Sunday, February 21, 2010

Wikipedia in the Classroom

This is a shared post. The sections in bold come from called Rethinking the future of learning institutions: 10 principals by John Norton, published in October of 2009. Specifically, this post is looking at the principal of "De-Centered Pedagogy." from that article. I am writing about it here because it reminded me of a discussion I read sometime back about the relative usefulness of Wikipedia as a source in historical research. The non-bold sections are my thoughts on Mr. Norton's ideas.
In secondary schools and higher education, many administrators and individual teachers have been moved to limit use of collectively and collaboratively crafted knowledge sources, most notably Wikipedia, for course assignments or to issue quite stringent guidelines for their consultation and reference.26 This is a catastrophically anti-intellectual reaction to a knowledgemaking, global phenomenon of epic proportions.

To ban sources such as Wikipedia is to miss the importance of a collaborative, knowledge-making impulse in humans who are willing to contribute, correct, and collect information without remuneration: by definition, this is education. To miss how much such collaborative, participatory learning underscores the foundations of learning is defeatist, unimaginative, even self destructive.
Schools and teachers are banning sites like Wikipedia because they do not fit well into the traditional paradigm of assumed authority. In that paradigm, knowledge is something that is created my accepted experts. Students and amateur spend years reading the knowledge of the experts. As the student or amateur grows in experience, then she/he can begin to take a more and more active role in questioning, then challenging the acknowledged experts. If the student or amateur become good enough at questioning and challenging, then she is allowed to engage in some supervised information creation (writing her thesis, dissertation, or scholarly articles) if the community of acknowledged experts accepts her, then she is admitted into the club and is allowed to continue to create knowledge.
Wikipedia is not an accepted authority of information – often the information is biased or factually incorrect, especially for recent, evolving, or emotionally charged subjects. As such – Wikipedia is not a proper resource in a world ruled by the assumed-authority paradigm.
On the contrary, it a world defined by the community knowledge-making paradigm, Wikipedia is an acceptable and attractive platform. This new paradigm will gain momentum once enough people have grown up and been trained in thinking about knowledge as something we create in community instead of being trained to think that knowledge is something that one finds in authoritative sources and only acknowledged authorities have the right to create new authoritative sources.
Instead, leaders at learning institutions need to adopt a more inductive, collective pedagogy that takes advantage of our era. John Seely Brown has noted that it took professional astronomers many years to realize that the benefits to their field of having tens of thousands of amateur stargazers reporting on celestial activity far outweighed the disadvantages of unreliability.

This was a colossal observation, given that among the cohort of amateur astronomers were some who believed it was their duty to save the earth from Martians. In other words, professional astronomers had large issues of credibility that had to be counterpoised to the compelling issue of wanting to expand the knowledge base of observed celestial activity. In the end, it was thought that “kooks” would be sorted out through Web 2.0 participatory and corrective learning. The result has been a far greater knowledge, amassed in this participatory method, than anyone had ever dreamed possible, balanced by collective and professional procedures for sorting through the data for obviously wrong or misguided reporting.

If professional astronomers can adopt such a de-centered method for assembling information, certainly college and high school teachers can develop a pedagogical method also based on collective checking, inquisitive skepticism, and group assessment.

In a classroom governed my the community knowledge-making paradigm, students will be trained in skills rather than in knowledge. Students will have to know how to find information; they will have to know how to evaluate the reliability of that information; they will have to be able to understand the effects of bias and how to determine the bias of an information source. Then they will have to learn the skills of working in a knoweldge-making community: how to analyze and synthesize information to create knowledge; how to correct the information used my other knowledge makers and accept corrections from other knowledge makers; how to respectfully debate when there is disagreement in the community as to the reliability of information the communities analysis and synthesis. Finally, participants in the knowledge-making community will need the skills to publish their findings and conclusions in various media.
This post is an example of the very kind of learning that Mr. Norton is writing about. Net gen'ers will be manipulating pre-exisiting information to create and publish new understandings and new knowledge. In doing so, they will challenge our traditional paradigms about what it means to be a well-educated person.

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