Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Teaching Opportunities with Wikipedia

Cathy Davidson, in the March 23, 2007 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, "Point of View" column discusses why "We Can't Ignore the Influence of Digital Technologies." She jumps off from exaggerated media reports that Middlebury College banned Wikipedia. In fact, she finds, the history department forbids student references to Wikipedia as well as other encyclopedias. Professor Davidson goes on to consider both why this story was blown out of proportion, and why it was even news. Then, she considers how Wikipedia's community mirrors the ideal we have of academic life and values.

Wikipedia is not just an encyclopedia. It is a knowledge community, uniting anonymous readers all over the world who edit and correct grammar, style, interpretations, and facts. It is a community devoted to a common good — the life of the intellect. Isn't that what we educators want to model for our students?

Rather than banning Wikipedia, why not make studying what it does and does not do part of the research-and-methods portion of our courses? Instead of resorting to the "Delete" button for new forms of collaborative knowledge made possible by the Internet, why not make the practice of research in the digital age the object of study? That is already happening, of course, but we could do more. For example, some professors already ask students to pursue archival research for a paper and then to post their writing on a class wiki. It's just another step to ask them to post their labors on Wikipedia, where they can learn to participate in a community of lifelong learners. That's not as much a reach for students as it is for some of their professors.

Most of the students who entered Middlebury last fall were born around 1988. They have grown up with new technology skills, new ways of finding information, and new modes of informal learning that are also intimately connected to their social lives. [snip] The students at Middlebury have grown up honing those skills. Don't we want them to both mine the potential of such tools in their formal education and think critically about them? That would be far more productive than a knee-jerk "Delete."

[snip; Author investigates two controversial entries on Wikipedia, and finds them improved...]

I clicked on the editing history, to see who had added what and why. I looked up a half-hour later and realized I'd gotten lost in a trail of ideas about postmodernism and the Frankfurt School — when I had a deadline to meet. Isn't that the fantasy of what the educated life is like?

I also find that my book purchasing has probably increased threefold because of Wikipedia. I am often engaged by an entry, then I go to the discussion pages, and then I find myself caught up in debate among contributors. Pretty soon I am locating articles via Project Muse and 1-Click shopping for books on Amazon. Why not teach that way of using the resource to our students? Why rush to ban the single most impressive collaborative intellectual tool produced at least since the Oxford English Dictionary, which started when a nonacademic organization, the Philological Society, decided to enlist hundreds of volunteer readers to copy down unusual usages of so-called unregistered words.

The author then gives several interesting links:

1) The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's Digital Media and Learning initiative, a five-year, $50-million project started last year to study how digital technologies are changing all forms of learning, play, and social interaction. Link to the related blog, Spotlight, allowing visitors to communicate and interact with grant recipients.

2) HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory, but everyone just calls it "haystack") sponsored publication on "The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age" (hosted at Future of the Book).

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