Forking an Academic Wiki Should Be a Basic Student Right. Discuss.

UPDATE: Cathy Davidson replies in the comments. It looks like moving the the timeline out of the Coursera platfrom has been planned but not yet implemented; they will be taking a similar approach to the Rap Genius approach they are taking with the Constitution. Thanks for the reply, Cathy!

I still encourage you to read the post, because the issue is much larger than the FutureEd example. We now have the technical possibility of making student wikis forkable, but haven’t yet dealt with the ramifications of that. 

FutureEd, in case you don’t know, is a course being offered by HASTAC and others through the Coursera platform. It’s offered by Cathy Davidson, a person who is well-versed in the issue of student rights to their intellectual property (and, I think, genuinely concerned about this issue). Having become recently (re-)interested in wikis in education, I decided to look at how she was using the wiki. There’s a couple neat activities there already, like the education timeline:


So far so good — this is a good example of why wikis can matter in education. Certainly you could have the students do this on Wikipedia instead of a Coursera wiki, but here the local needs of the class are somewhat orthogonal to the culture of Wikipedia, and this sort of crowdsourced timeline is a great use of student time, having the potential to to foster some really interesting dicsussions while engaging students in meaningful work.

Unfortunately, as I read it, students don’t own any of that work — it all becomes the property of Coursera. It seems like you need to be logged in to even read it. And even if you did have the right to take your stuff out of it, it’s hard to see how you would. Your work is going to be contextualized and made understandable by the things to which it links, and Coursera controls the accessibility of those links.

The only way students can truly have the right to their intellectual property is through that most basic of Open Culture rights: the right to fork. The right to fork is one of the most important rights true communities have to protect themselves from co-option and malevolent dictatorship:

The right to fork guards the project against single points of failure. For example, the right to fork is a powerful check upon the influence of the benevolent dictator on the project’s work, and through the project’s work, on the community itself. The presence of this right provides strong assurance for any participant in the community to contribute his/her efforts to the community, and lack of it calls into question the open nature of a BenevolentDictator‘s leadership of that community.

That’s why the post you should read this week is Tim Owen’s post on making the Reclaim Wiki forkable:

In addition to making this documentation available, we’re also syncing the documentation to a GitHub repository. We use Dokuwiki for our documentation and one of the biggest benefits is that it uses static text files for the various pages, which made syncing all documentation an easy process and also makes it easy for another institution to grab all of our documentation as a starting point for their own.

There’s still a lot of questions on how to do this elegantly, preserving attribution in a readable way across wikis with different user bases. But we can do the basic stuff now:

  • Remove over-reaching corporate TOS’s from sign-ups.
  • Make it clear all material is contributed on a CC-BY basis so cloning is legally possible.
  • Within reason, provide a simple way for people to export material from the wiki (obviously if bandwidth is an issue, you may need to add protections against abuse). At the very least, provide a page that explains how material can be extracted, and reaffirms the rights of users to do that.

The federated, forkable wiki may or may not be the wiki of the future, but it seems to me to be the wiki of the future we actually want. Let’s work towards that. If the course-runners are interested in a lean, mean alternative to Coursera’s wiki platform, I hear Reclaim Hosting might be able to help…or maybe interested students could fork the wiki work to a more equitable location?

It is our right, after all.

4 thoughts on “Forking an Academic Wiki Should Be a Basic Student Right. Discuss.

  1. We are constantly taking content from the Coursera site and putting it elsewhere, as we will do on Monday with the modded and forked Constitution. We’ll put it on another commercial site, Rap Genius, for multimedia annotation by a non-Coursera community and we’ll put it on , an open free community. We intend to do the same with the timeline and make it open. No one has ever told us we could not and that is the intention and always has been. I’m checking with university lawyers immediately to make sure that is okay but we’ve made our intentions clear all along so, if this is wrong, we better find out now because we’ll take it off line now. Thanks for raising this issue!

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