Wiki’s are all the rage in the training and development industry, but are they really workable?

Wikipedia is the most popular wiki in the world. It compiles information when users add, modify, or delete entries. Wikipedia is intended to mimic an encyclopedia, but wikis have other uses. For example, the Learning 2005 conference used a wiki (and is still using a wiki) at www.learningwiki.com.

John Seigenthaler was recently wikied when someone edited his Wikipedia entry in a most unflattering way, describing him as involved in John F. Kennedy’s and Robert Kennedy’s assasinations. He was not. Now his wrong information has spread all over the web. Not only that, but "vicious, vindicative, almost violent stuff, homophobic, racist stuff" about him was later added to his entry. Seigenthaler has thoughtfully suggested that there are "incurable flaws in the Wikipedia method of doing things."

You can listen to Seigenthaler tell his own story along with the founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales. It’s a fascinating online interview by the host of NPR’s "Talk of the Nation."

Wikipedia is changing it’s methods to minimize these types of issues, but the question is, will these methods be enough. Jimmy Wales states that "You should take Wikipedia with a grain of salt. I think you should take almost everything with a grain of salt, but in particular Wikipedia is definitely a work in process."

The underlying belief about wikis is that "all of us are smarter than a few of us." This is comforting illusion in theory, but is just plain wrong in practice. The mediocre don’t always understand enough to judge an expert’s pronouncements. Groups of people often tend toward groupthink or mob psychosis. Powerful interests often control the public conversation and thus become the final arbiters of what is fact. Conspiracy theories often have ninety-nine lives.

Wikis, blogs, websites (indeed, all forms of communication) carry with them the possibility that the information conveyed is not true. The more widely some information is dispersed, the bigger the potential problems. The more our communication channels have validators who correct inaccuracies, the more we tend to move toward the truth. For example, the press has traditionally played a role in holding public officials to account and conveying the news to people. Competition, as between political parties, can surface truths sometimes. Peer policing, as academic researchers do through research referring mechanisms, offer a correcting mechanism. Credentialling standards or agencies control who gets into a field or who advances.

Sometimes having more people can bring more truth to light. There are recent cases where political bloggers have uncovered facts regarding scandalous actions that have otherwise gone unnoticed. Reading a newspaper’s letters to the editor is often quite enlightening, offering improvements and corrections to the regular writers’ commentary.

In my work at Work-Learning Research, I have tried to track down myths that have led us astray in the learning-and-performance industry. By now you have probably seen my investigation of the notion that people remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they see, 30% of what they hear…etc." Read this and you’ll see that it’s not true.

In using Wiki’s to promote learning and knowledge, consider doing the following:

  • Consider who will be able to add and/or edit the information. The higher the percentage of expertise in your population, the better. The lower the opportunities for personal gain, the less likely you’ll get intentionally troublesome information.
  • Build in some validation methods. Build in some skepticism.
  • Consider not letting anyone post anonymously.
  • Consider forgoing the goal of knowledge creation or learning, and instead focusing on creating hypotheses and generating ideas for future consideration and judgment, networking to increase informal-learning connections.
  • Consider building in some sort of assessment system on the value of entries, whether through community scoring, expert scoring, or openness about a person’s posting history and background.
  • Insist that each posting include a section entitled, "Why should anyone listen to me about this topic," or some such addendum.

Google’s mission is "to make the world’s information universally accessible and useful."

Good for Google. But implied in this statement is that the world’s information should be universally accessible and useful TO ACTUAL INDIVIDUAL HUMAN BEINGS.

This is a very important clarifier. Why? Because IF information is for the use of humans, it must be formulated and delivered in a way that aligns with the human learning system.

Here are some ideas for Google (and its competitors) to consider:

  • People store information in their heads (in their long-term memory systems).
  • People can sometimes access information in other people’s heads. For example, my wife might spontaneously remind me of some romantic moment when we first met, I might ask her a question about sustainable agriculture practices (one of her knowledge specialties) and she might tell me what she knows. Thus, there is (1) information from other’s heads that is pushed to us and (2) information that we pull from their heads as well (don’t visualize this).
  • People can store information intentionally in notes, documents, etc. Information can also be unintentionally stored. In either case, this type of storage has been referred to "external memory" by research psychologists.
  • The information in each person’s information storage system degrades with time and experience, and different items of information can degrade at different rates. This process is often called "forgetting." Forgetting is actually an adaptive mechanism because it enables us to access the information most critical to our current performances (in our day-to-day lives).
  • The internet is just one information storage system of importance to an individual person. In its present state, the internet is generally not as effective as an individual’s personal storage system. At best, it is a different type of storage system.
  • For the internet and human memory, both storage AND retrieval are critical processes.
  • Information, no matter where it is stored, can be good information or bad. It can be attached to appropriate contextualizing information or inappropriate contextualizing information.
  • We might consider the following six information storage systems as critical to an individual’s informational success:
    • their personal memory system
    • their external memory systems (intentional and unintentional)
    • the memory systems of their relatively-contiguous human associates
    • the internet
    • books, magazines, libraries (and all other formal knowledge not yet available on the internet)
    • their immediate surroundings and all the stimuli and cause-and-effect relationships inherent in that wonderful "stimulus swarm" (term heard first from the vocal vibrations of Ernie Rothkopf). Hidden in this reality, is much information, if only we have the knowledge and experience to know how to parse it and make sense of it.

What Google (and its competitors) might do given the information above:

  • Help make the internet forget (or make the retrieval system mimic forgetting)
  • Create reminding systems (or individual learning-management systems, iLMS’s) to help people maintain high-importance information in a highly-accessible (easily-retrievable) state (regardless of which storage system we’re talking about).
  • Create a methodology to help people work with all these storage systems in a manner that is synergistic.
  • Develop powerful validation systems to help people test or vet their information so they can determine how valid and relevant it is.
  • Do all this in a way that is inuitively simple and easy to use.

Did I forget to mention that I am available to brainstorm ideas for a relatively modest fee (I say modest, because we’re talking about the future of all human knowledge). I do realize that this information (that I am available for a fee) is accessible on the internet. But it is better and more useful (for everyone, but especially for me) that this information is highly accessible in your long-term memory, and that you—particularly you folks at Google—utilize that information before you forget it.