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The Future of Reference?

February 1, 2011 Leave a comment

This is a guest post by my good friend and colleague Andrea Han who is currently the Instructional Technologies Analyst, Faculty of Science, University of British Columbia. Thanks, Andrea!

Do you want a Qwiki? It seems many people do, as late this January the start-up company rose to number #1 on Google trends “Hot Searches” list. A recent $8M in funding from Eduardo Saverin (Facebook’s reclusive co-founder), Jawed Karim (YouTube co-founder) and Pradeep Sindhu (Juniper Networks co-founder) buoyed attention for the small start-up company that only just released their public alpha.

What does this mean for us as educators? Many of us have watched with excitement as the Internet transitioned from a primarily text-based tool to a truly interactive experience capable of supporting rich media applications. Even in its early stages, educators were excited by the prospects of the Internet to dramatically transform information access. Over time, we’ve observed how the increased capabilities of the Internet have excited and engaged students, turning them from media consumers into media creators.  We’ve been hearing for years that the future of reference will be interactive and will include integrated images, audio, and video. Yet the 3.5 million content pages on Wikipedia, the 6th most trafficked web site in the US, remain predominantly text.

Enter Qwiki , a highly multimedia reference tool with over 3 million reference items. Each item includes an audio description with transcript and an impressive, interactive display of images. Some topics also include interactive maps and custom graphics. These “qwikis” (so named for their short duration) are created on the fly with no human interaction – even the audio track is computer generated. Qwikis can easily be shared with social networks or embedded and links are provided to Wikipedia, Google, fotobucket and YouTube for more detailed information on the topic.

However, once you get beyond the slick appearance of Qwiki, the  lack of depth and personal significance make some Qwiki topics feel like a dictionary for children. For example, the entry for food begins with “Food is any substance or materials eaten or drunk to provide nutritional support for the body and/or for pleasure.” And ends a few sentences later with “There are many different types of equipment used for cooking.” Qwiki sacrifices useful detail for brevity.

Maybe you noticed a similarity between the number of content pages on Wikipedia and the number of reference items in Qwiki? That’s because the public alpha of Qwiki uses Wikipedia  content pages to form reference item audio tracks. You know that brief abstract you see at the top of each Wikipedia entry? That, with a few edits, is what you’ll hear in Qwiki. The detailed information contained in the actual Wikipedia entry is rarely integrated. Wonder where the images come from? The maps? The videos? Remember the sites Qwiki directs you to for more information? You’ll find those resources there.

Qwiki is getting a lot of attention lately, and rightly so. The company has developed a tool that can locate information, compile various media formats and present the product in an new and innovative way. Beyond this, Qwiki leaves a lot to be desired.

Perhaps Qwiki can learn a lesson from Wikipedia (rather than just extracting data its data). Educators have only just begun to view Wikipedia as an acceptable pedagogical tool. Thanks to the work of innovative educators like Michael Wesch, we are beginning to understand the power of the creative aspects of Wikipedia encouraging students to create or update entries instead of just referencing them. This allows students the opportunity to engage in the world outside the classroom, adding their voices to the ongoing dialogue within our disciplines. As more subject matter experts became engaged with Wikipedia, the community grew to over 143,000 active users with an eye for detail and accuracy. Many entries are extensive and regularly updated, making them (in some cases) one of the best resource for information despite their lack of multimedia elements.

In its current state, I see Qwiki as a tool behind it’s time – one designed to focus on multimedia and not user created content. That said, I find the format of Qwiki one of the most interesting developments I’ve seen in quite a while. Other than Prezi there are few presentation tools that allow students to effectively and easily create multimedia enhanced projects. I’d like to see Qwiki give us an interface to create our own qwikis and to improve the existing content.  If Qwiki will do this, they can fill the need for a tool to aggregate and share multimedia in meaningful way. Who knows, with their novel interface, they maybe even be able to overtake Wikipedia.

In honor of Valentines, here is the Qwiki for LOVE.

Categories: general tip, reference