becomes intolerable. The question of respect for others’ contributions — whether these are understood in individual or collective terms — is paramount. If students and other authors are to be seen as contributing to a “creative commons” from which all can benefit, in other words, then the integrity of these contributions needs to be given priority and respect that pre–empts other aspects of inclusion or membership. As a result, plagiarism — whether occurring intentionally or through misunderstanding, on a wiki project or a personal blog — must as a practice be excluded or at least subject to control.

At the same time, the global or international nature of the collaboration and participation means that a “clash of cultures” may sometimes take place. Behavioral norms established or emerging in Wikiversity and the free culture movement may not be the same as those that individuals bring as course participants. The participant in question may not have considered the offense as a serious one; and it might not appear as an offense at all in other, non–English–speaking communities in which he or she may more regularly play a part. In addition, given that Wikiversity is devoted to “learning projects and communities,” incidents of the kind described above may well be considered part of a learning process — especially in a course context in which no rules, regulations or codes of student conduct were provided for students.

The absence of these kinds of rules and regulations, in this Wikiversity course, can be seen as typical of the earlier stages of open and wiki–based projects. Research into Wikipedia (and projects like it) underscores the fact that although rules, regulations and even a bureaucracy of sorts eventually have an important role to play, they are often not present at the early stages of these projects’ development. Citing Yochai Benkler’s famous study (2002), Viégas, et al. explain that it is only after an initial phase in which “large, complex tasks are [undertaken] individually, in uncoordinated fashion,” that a second, more coordinated collaborative stage emerges. This second stage is referred to as the “relevance/accreditation” (Benkler, 2002) or “quality control” phase (Viégas, et al., 2004):

“This ... phase is characterized by a concerted effort on quality assurance. How can we know that the content produced by widely dispersed individuals is not nonsense? In this [later] phase, the community must define standards and create low–cost quality control mechanisms.” (Viégas, et al., 2004)

These same authors go on to emphasize that mature open collaborations such as Wikipedia are in fact much less anarchic than they might initially appear: “rather than encouraging anarchy, many aspects of wiki technology lend themselves to the collective creation of formalized processes and policy.” [5] Wikipedia in particular, they say, “boasts myriad guidelines, policies and rules. Moreover a series of formal processes...are starting to materialize.” [6] Clearly, Wikiversity can be considered to be in the early moments of the first of these two phases. The standardized warning and labels concerning quality, contents and processes (that have recently become familiar on Wikipedia) may yet play a critical role in Wikiversity.



Third account: Feedback and evaluation

Even while mechanisms for quality control and evaluation are seen as emerging gradually in open collaborations such as Wikiversity, the course studied here ended with a significant set of course assessment and feedback events. In the final two weeks, participants engaged in a range of evaluative activities, answering questions posted on a “course critique and feedback” wiki page, participating in a video conference involving both participants and facilitators, and posting broadly evaluative comments on other participants’ blogs:

I began checking out the more active blogs related to the course to post some final feedback. After browsing through a couple of less active blogs, I visited one called “Cormac’s Blog: A PhD-in–progress,” maintained by Cormac Lawler, a participant who was working on a dissertation on Wikiversity while at the same time collaborating in its development. Cormac had recently posted a short piece on “How Wikipedia’s model can impact on the world of education.” He summarized this well–argued posting as follows:

In short ... I see Wikimedia and the free culture movement impacting on education [in many ways; by]:

  • Giving people access to spaces in which they can share, discuss, and question their knowledge
  • Developing open peer review models around this knowledge
  • Improving awareness about how knowledge is constructed
  • Framing and critiquing knowledge in a learning context (and giving people access to this open learning context)
  • Developing peer review models around these learning contexts
  • Improving awareness about how learning works

Cormac then concluded his posting by saying:

Wikipedia is already opening the world’s eyes to the first three [points; open collaborative spaces, peer review and awareness of knowledge construction]; my hope is that Wikiversity (and others) will do likewise for the last three [as they relate specifically to learning].

I recognized these statements as being in some ways similar to ones made by other course participants at other points in the course; there had been a clear emphasis on questions of the “review,” “assessment” and “accreditation” of participant achievements. Cormac himself had earlier rued the fact that involvement of “Wikiversity will not lead to a certificate,” and that this could only be done through “accredited learning organizations, like schools and universities.” Others had written, for example, about “the need for a new type of global institution that grants formal degrees after working through (or creating) a number of [open educational resources or] courses.” After I highlighted this issue in my own comments to Cormac’s postings, a brief discussion ensued. One participant suggested that online records of individual activities and online “reputation management” systems might provide an important alternative for accreditation of particular achievements.

I was also reminded of the fact that Cormac’s participation in this Wikiversity course was tied to his PhD work at the University of Manchester in the UK; and that my own participation in Wikiversity occurred as an explicit part of a directed studies course that I was completing in a Master’s of Education program at Thompson Rivers University in Canada. Both of us had tied our Wikiversity participation and contributions to institutional accreditation. It would be interesting to learn about others involved in the Wikiversity project who may have done something similar.

