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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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The Library of Congress Wants Your Help Identifying World War I-Era Political Cartoons
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Alex Wong/Getty Images

The U.S. government’s official library wants your help. And it involves cartoons.

The Library of Congress just debuted its new digital innovation lab, an initiative that aims to improve upon its massive archives and use them in creative ways. Its first project is Beyond Words, a digitization effort designed to make the research library’s historical newspaper collection more search-friendly. It aims to classify and tag historical images from World War I-era newspapers, identifying political cartoons, comics, illustrations, and photos within old news archives. The images come from newspapers included in Chronicling America, the library’s existing newspaper digitization project.

The tasks involved in Beyond Words are simple, even if you know nothing about the illustrations involved going into it. The Library of Congress just needs people to help mark all the illustrations and cartoons in the scanned newspaper pages, a task that only involves drawing boxes to differentiate the image from the articles around it.

Then there’s transcription, involving typing in the title of the image, the caption, the author, and whether it’s an editorial cartoon, an illustration, a photo, a map, or a comic. The library also needs people to verify the work of others, since it’s a crowd-sourced effort—you just need to make sure the images have been transcribed consistently and accurately.

A pop-up window below an early 20th century newspaper illustration prompts the user to pick the most accurate caption.

Screenshot via labs.loc.gov

The data will eventually be available for download by researchers, and you can explore the already-transcribed images on the Beyond Words site. Everything is in the public domain, so you can remix and use it however you want.

With the new labs.loc.gov, “we are inviting explorers to help crack open digital discoveries and share the collections in new and innovative ways,” Carla Hayden, the library’s head, said in a press release.

Other government archives regularly look to ordinary people to help with the monstrous task of digitizing and categorizing their collections. The National Archives and Records Administration, for instance, has recently crowd-sourced data entry and transcription for vintage photos of life on Native American reservations and declassified government documents to help make their collections more accessible online.

Want to contribute to the Library of Congress’s latest effort? Visit labs.loc.gov.

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Live Smarter
Slow Wi-Fi? It Could Be Your Neighbor's Fault
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If your Wi-Fi connection remains interminably slow no matter how many times you restart it, you can probably blame your neighbor. It could be that there are too many people using Wi-Fi connections on the same channel, even if you're all on different networks. But, as Tech Insider teaches us in the video below, there is a way to circumvent this, returning you to the prime TV-streaming Wi-Fi speeds of your dreams. (These instructions apply to Mac users, but if you've got Windows, How-To Geek recommends a tool called the Xirrus Wi-Fi Inspector to do the same job.) It seems like a lot of steps at first, but it'll be worth it—we promise.

If you’ve got a Mac, hold the Option key while clicking the Wi-Fi symbol in your top menu bar. Go to “Open Wireless Diagnostics,” then when that opens, go up to the top left menu bar and click the drop-down menu “Window > Scan.” That will open up a window with all the nearby Wi-Fi networks. Click the “Scan Now” button on the bottom right, and your computer should recommend the best channels for you to use—say, you’re on Channel No. 1, but the best 2.4GHz channel is No. 3. Tech Insider recommends writing those down (there are options for both 2.4GHz channels and 5GHz channels).

Now, you’ll need to break out your iPhone. Download the AirPort Utility app, and go to your phone’s settings. Scroll down to the AirPort Utility app in your app list, and enable “WiFi Scanner.” Use the app to scan your house for Wi-Fi networks and note which channels are commonly used by your neighbors’ networks. (If you don’t have an iPhone, you can also use Acrylic Wi-Fi for Android or Windows phones.) This will help you avoid the most congested networks.

Then, log onto your router on your computer by typing your router’s IP address into your browser, just like you would any web address. From there, go into Wireless Settings, and change the channel your network operates on to one of the recommended options that you wrote down from your computer's diagnostics window earlier. And don’t forget to save!

This should help you get a faster internet connection by minimizing the amount of interference from other networks around you. Because the best neighbors are the ones who don't slow down Game of Thrones for you.

See the process step-by-step in the video below.

[h/t Tech Insider]

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