Wednesday, September 3, 2008

What to Do With Wikipedia; A New World Is Before Us

There is a revolution ahead. Some would argue we are already well into it. One thing seems certain, we are much closer to the beginning than the end. This is not a religious war, though some may see it that way; this is not a war of political ideology, though some will try to impose their political orientation; this is not a war for geography, we are moving past that.

This is a war for the World Wide Web and how it is used.

William Badke in his article What to Do With Wikipedia does an exceptional job of addressing several issues that are key to the information age and the way people learn in this new era. The article is worth reading. My perspective on this issue follows: The first issue--creative destruction--was popularized by economist Joseph Schumpeter and more recently articulated by Harvard Professor Clayton M. Christensen in his book The Innovator's Dilemma. When creative new methods or technologies come forth those entrenched in the established methods, most strenuously
resist the new ways. Early on at a time when new ways could be adopted the established organizations resist change; the old way works just fine and they are in control. Later when the threat of destruction looms on the horizon the establishment seeks to embrace. Second, to the old guard knowledge is power; something that must be controlled and only imparted (through scholarly journals) to those who are qualified or to those who pay (students). Control does ensures a certain level of discipline, but does not always keep out bias. To the avant-garde knowledge should be freely imparted. In every field, knowledge thus shared brings to bare the intellectual force of all who are interested. This is blasphemy to the anointed scholars, but beyond them are thousands of intelligent people who have significant contributions to make, but in the past were disregarded. When more people get involved ideas are tested and refined in ways that would otherwise not be considered. (James Suroweicki in his book The Wisdom of Crowds proposes the idea that a group of people with varying intellectual abilities often finds a better solution, because experts tend to view things in similar ways.) Discipline is maintained because those involved have a vested interest in making sure it does; perhaps discipline even improves because so many unbiased eyes are watching. Third, the new ways will prevail if for no other reason than the old guard will die. More and more, new academics will innovate, contribute and collaborate in the new medium. Fourth, even some who are accustomed to the traditional academic methods question one of academia's products. Career counselor and author Marty Nemko sees eroding value in the traditional four year college degree Fifth, as the cost of a college education and advanced degrees continues to skyrocket, as the volume of information even in narrow fields continues to explode, and as the knowledge gained may be very important, but have a short shelf life one must question the viability of the traditional academic format. A system that teaches students--who have no intention of becoming "experts"--vast amounts of information that has no application to the students' needs. Sixth, for years George Gilder has held out the idea that what we have in abundance should be wasted; what is scarce should be preserved. Transistors are a good example. In the 1950s they were rare and expensive, today because transistors are made of silicon they are everywhere and cheap. Knowledge is taking a similar path. Wikipedia is not the new way, it's the current way. Innovators will continue to forge ahead developing new tools and finding ways to use them. What the Internet and the academic environment will look like in another decade is anyone's guess. To be sure it will be someone's guess or more likely the thinking of many.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

1 comment:

William Badke said...

Your comments remind me of the views of Brian Martin, "The Politics of Research" ( There is, indeed, a tendency in academia to cling to and replicate cherished ideas. Those who get "creative" tend to find themselves targets of those who champion older but contrary ideas, but also for younger scholars hoping to build their careers by torpedoing other "up-and-comers." Then you get a Wikipedia who cares little whether the writer of an article has formal credentials or is an informed self-taught person.

It raises quite a conundrum. On the one hand, the elitism of academia has a firm role to play in keeping the discourse to a recognized high standard. You acknowledge this when you refer to "new academics." On the other hand, entrenchment is a real threat to creativity and advancement. What I see as both the challenge and the way forward in all of this is that the world of today needs to pay much more attention to the concept of "information" itself. The very informational foundation of advanced thought is undergoing the greatest revolution since Gutenberg. You point to some of the features of this revolution - the facts that we have never before had so much information available to us, that the average student does not want to become an expert (and indeed can scarcely do so given the amount of data to assimilate), that information's content changes so quickly, and so on. Traditional approaches to education are an anachronism in an era when the average student can get the content of a lecture just as easily by looking it up in Wikipedia.

I do have a solution, though a challenging one. The teaching and learning movement in academia is going the same route. It is simply this: Higher education needs to focus on helping students grasp the nature of information sources, learn how to find the best information for the task at hand, critically think through the information collected, and use that information ethically and effectively to solve problems and advance understanding. If that were happening, our graduates could handle any paradigm shift and change in the nature of information sources that came their way.