Research into the precedents set by Wikipedia — and its communal, collaborative dynamics — makes it fairly clear that formal structures related to issues of assessment, quality assurance and “peer review” of some kind are likely to make an eventual appearance in the case of Wikiversity. Just as quality standards have been widely applied to articles in this free online encyclopedia, so too are review and assessment processes likely to be applied in the Wikiversity project. In the case of Wikiversity, however, this review and control may well have a dual function: It is likely to apply not only to Wikiversity content and its development, but also to learning and educational processes that are of equal importance in this project. For the time being, rules and codes of conduct — such as those for plagiarism and attribution — appear to be applied in a more informal and ad hoc manner.

But the question remains as to the precise forms that these “control mechanisms” might take. Will they remain separate from (but retaining parallels to) those of other educational institutions? (Think of editorial processes in Wikipedia insofar as they may resemble those used in the development of other peer–reviewed or reference works.) Or is it possible, as Cormac and others have suggested, to involve “accredited learning organizations, such as schools and universities?” A brief discussion of these questions forms the basis of this paper’s conclusion.



Conclusion: Open culture, education and accreditation

One way to try to address these kinds of questions about the future of Wikiversity is to look to the past, and to consider similar efforts and arguments that have provided foundational precedents. These may offer some insight as to longer–term developments, possibilities and limitations of the Wikiversity project and others like it. A small number of important precedents were actually identified and discussed in the context of the Wikiversity course itself. As mentioned earlier, in its third week, the course considered elements of the “philosophical background” of open educational resources and the free content movement. Five key elements were identified: the ideals of the enlightenment, and four kinds of exemplary movements or institutions: the public library, the free software movement, and the provision of free adult education in the context of the “popular education” and “folk high school” movements. Enlightenment ideals, of course, include the affirmation of technology, progress and reason, all as means of realizing human autonomy. These ideals have played an important role in advocacy of both Wikipedia and the free culture movement [7]. The public library, of course, is a means of serving the information needs of the public, and is funded through the governmental means or taxation. The free software movement is perhaps most notable for the new forms of collaboration in software and project development that it has developed and operationalized. Popular education and folk high school movements, finally, have been significant in western and northern Europe, but are much less familiar in North America and elsewhere. Prominent examples of institutions founded through these movements include the Parisian Vincennes University and Collè ge international de philosophie. These institutions have eschewed the strictures of the lecture hall or theater, and have been home to prominent intellectuals like Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan and Felix Guattari.

Each of these examples presents at least some of the elements essential to the Wikiversity effort, but none actually combines these elements together in the particular way being attempted by Wikiversity. None provides a clear precedent, in other words, for the confluence of “free culture” on the one hand, and open, online education on the other. Together, the precedents set by free software development and popular/folk education perhaps come closest. Along with the free culture movement generally, the precedent of free or open source software can be said to have spawned the idea of open courseware. Although a number of prominent examples of open educational courseware have long been available in higher education (e.g., MIT, 2001), they have yet to produce an unambiguous impact on the business models of either distance or campus–based institutions. Otherwise, the impact of open source on common educational practice has been largely limited to the provision of low–cost operating systems and software (OEDB, 2007). Similarly, despite their prominent participants and innovative teaching and administrative arrangements, institutions of popular education have been dependent on public funding and are subject to governmental control. Moreover, they have generally not had the function of granting degrees or credentials (“Popular Education:” Wikipedia, 2008), and have not established alternative mechanisms for credentialing or accreditation.

It is possible to suggest that the precedents of free software on the one hand, and popular/folk education on the other highlight an important challenge for Wikiversity. They point to a gap that is critical to the possible or ultimate effect of the free culture movement on education: On the one side is a remarkably successful system of development and “relevance/accreditation.” On the other is the creation and provision of open educational resources and services that has its own achievements to boast of, but that has typically relied on governmental support and direction, and has remained outside of accreditation and certification systems. In this light, Wikiversity’s goal of empowering people to achieve their educational goals via the free culture movement, and without governmental financial support and direction, is laudable but ambitious in the extreme. End of article


About the authors

Dr. Norm Friesen is Canada Research Chair in E–Learning Practices at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada. Dr. Friesen has been developing and studying Web technologies in educational contexts since 1995, and is the author of several editions of books on the effective use of instructional software and on the implementation of technical standards for learning object projects.
E–mail: nfriesen [at] tru [dot] ca (Principal contact for correspondence regarding this paper).

Janet Hopkins is a British Columbia secondary school teacher and the author of Assistive technology: An introductory guide for K–12 library media specialists (Worthington, Ohio : Linworth Pub., 2004).
E–mail: at_consultingbc [at] yahoo [dot] ca



1. For more about “learning objects” and “open educational resources,” see Wiley, 2002; OECD, 2007.

2. Fetterman, 1998, p. 1.

3. Geertz, 1973, pp. 9–10, 14.

4. Madanmohan and Navelkar, 2004, p. 8.

5. Viégas, et al., 2004, p. 446.

6. Viégas, et al., 2004, p. 445.

7. E.g., Wales, 2008; Lessig, 2004, p. 65.



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Editorial history

Paper received 22 July 2008; accepted 20 September 2008.

Copyright © 2008, First Monday.

Copyright © 2008, Norm Friesen and Janet Hopkins.

Wikiversity; or education meets the free culture movement: An ethnographic investigation
by Norm Friesen and Janet Hopkins
First Monday, Volume 13 Number 10 - 6 October 2008

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