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How do we use technology to make learning engaging and interactive? That is, of course, the $90 billion question.

Qwiki has been heralded as one such solution. The startup claims to turn "information into experience" by transforming Wikipedia entries into robot narrated, photo slide-shows. Heralded as "the future of information consumption" and "the future of education" the startup won the Techcrunch Disrupt last fall and has raised some $8 million in funding.

The startup has released its iPad app today, rekindling much of the hype and the hubbub.

But I've never really found Qwiki to be terribly disruptive or even, honestly, that engaging. Its pairing of Wikipedia, photos, and narration has never wowed me, and my impressions were further diminished when a hacker demonstrated that he was able to clone the site after 6 hours worth of work, with just 321 lines of HTML.

Plenty of folks think otherwise. Marshall Kirkpatrick, co-editor of RWW thinks Qwiki is magical. He penned a rave review for the iPad app this morning, noting the new feature on the iPad version: the addition of maps that can point to Qwikis near your location.

 

"Could you just read the Wikipedia articles for yourself?" he asks. "Sure you could - but will you? That's a fundamentally different experience from the lean back meandering through reference material that Qwiki makes you want to pour time into. There's simply something about having articles read to you, with pictures, maps and charts moving around the page dynamically and ready to touch that is captivating."

Captivating? Perhaps. Me, I don't find the female robot voice particularly compelling. And -- yes, I realize this is blasphemy -- I find Ken Burns-stye photo montage to be a bit overdone. Add to that, I'm just not convinced that place-based and mobile-ready Qwikis are something I'd ever use. I'm headed east next week, visiting towns I've never been to before. But I can't imagine that, if I want more information about a tourist attraction in Boston, for example, that I'm going to pull out my iPad to watch and listen to a Qwiki. I'm more likely to read information -- both online and onsite -- from multiple sources.

And, I think that -- even more than the hack or the buzz -- is why I find Qwiki disappointing. I'm unlikely to use Wikipedia as a sole or definitive source for anything. Now, I love Wikipedia, don't get me wrong. But I do wonder if the structure of the app reinforces the idea that a summary of a Wikipedia entry (often just the introductory paragraph) is all you need to know.

That's the sort of stereotypical use and perception of Wikipedia we should resist, not celebrate.

Granted, sometimes that summary is great. But there are plenty of times when it's not. (I can't help but invoke this recent New York Times story about the paucity of women's contributions -- and often, then women's topics, on the site).

Despite my criticisims, I hope Qwiki keeps working on its app, I really do. I love the idea of people being able to collaborate to this effort -- a la "wiki" reference. I would love to see it draw from more sources. By that I don't mean just more photos or links. I mean truly integrating other resources into its bite-sized informational videos. Maybe then I'd be a bit more excited.

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Audrey Watters


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