The ambition of the Encyclopédie
Do you know what an encyclopedia is? It is a book in which all available human knowledge is methodically presented, with the aim of disseminating this knowledge to the public.
The one that is often considered the first of encyclopedias, the Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, is also one of the most famous. Major work of the 18th century, it was written by a group of philosophers at the heart of the cultural movement of the Enlightenment.
These philosophers had the will to make knowledge available to all. They wanted to advance Humanity through knowledge, education and erudition. The Encyclopédie is the result of this desire to gather all available knowledge in order to spread it more widely.
Thanks to encyclopedias, people who know nothing about a subject can learn from the greatest experts in the field, just by buying a book. The expert, on the other hand, just has to write his article once, and then an incredible number of people can access his knowledge; which was previously “locked up” in the natural person of the author or of a handful of connoisseurs. Knowledge is therefore widely disseminated.
The defects of the printed format
Although spreading of knowledge is one of the best ways to advance society, and despite the undoubtedly positive impact of encyclopedias, they are not free of defects. The printed format in particular poses various problems.
First, the public it reaches is by nature quite restrained, since it is already sufficiently privileged and cultured to acquire one, and to be able to afford it.
Second, paper encyclopedias are anything but easy to consult. Massive and cumbersome, we rarely have them with us when we need an information. Also, even if we have one at hand, finding this information is long and tedious. Often, the discomfort of looking up the information outweighs the curiosity or the desire to access it. This lack of ease of use means that people access less to knowledge and culture, which is in no way in the interests of society.
Then, the editorial model implied by the paper format is also far from optimal. In terms of quality and comprehensiveness of the content produced, the few hundred experts mobilized to write a traditional encyclopedia are largely overtaken by a collaborative writing process involving millions of people. Such collaborative writing allows everyone to contribute their own knowledge. In addition, all kinds of errors, inaccuracies or poor formulations can be rectified simply by allowing readers to report them, or better yet, correct them.
Finally, the printed format renders the information frozen. Once a book is published, no further updates or corrections are possible. Content in paper format is doomed to obsolescence. In contrast, content published as a wiki is constantly evolving. Wikis not only allow to correct potential mistakes, but also to update and continually improve the content. All this while making the improvements available to everyone instantly, automatically and for free.
A new format
So, encyclopedias are a brilliant concept, but they are limited in their outreach and in their quality by the paper format. In the early 2000s, a new format for publishing written content emerged, and it has been used with great success for encyclopedias. A format that solves all the problems we just outlined. This format is the wiki. But what exactly is a wiki?
A wiki is a format that allows collaborative editing of content. In practice, it is a website that allows its visitors to edit and improve its content. For example, Wikipedia is an encyclopedia in the form of a wiki. And it effectively solves all the problems we listed:
- The free publication on the Web and under free license makes knowledge accessible to the entire world. Wikipedia not only made it easier to consult encyclopedias for those who were already using them. Wikipedia made available an enormous amount of knowledge to a part of the world and of the population that wouldn’t otherwise have had access to it—and this release of knowledge leads to incredible things.
- Knowledge is easily and instantly accessible. We can search, share and reuse the content as we see fit.
- Wikipedia allows the whole world to contribute its own knowledge, and its content is constantly being improved. The editorial model is greatly improved and the information is no longer set in stone.
Ultimately, Wikipedia and wikis in general are knowledge-spreading machines. And that’s a great thing, it’s something we need more and more, and it’s one of the foundations of the knowledge economy. As Idriss Aberkane puts it, “The knowledge-based economy is based on flows, not stocks. So we have to make sure that knowledge circulates faster and better. Today we produce more knowledge than we can circulate. Humanity produces knowledge exponentially. The global quantity of knowledge doubles every seven to nine years, so the first challenge is to circulate it more quickly.”
And wikis make knowledge circulate better and faster, allowing everyone to share their own knowledge and consult that of others. All this for free, freely, instantly and anywhere in the world.
But the mere fact of having the content in the form of a wiki is not enough to get all these benefits. The economic model, the values of Wikipedia and above all its openness are also necessary. To diffuse knowledge, a wiki open to only a few people and whose access is paid is of no interest whatsoever.
Wikis to spread other types of knowledge
Encyclopedias are not really what I wanted to talk about here, but I found the parallel interesting to make in order to bring in the actual subject of this article: school lessons.
Just like encyclopedias, they are books intended to pass on knowledge. And if we take a closer look, we realize that the courses and textbooks pose exactly the same problems as printed encyclopedias—problems solved by wikis and Wikipedia’s openness:
- Restrained audience (limited to students of a certain grade)
- Potentially less practical to consult than a digital format, which can be used at any time and in any circumstances more easily than a binder or a course book
- An improvable editorial model: each teacher prepares and writes his or her own course, or a few associates in the case of textbooks
- A content that can’t be improved once printed
So why not take the idea behind Wikipedia and apply it to school lessons? It is the same type of media and the same problems are faced, so a similar solution would certainly bring similar advantages.
