Saturday, July 7, 2007

Knowledge as a process

Reading the Britannica Blog makes me feel good. It makes me feel like more academicians are accessing the same information I am, even if they are taking contrarian views like Andrew Keen and Michael Gorman, and that shows me the leveling power of this medium. Danah Boyd recently wrote a marvelous piece as a quasi-response to Gorman's original take on Web 2.0 entitled "Web 2.0, the Sleep of Reason."

Here she takes on a point that many of us have belabored in the edublogosphere, but she couches it in a manner that is much more scholarly. That is not to say that we have not been saying similar things, but hearing this from an attested academic, which she confesses to in the opening of the article, validates it in a way that skeptics might adhere to a little more than the same message coming from the passionate computer-guy.

Why are we telling our students not to use Wikipedia rather than
educating them about how Wikipedia works? Sitting in front of us is an ideal opportunity to talk about how knowledge is produced, how information is disseminated, how ideas are shared. Imagine if we taught the “history” feature so that students would have the ability to track how a Wikipedia entry is produced and assess for themselves what the authority of the author is. You can’t do this with an encyclopedia. Imagine if we taught students how to fact check claims
in Wikipedia and, better yet, to add valuable sources to a Wikipedia
entry so that their work becomes part of the public good.

Herein lies a missing piece in Dr. Gorman’s puzzle. The society
that he laments has lost faith in the public good. Elitism and greed
have gotten in the way. By upholding the values of the elite, Dr.
Gorman is perpetuating views that are destroying efforts to make
knowledge a public good. Wikipedia is a public-good project. It is the belief that division of labor has value and that everyone has something to contribute, if only a spelling correction. It is the belief that all people have the inalienable right to knowledge, not just those who have academic chairs. It is the belief that the
powerful have no right to hoard the knowledge. And it is the belief
that people can and should collectively help others gain access to
information and knowledge.

Our teachers take on what Wikipedia is has to be examined, and what better way than to first have them do some fact-checking and entry creation. Our society has done so much tearing down of its capabilities, would not that energy have been better served in changing it to make it work better for us? The beauty of Wikipedia is that it can be argued, re-envisioned, and eventually changed to reflect new information. As Boyd states, encyclopedias could never do that.

What Boyd advocates is no less than a calling out of the academics because information is no longer the property of the elite. She asks: what can you contribute to the discussion? One of the most commonly asked questions concerning the validity of Wikipedia or any online content: "How do you know it's valid?" We often say that we need to teach students to disseminate what is good and what is bad, but do we have those skills ourselves? How many of you or the teachers you work with would truthfully know how to assess the accuracy of a source given to them? We need those skills as much as our students.

Boyd's ideas relate very well to the K-12 setting, and after reading her post, I came across this one from Pete Reilly:
Let us find ways to give our children back their birthright, their natural curiosity and facility to learn. There have to be ways that we can organize our learning institutions to accommodate individual curiosity and the standardized curriculum. I believe that thoughtful educators can create environments that are less restrictive and provide much more natural habitat for learning. Let us find ways to foster the wildness and thrill of learning again. Let us answer the “Call of the Wild”.
This idea that we give students back their creativity, echoed by several people recently at NECC, is one all teachers grapple with. If we polled teachers, how many would say that they want to teach the same thing year after year with little variation? If we removed all state pressure and made learning a truly organic experience, would teachers choose to mirror their curriculum from year to year? I am intrigued by what the statistics would say. Any ideas? My truest frame of reference is my own teaching experience, and I have to say that I did not do the same things from year to year; I may have covered the same topics as required by law, but the way that we did it differed each time. Why? I was curious; I wanted to learn; It was boring to do it the other way.

Supposedly, I am an adult and possess a longer attention span than an adolescent, and even I could not sit through similar material. How are we asking students to handle this type of environment without appealing to their interests, or at least letting them access the material in a way that is personally meaningful?

Marrying Boyd's and Reilly's ideas might serve to inform our staffs about the power of the medium and the importance of this new information literacy. For example, if we showed teachers how easily they, and thus their students, can access information, it moves us in a direction where we can all become learners again. Whether it is through a serious analysis of Wikipedia articles related to a curriculum topic or through some other activity that takes advantage of our students desire to find things relevant to themselves and their own world, we now have the ability to teach to our students' passions, and the means to let them pursue them safely.

Photo Credit: Maven's Photostream from Flickr

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Scott Elias said...

Many of the teachers with whom I spoke last year had an unexplainable hatred for all things Wikipedia. I even had one teacher tell me she would refuse to accept any paper in which the student cited it as a reference.

I think we need some balance on the issue and pointed teachers to two BBC articles:

Wikipedia Survives Research Test

and, 3 months later,

Wikipedia Study 'Fatally Flawed'

Patrick Higgins said...

Right there you just outlined a fantastic activity for a response paper by a class. In addition to fact-checking Wikipedia entries on their own, they can now point to these articles as a means to continue the discussion.

These are the types of activities that we can promote to help students and teachers understand the definitions of literacy as they pertain to technology.

Thanks for pointing out these articles. I am going to cross post this at a Ning I started for AP Language and Composition.

Scott Elias said...

Glad you found them useful. I think some middle-ground is needed here. We send kids the wrong message when we say, "NO! You can't use that!" But at the same time, they need to know to be wary of trusting a Wikipedia page without checking the citations and sources first.