The Three A’s of Collaborative Learning (the Wikipedia story)

There was never supposed to be ‘wiki’ before ‘pedia.’ C’mon, how could any credible online encyclopedia worth its salt be built wiki-style? And by random subject-matter-iffy writers from anywhere in the world with wild-west open access to the content?

As soon as it started to get off the ground, wouldn’t some of the many young, bored, rascally netizens looking for some mindless mischief vandalize the content and sabotage the effort right at the outset? Besides, who would show up for work? We aren’t motivated by that kind of job. How much does it pay? Who’s in charge? The whole concept was surely a joke. A hopeless, idealistic, loony idea.

Until it wasn’t.

So how exactly did a closed, highly structured, and modest collaborative initiative morph into the wide open, decentralized, and monumental collaborative success that we know today as Wikipedia? What does the Wikipedia story teach us about collaborative learning?

ACT on a novel idea

By the turn of the century, the Web was mature and large segments of humanity had readily available online access. The moment was right for an audacious undertaking. The tools and techniques could be worked out on the fly. It just needed to begin.

Nupedia launched in 2000 with the laudable goal of being the world’s first free English-language Web-based encyclopedia. Its initial collaborators included volunteer contributors with appropriate subject matter expertise ( scholars with PhDs, when possible) to write the articles and expert editors to review the content before publication. All articles would be licensed as free content. It was designed by committee. Experts would predefine the rules.

To ensure a quality product, Nupedia used a seven-step approval process before posting articles. It included an extensive peer-review process, designed to make its articles of a quality comparable to that of professional encyclopedias. It was well planned out and off to a great start.

ASSESS the results

But it proved to be a long and difficult slog. Nupedia approved only 21 articles in its first year, and before it ceased operating shortly thereafter, it had produced only a handful more. Though the intentions were admirable, Nupedia sputtered and failed because the tools and processes were not quite right.

Something else, however, had been going on just over on the sidelines. As a practical matter, Nupedia collaborators had created an easy-to-use wiki to facilitate collaborative group work on the text. Anyone could edit and post without waiting for the others. The new process was elegant and effective and that little wiki sideshow was gradually turning into the big main event. The wiki was working it!

What if?

What if, instead of a small group of subject-matter experts, the encyclopedia could be created by the collective contributions of millions of ordinary users on the internet, where anyone could add or edit at any time, no permission needed?

This type of open, large-scale collaborative effort had never really been attempted at this level before. Could an open online collaborative community of strangers outpace a motivated select group of knowledgeable and determined individuals? Would enough sincere volunteer contributors show up and work for free? Would the content be any good? Surely, it was worth a try.

ADAPT to the new reality

The plan worked. Two hundred articles got posted in the first month and 18,000(!) in the first year.

Something remarkable had been discovered in the process of building the wiki system: with a simple and quick revert function (the right tool) and minimal oversight (the right process), continuous development of the open, user-created encyclopedia could flourish.

The new process worked because it proved to be easier and faster (with ‘undo’ features and versioned archives) to restore damaged text than it was to damage it in the first place (by vandalism, carelessness, etc.). So even allowing for setbacks and frequent redos, net incremental benefits would steadily accrue over time. A seed article would prosper and continue to grow slowly and improve thanks to this asymmetry of effort. Moreover, the number of articles and range of topics would both grow much faster as well, now that there were no limits on the number of contributors. And grow they did.

Currently, Wikipedia boasts 40 million articles in 293 languages. Wikipedia content has been quoted by the Supreme Court and is used regularly worldwide by schoolkids, journalists, other professionals, and countless lifelong learners seeking a quick for-dummies education on something new — truly, a stupendous success.

The inspired but modest experimental collaborative project to create Nupedia, the world’s first free online encyclopedia resulted instead in Wikipedia, one of the world’s most successful ongoing collaborative efforts. In fact, in just 15 years, Wikipedia has become arguably the largest and widest collaborative effort in history!

Outcomes beyond the imagination emerged from the never-experienced-before social behavior of a massive community of online ‘prosumers’ eager to participate in a grand project. In this novel bottom-up overturning, a new global online product was created for the first time almost entirely by users themselves — not by a large institution — rapidly and at very little cost.

The act-assess-adapt learning that took place while pursuing the vision of Nupedia guided the originators toward something never witnessed before: creation of shared value from the collective intelligence of a focused, online, decentralized, self-organizing mass of contributors. This unique form of collective intelligence has often been described as ‘hive mind.’ You can look it up — on Wikipedia.