Last night I added my tuppence worth to Wikipedia’s entry on the History of Virtual Learning Environments. As manager of an online learning consortium in the late nineties, I helped the software company Fretwell-Downing Education build a pilot web-based Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). Though you would not know it from the entry as it stands at the time of writing, the description I’ve added of this case study — and the catalogue of others being collected in the Wikipedia entry — are not there just to add to the store of the world’s knowledge: they are there to prove a point.
Last week the e-learning systems company Blackboard announced that it had been issued a patent (in the US) covering a number of software features that have been standard components of VLEs for several years. This quickly had several e-learning bloggers up in arms: I found out about it from Jay Cross and Seb Schmoller; and Stephen Downes has a good round-up as usual.
I share the widespread contempt for this development, and the disrepute that it brings on the ethos of patents. That’s why I was more than happy to add my contribution to the Wikipedia entry to demonstrate the ‘prior art’, which could invalidate the patent by showing that the claimed invention was in public use prior to the date of the patent filing. Nevertheless I can’t help feeling slightly uneasy about this politically and commercially motivated use of Wikipedia.
By coincidence, I came across this New Yorker article on Wikipedia just this morning. It’s a detailed and balanced account that is duly awe-struck at some of Wikipedia’s accomplishments, while also retaining some wariness and scepticism concerning its weaknesses. At one point, Stacy Schiff, the article’s author, writes “It can still seem as though the user who spends the most time on the site — or who yells the loudest — wins.” She goes on to explain that there is no ultimate and foolproof means to remove all bias from Wikipedia entries.
[Original Wikipedia employee] Larry Sanger… argues that too many Wikipedians are fundamentally suspicious of experts and unjustly confident of their own opinions. He left Wikipedia in March, 2002, after [Wikipedia founder Jimmy] Wales ran out of money to support the site during the dot-com bust. Sanger concluded that he had become a symbol of authority in an anti-authoritarian community. “Wikipedia has gone from a nearly perfect anarchy to an anarchy with gang rule,” he told me… Even Eric Raymond, the open-source pioneer whose work inspired Wales, argues that “‘disaster’ is not too strong a word” for Wikipedia. In his view, the site is “infested with moonbats.” (Think hobgoblins of little minds, varsity division.) He has found his corrections to entries on science fiction dismantled by users who evidently felt that he was trespassing on their terrain. “The more you look at what some of the Wikipedia contributors have done, the better [Encyclopaedia] Britannica looks,” Raymond said. He believes that the open-source model is simply inapplicable to an encyclopedia. For software, there is an objective standard: either it works or it doesn’t. There is no such test for truth.
Wikipedia’s entry on the History of Virtual Learning Environments was created on 29 July, three days after Blackboard’s announcement, by Michael Feldstein. Based on the timing and what Michael has written in his blog, the intent behind creating the entry appears to have been to counter Blackboard’s patent, though, to be fair, he does say “This would be a Good Thing To Do even if the Blackboard patent fight didn’t exist.”
There have been over two hundred edits by tens of different contributors in the five days since the page was created, and it seems likely that many of these shared the original intent.
So I was wondering if the entry should have some kind of disclosure/disclaimer at the top to explain that it was originated and developed to demonstrate a particular point. I could add such a disclaimer myself. But I have never seen any precedent for this elsewhere on Wikipedia, and what right do I really have to add such a comment? I can say that the disclaimer is definitely true of my contribution, but when it comes to the others I’d just be speculating.
Nevertheless, if my speculation is right, then it seems to me that the intent behind the entry inevitably colours it to some degree. Perhaps this colour will fade and wash out over time, as further edits with different motivations are made. Perhaps it will linger subtly for years, after the Blackboard patent has been forgotten. Who can say?
I raise these concerns not because I want to pour cold water on the Wikipedia model. On the contrary, I want Wikipedia to realise the grand ambitions that many of us have for it. But for this to happen, don’t we have to address issues such as the risk of it being used as a medium of lobbying — piggybacking on the goodwill it enjoys — by interest groups (including those aims we share)?