Last week, Saylor employees had the opportunity to attend Wikimania 2012, the annual international Wikimedia conference.  The conference was organized into multiple sessions during which members of the Wikimedia Foundation advisory board, academics, and general wiki enthusiasts gave presentations on their work with Wikimedia.  Though the topics varied considerably, we found that certain key issues were discussed throughout the sessions: diversity, usability, and collaboration.

During the opening ceremony, Mary Gardiner, Co-founder of Ada Initiative and Jimmy Wales, Founder of Wikipedia, both discussed the goal of fostering public contribution and collaboration in order to increase the diversity of free knowledge on the Internet.

In relation to this goal, various presenters discussed the issue of usability, and how the Wikimedia Foundation could simplify the process of editing and content writing, in order to facilitate the participation of people from all backgrounds.

  • French Wikipedian Benoît Evellin discussed his project’s creation of a mentoring page, which features a list of experienced users’ profiles.  This page allows new users to find others with similar interests and contact them for help.  In addition to providing an excellent resource for new users, this also encourages collaboration and social interaction in the Wikipedia community.
  • Professor Eduard Klein of Bern University of Applied Sciences presented the results of a test report by the Swiss “Access for All” foundation. Klein suggested Wikipedia encourage users to include alternative, text-based representations of images, as well as format the site to be compatible with all keyboard shortcuts for the benefit of users with disabilities.
  • Jack Herrick, founder of wikiHow, shared some of his site’s features such as the “Things to Try First” page with dashboard style bubbles, which display various ways in which articles need to be edited.  In addition to increasing usability, Herrick hopes that wikiHow can make contributing content fun for more people.  This relates to the second prominent topic, which was the issue of incentives.
  • Aaron Shaw and Benjamin Mako Hill presented their study on the affects of social incentives on contribution.  Overall the incentive that seemed to be most effective in encouraging hard work was the implementation of social perspective.  When people were asked to think about the work of others, they put more effort into their own work.
  • Maryana Pinchuk and Steven Walling of the Wikimedia Foundation discussed the various incentives they discovered while interviewing hundreds of experienced Wikipedians.  These incentives included the challenge of building one’s expertise, and a sense of recognition for their accomplishments, among others.  Interestingly, the number one incentive for long time contributors was personal fulfillment.  The fact that these were some of the top motivations for people to contribute to free access knowledge demonstrates the significance of free online education and the powerful impact it can have on a person’s life.

The Saylor Foundation does not have the same challenge of increasing public contribution to content that Wikimedia faces; yet the issues of usability and incentives are still relevant.  As Saylor brainstorms ways to work towards its goals, the students’ needs are always an important consideration.

Features such as the common questions section, where students can post questions on a course page for staff to answer, and the instructional videos that are currently being developed, are efforts to make more user friendly.

Features such as the discussion forums, where students can ask a question or start a conversation, and ePortfolio, which allows students to track their progress and share work with others, were designed to help students collaborate and form a sense of community.

The sessions at Wikimania can serve as inspiration for further improvements to Saylor’s usability, such as the creation of a feature similar to Benoît Evellin’s mentoring page where new students can easily find others that have experience in a specific area.

Developing incentives is also an important subject of Saylor development as we continue to work on implementing badges and creating courses to prepare students to take Excelsior exams for transferable college credit.  Perhaps we can be inspired to think of other ways of increasing social incentives such as allowing students to be more aware of others’ progress, or maybe we can take a page out of Jack Herrick’s book and find new ways of making Saylor courses fun.

As a whole, witnessing the Wikipedians’ passion for collaboration was an exciting experience.  Although most Saylor employees in attendance are not active Wikipedians, it was wonderful for us to learn of others’ efforts towards improving free, accessible education for all.