An encyclopedia bites the dust… what’s next?


Today we heard that news that Encyclopedia Britannica would no longer be printing its tomes…

WHY and HOW did we arrive here???


From wiktionary comes the etymology of “Standard” from Old french “estandart which meant “gathering place” and that’s what a standard is… the place that PEOPLE gather. For 225 some years people gathered around Encyclopedia Britannica and about 20 years ago they started gathering around Encarta, the Microsoft version of a CD-ROM encyclopedia because of a nicer price, convenience, and certainly a “cool factor” as well.

Then came along Wikipedia in the past decade and now free, crowd-sourced, international, non-commercial content is encyclopedia king, and hence the new standard to gather around, so after 244 years the Encyclopedia Britannica is no longer printing new tomes.


Again, an important question is: who determines the standard?

There was a very hard academic push against Wikipedia for awhile, but that’s evolved as the people chose it as a standard (not universities or schools or the government, not top-down).

Another, important question:  why?

Convenience, Quality, Ethics, Price, and because it’s where we gathered.


Since Edulang launched its own English Standard last week, I’ve bumped up against a lot of tough and interesting discussions all over the net. Specifically, one correspondent on reddit said: “Consumers don’t decide; it’s the employers and institutions that decide which certificate they want to see.”

I mostly disagreed:

I would say that it’s not only top-down (ie universities/institutions dictate).  If that were the case then there’d be much less diversity in this industry space, and yet there are TONS of different standards. The institutions pick and choose among popular tests, but there is definitely input from both the consumers and the test developpers… otherwise we wouldn’t see the enormous amount of money spent on advertising on behalf of the test developers aimed at consumers. I’ll agree with you that employers and institutions do have a fair amount of input, but it’s a two-way street.

On linked-in someone said our certificate was a joke and that he could copy it “right now”.

(I have a gut feeling he didn’t actually even take a look at the test itself)

I responded:

I appreciate the devil’s advocate point-of-view but I don’t think that you could copy this idea. We have PhDs who developed the material, and a team of senior engineers developing both the back office and front house design.

The investment to make even a poor copy of this is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and the reality is that this is a very stiff market with big powerful educational publishers dominating it (as they have for decades now), however they’re slow to change which leaves space for smaller nimble organizations like our own to bring about a new standard.


I finished my last post with a question of whether “our democratization in fair price and convenience” was about to establish another standard in the ELT industry?. As I answered last time: I leave that up to you and to your students to decide, and hope you gather around our new offer as I think it’s a beautiful way of leveling the playing field.


Please keep me posted on the revolution ;-)   Cheers, Brad


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  • Tyson Seburn

    Hmm.  I didn’t know this news about Britannica.  Though it’s sometimes hard to welcome a change by driving out a tradition, it’s a necessary change.  I can only really speak for Canadian universities (though I’d be quite surprised if most academic institutions weren’t the same still for the same reasons), but it still is the universities that dictate how Wikipedia is acceptably used by its students.  It’s not a foundless ruling though; there are academic reasons for it.  It is also up to people like me to help students understand and recognise the value behind these reasons–sometimes more successfully than others.  Once this new gold standard for information matches up with the standards expected in higher education, it’ll be more recommended to students for specific purposes.

    With the language testing industry, I’m sure there is a certain amount of market-driven effect on what is developed, likely due to consumer attitudes towards the reliability and security of the exams, at least in part.  That aside, it’s also likely that there is a more commercial relationship between the tests and the institutions that accept them.

  • Philawade

    Hi Brad,

    Well, I’m amazed it lasted so long. Many bookstores have gone belly up like Borders in London as well as newspapers. It’s technology, if they don’t adapt and stay with the trends they’ll go down. This is business, you have to keep track of what’s going on. But I think they could have done digital versions for schools (maybe they did). Their core competence was facts and information, how they deliver that is not their USP so they could do e-books, software, games, films etc all via computers, online or even create coursebooks for history. I mean, how many people want to flip through one of their 20 volumes to find out about a bird? Those days are gone, quite a long time ago actually.


  • Brad Patterson

    Hey Ty,

    Merci for the balanced reply.  I do think it’s a two-way street even if a university applies a certain standard, that standard is often negotiated or at least viewed from a student perspective as well before being put into place.  That being said, even the founder of wikipedia questions it for academic use: 

    And then, there are professors that are pushing for its use:

    And in the end, we’re talking about a 10-year old here.  Wikipedia is evolving very quickly every day, and we’ll see where its momentum will take us.  On the language-testing side I’ll agree that it is fairly market-driven and a market certainly has many diverse actors.  

    Always glad to chat about the ways of the world with my buddy from Canada!  Cheers, b

  • Brad Patterson

    They actually only made 15% of their profit from their encyclopedia. They have quite a diverse publishing portfolio, but I think they’re up against the tide on this one.  Digital, yes, but I see wikipedia winning in the long run.  Interesting times, eh!

  • Tyson Seburn

    All true.  It’s not that universities force students not to use Wikipedia for anything, like for background information about a topic, it’s undeniably the easiest to understand and most conveniently accessed encyclopedia.  Where it fails academically is its reliability of information (take a look at the references, just for an example), unintended bias (even though it does have a safeguarding system in place) and the fact that it’s a tertiary source, like any encyclopedia.  Students tend to use it for argument-building and as a result, cite from it, or just plain plagiarise from it.  Obviously, you wouldn’t use the Britannica or a dictionary, for example, to prove a point.

  • Brad Patterson

    I know I’ve already mastered English for the most part (merci mom n dad), but I’d love to be a student in your class, Ty.  I think ya must rock!  Bon weekend!

  • Brad Patterson

    I know I’ve already mastered English for the most part (merci mom n dad), but I’d love to be a student in your class, Ty.  I think ya must rock!  Bon weekend!

  • Philawade

    I said to one class last week that they couldn’t put Wikipedia down in their references section and they went ballistic. Their main argument was that it is written and checked and rewritten by people, experts and scientists and so eventually becomes the best possible information and is far better than any book, dictionary or encyclopedia. It’s hard to disagree.

  • Brad Patterson

    The problem with arguing anything (for me personally) is I can identify with all of the sides.  I see what your students are saying, and yet I understand Tyson’s point-of-view as well.  In the end, it boils down to context and what our needs are for each particular “exercise” of intelligence.