David A. Wheeler's Blog

Mon, 11 May 2009

Wikipedia for childrens’ schools

Wikipedia is a cool project. But if you want to hand an encyclopedia to younger children or to schools, Wikipedia is not a great choice. Wikipedia is not “child-safe”, nor is intended to be; it includes a lot of “adult” content. Also, Wikipedia constantly suffers vandalism; the vandalism is often repaired quickly, but that’s little comfort to parents and teachers. There’s also the problem of Internet access; schools typically employ blocking software, and blocking software is fundamentally not smart. Since Wikipedia mixes material that’s okay for children with stuff that is not, Wikipedia often gets blocked by schools for children. Some schools for children just don’t have Internet access at all, for a variety of reasons. All of this makes it hard for such schools to directly use Wikipedia.

Wikipedia for schools is a cool project that compensates for this. It’s a free, hand-checked, non-commercial selection from Wikipedia, targeted around the UK National Curriculum and useful for much of the English speaking world. The current version has about 5500 articles (as much as can be fit on a DVD with good size images) and is “about the size of a twenty volume encyclopaedia (34,000 images and 20 million words)”. It was developed by carefuly selecting for content, then checking for vandalism and suitability by “SOS Children volunteers”. You can download it for free from the website, or as a free 3.5GB DVD.

I also see this as a future model for Wikipedia — allow people to edit, but have a separate vetting process that identifies particular versions of an article as vetted. Then, people can choose if they want to see the latest version or the most recent vetted version. To some, this is very controversial, but I don’t see it that way. A vetting process doesn’t prevent future edits, and it creates a way for people to get what they want… material that they can have increased confidence in. The trick is to develop a good-enough vetting process (or perhaps multiple vetting/rating processes for different purposes). This didn’t make sense back when Wikipedia was first starting (the problem was to get articles written at all!), but now that Wikipedia is more mature, it shouldn’t be surprising that there’s a new need to identify vetted articles. Yes, you have to worry about countries to whom “democracy” is a dirty word, but I think such problems can be resolved. This is hardly a new idea; see Wikimedia’s article on article validation, Wikipedia’s pushing to 1.0, WikiQA by Eloquence, and FlaggedRevs. I am sure that a vetting/validation process will take time to develop, and it will be imperfect… but that doesn’t make it a bad idea.

So anyway, if you know or have younger kids, check out Wikipedia for schools. This is a project that more people should know about.

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