Jimmy Wales and Wikipedia elevated humanity above the glitz of BETT, writes Sal McKeown
Jimmy WalesJimmy Wales: 'all knowledge to every single person'BETT has more than its share of self-congratulation. There are the 'exemplar schools' spreading the gospel, companies touting their wares and corporate bodies hiking their profits and reaching out to new markets.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales talked about offering free access to the sum of all human knowledge to every single person on the planet. That is a gob-smacking concept and made everything else at BETT 2015 seem just a little bit tarnished.

Wikipedia is now 14 years old. A student starting university this year will not remember a time when Wikipedia was not around. That's one reason why, as far as I'm concerned, Jimmy Wales was the very best of BETT.

One of the top five websites

In the developed world Wikipedia is in the top five websites most of the time. It has 32 million articles in 287 different languages. It is especially strong on entries in European languages, Japanese and Chinese and north European languages. "Among the most active are people who live in cold climates," said Jimmy Wales in his BETT keynote address. "They obviously stay indoors learning things!"

Just in case you have wondered who writes the entries, Wikipedia has done the research. It is a male dominated group and the average contributor is aged 26, which is older than contributors to many other sites. Some 80,000 people volunteer their knowledge and passions and there is an important set of guiding principles. The first one is that Wikipedia is an encyclopaedia, said Wales: "It is not a library, not a textbook. There is no place for the full text of Hamlet. It is not YouTube."

Wikipedia must have a neutral point of view, report fairly and faithfully and give a broad overview. It is freely licensed so it can be repurposed, edited and used by its readers in different ways (as with its offshoot Wikimedia). Civility is a key factor: there must be no personal attacks so contributors who are rude and insulting on Wikipedia are asked to leave.  

Writers take a mass of information and turn it into concise, comprehensible entries. Among those constributors are students, and smart teachers have set the creation of Wikipedia entries as project work – writing for a purpose and for a real audience, and making a social contribution! A perfect, instant vehicle for great learning and teaching.

Mobile operators pressed to give learners free access to Wikipedia

The contributors bring knowledge to people in a democratised way and there is great moral pride in the community. The recent Ebola crisis brought out the best in the contributors. They were aware that many people in Africa do not speak English, French or Portuguese and that some societies viewed Ebola as a myth so they worked as fast as possible to put out information in 100 languages so that people who spoke only that language could access good-quality, accurate information.

Jimmy Wales plans to take the message to even more communities. Mobile phone ownership is mushrooming worldwide. "African farmers are now using cell phones to set out their stall and advertise their wares; others use it in the fight against malaria," said Wales. "Internet usage in Nigeria stood at 0.1 per cent of the population in 2000: in 2013 38 per cent were online. The dot.com boom is happening now in Nigeria."

Mobile data costs are the main barrier to internet usage but Wales is addressing this with Wikipedia Zero. The operator offers zero-rates for Wikimedia sites in their billing system, so their subscribers pay nothing for accessing Wikipedia and the sister projects on the mobile web or apps.

In November 2012, Sinenjongo High School penned an open letter on Facebook, encouraging cellphone carriers to waive data charges for accessing Wikipedia so they can do their homework. Have a look at the video version of their appeal above and sign the petition.

Forty years ago everyone had a limited range of sources available. There were books, newspapers and magazines. Students and the general public alike now have a vast array of information from crazy blogs to PhD theses to spoof sites. It's free, available 24/7 and democratic. Now people all over the world are beginning to enjoy the access we take for granted.

Photo credit: Jack Terry Photography   
Sign the 'free molbile access' petition

Sal McKeownSal McKeown, a recent runner-up in the “Best Author” category of Teach Secondary’s Technology and Innovation Awards, is a freelance journalist covering special needs. She recently published two packs of conversation cards about dyslexia aimed at Pupil Premium spending – Dealing with Dyslexia at Home and Dealing with Dyslexia at School. The cards cost £14.99 per pack and can be ordered online at www.finkcards.myshopify.com/.

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