Wikipedia for Schools

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The Wikipedia for Schools project is an effort to distill the vast content of Wikipedia onto one DVD. This single-DVD version is very portable, and can be used in schools worldwide, though its focus on articles written in English probably limits its global appeal. The project focuses on children, and what's most interesting (and appropriate) for them in a school environment; project volunteers selected articles for quality and appropriateness, then manually reviewed them for content (avoiding "adult" topics and obvious vandalism). But what happens when Wikipedia is compressed like this? Is it really a useful encyclopedia when it's whittled down to only 5,500 articles (versus the 2.5 million plus available online in English)?

Well, have a look for yourself. The project includes both a Title Word Index and the aforelinked Visual Subject Index. As a test, I thought of a few potential study topics and then tried to find them on the Wikipedia for Schools site. Here are the results:

Afghanistan

There's a lot going on in Afghanistan these days. A student could do a paper on the country's history, the current war, its relationship with Pakistan, influence of drugs on the economy, and so on. So let's see what we can find on the country. Starting with the visual index I wasn't sure whether to choose Geography or Countries, but I went with the latter. From there I selected Asia, and Afghanistan. The article is quite good -- it's truly an encyclopedia-quality entry on the country, with tons of detailed information, images, and specific data. All the topics I mentioned above are at least mentioned, and there's certainly enough information for a complete school report on the country. So that's one win.

Space Shuttle: Challenger

I'm a student of disasters, so I wanted to see whether Challenger ranked highly enough to be included in the selection. I wasn't sure where to find this in the visual index -- is it under History, Design and Technology, Science, or what? So I turned to the title word index and chose "S" and "p" to form a search beginning with "Sp" (for Space Shuttle). Sure enough, entries entitled Space Shuttle Challenger and Space Shuttle Challenger disaster were right there. The articles are excellent, particularly the one covering the disaster in detail. This is college-level material.

Sarah Palin/Joe Biden

Since the Wikipedia for Schools selection requires a manual effort to select and review articles, I wondered whether recently-prominent people would make the cut. Is it possible to get relevant information on Vice Presidential picks (particularly Sarah Palin, who wasn't nationally known until quite recently) from this encyclopedia, or would we have to go online? As it turns out, the online source is clearly better for these people. Palin isn't mentioned at all in the Wikipedia for Schools selection (at least, according to a Google Search over the selection). Biden is mentioned six times but doesn't merit his own article. The most prominent mentions of Biden come in the articles on Barack Obama and the US Senate in a section about age qualifications for joining the senate (Biden had just turned 30 when he was sworn in). So I suppose the online version of Wikipedia is still necessary for some research topics. (For the record, the online articles on Palin and Biden are stunningly detailed.)

So the Wikipedia for Schools project is definitely useful, and its price (zero dollars) makes it a serious competitor to traditional encyclopedias. I can see it being of particular interest to schools (and homes) that lack internet access, or in which parents are particularly worried about their kids coming across inappropriate content. While it's possible that some inappropriate content has found its way into the selection, it's far less likely that a kid would find it there than on the equivalent live Wikipedia article on the web.

One major concern is article quality and accuracy. Wikipedia's superpower is the fact that it's constantly updated; taking a static snapshot means that articles are frozen and cannot be updated. If a factual inaccuracy exists in the selection, it may not be fixed for up to a year (when the next full selection is released), though the selection is updated as needed if major errors or vandalism are found. Having said that, to some extent the same problem exists for traditional encyclopedias -- and they aren't free (though they are professionally edited and, one hopes, thoroughly fact-checked). So the question there seems to boil down to whether the crowd of editors at Wikipedia does a "good enough" job at editing and fact-checking to compete with professionals.

A final failing I see in the selection is its lack of citations and references; they were excluded because volunteers couldn't verify each of them. I'd prefer that students had access to the references and could check them out themselves -- this process is, after all, one of the core functions of academic research!

You can browse Wikipedia for Schools online, or download the whole thing via BitTorrent. (If you're not familiar with BitTorrent, read the bit on downloading in the site's press release.)

Have you used Wikipedia for Schools? Do you have an idea for how this selection could be used? Share your experiences in the comments.

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October 27, 2008 - 9:57am
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