The Wikipedia of school lessons
I think that an incredibly positive impact could result from the creation of a “Wikipedia of school lessons”: a repository of courses, available for free on the Web, which can be improved by everyone and used without restrictions (under free license). That’s why I undertook to create the draft of such a website.
I would see it as a platform intended for teachers and students alike. On the one hand, students could use it to study, learn and revise their lessons. A bit like revision books with courses, revision sheets and exercises, but with all the advantages of the Web and of the wikis. On the other hand, teachers could use it to prepare their courses, thus avoiding that each teacher reinvents the wheel and prepares, all by himself, from scratch, the same course as thousands of others. Currently, each teacher tries, with varying degrees of success, to create his or her own course, with his or her own illustrations, formulations, exercises and controls. Why not share this work? The quality of the content produced would be better and a considerable amount of time would be saved.
There are currently very few lessons or educational resources in general on the web, and those available are scattered, of varying quality, in a repulsive form, paid or locked by copyrights. The goal of this website is to be a unique resource for high-quality, well presented and well-explained courses.
Ideally, I would imagine it as a kind of mix between the Khan Academy, with their interactive tests and videos (which make it as easy to revise our lessons as it is to lose time on YouTube), Kartable, which centralizes well-presented courses for all subjects in one place, and MOOCs, with their community of students helping out each other on forums.
And publishing courses on the Web is not an end in itself for me, but I rather hope it will be a step towards a renewal of teaching and a better educational system.
In class, a huge amount of time is spent copying the lesson. If high-quality courses are available freely on the Web, teachers will waste less time reinventing the wheel, students will no longer waste time copying the lesson, and they will spend more time learning and understanding it. Lessons could also be read and assimilated by the students before going to class, and classes could then cease to be a dictation session and become an exchange between the students and the teacher, much more useful and effective to learn.
Using most of the time when teachers and students are together to copy the lesson is misusing that time. Of course, copying the lesson can help learn it. But copying the lesson is intended to ensure that each student has a copy of it. So let’s use the most effective method to achieve this goal. And if copying the lesson helps students learn, great! But everyone uses the method that suits them best to learn the lesson: explaining it to someone else, making revision sheets, doing exercises, hand-copying the lesson, listening to it in audio, etc.
Students should not be forced to waste the precious and limited time that they have with their teachers to do a task that they could just as well do on their own and that not everyone needs to do. It would be much more profitable to use this privileged time for something else: so that students can ask questions and try to better understand the course, so that teachers can show them concrete applications of what they learn (this is something they are particularly fond of), or so that they can pass on to students the taste of what they learn, which is essential to good learning. Things for which the teacher is not only necessary, but also probably the ideal person, unlike for copying the course.
So, for those who might invoke this kind of argument, no, such a tool will never replace teachers, quite the opposite.
Where the teacher brings value is by better explaining the lesson, through concrete examples and by adapting to what the students understood or not, by answering their questions, by passing on their passion and developing the students’ curiosity and desire to learn. And this, no website or robot can do it in their place.
And I’m not the only one to think this way. Sal Khan, the founder of the Khan Academy, gave two very good TED Talks on the subject, which I highly recommend: Let’s use video to reinvent education, which address how to make better use of the time when teachers and students are together, and Let’s teach for mastery—not test scores, where he explains his vision to avoid having students accumulating gaps throughout their school careers until they prevent them from moving forward. He even wrote a book about his vision for the future of education, The One World Schoolhouse, and he knows his stuff, he is running an online school which has more than 40 million students from all over the world!
The website I plan to launch will be for school lessons in French, for quite a simple reason: I’m French and I live in France. I chose “Wikicours” as name, which translates to “Wikicourse(s)” in English, a name that I think is quite explicit and expresses both the content available (the courses) and its format (the wiki).
Initially, the site will be extremely rudimentary and the courses incomplete, but I prefer to set up only the bare minimum, and then improve it based on user feedback. My aim is to cover most of the subjects from middle school to high school, and eventually add other sections, such as pedagogical advice for teachers, guides to accompany students and their parents during their studies, or extracurricular content that would complement well the lessons.
Whether you are a teacher, a student, a web developer or just curious, you can help! Everyone can contribute and improve both the site itself and the content. Everything will be explained soon in another article!
The site will be available soon at wikicours.org, in a few months at most. (For the moment this address does not lead anywhere and it’s normal: the site does not exist yet.)
The source code of the site will be published on GitHub under MIT license, as well as the courses’ content, which will probably be under Creative Commons license.
And you, would you use such a site, or contribute to it, and if so how? Tell me in the comments, I’d love to hear what you think!
Original article in French available at http://thomaskuntz.org/wikifier-les-ressources-educatives.