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CULTIVATING SCIENCE

Wikipedia and the New Curriculum

Digital Literacy Is Knowing How We Store What We Know

Wikipedia globes orbiting SOURCE: Wikipedia Students and teachers alike must understand how systems of knowledge creation and archivization are changing. Encyclopedias are no longer static collections of facts and figures; they are living entities. Just check the entry on Global Warming.

Whenever I read an article about an educational institution “banning” Wikipedia I make a point to add this school to a list for future reference. This list serves two purposes: it gives me a list of schools at which I am not likely to work anytime soon (I am a professor of Emerging Media), and it gives me a list of educational institutions which I advise students to avoid. I could make the soft claim that this banning is just a silly policy, a “stick your head in the sand” approach to learning in a networked digital era, but instead I want to make a more controversial claim: It is irresponsible for educational institutions not to teach new knowledge technologies such as Wikipedia. I should probably admit upfront that I am not a scientist by training; my scholarship grows out of literary studies and a concern for how literacy changes in the age of the digital. Wikipedia, or more generally the networked archival structure it represents, alters the way in which we create, share, and record knowledge, and thus has rather significant effects on how we approach education across all disciplines, and specifically in technology and science. Students and teachers alike must understand how systems of knowledge creation and archivization are changing. Encyclopedias are no longer static collections of facts and figures; they are living entities, and the new software changes the rules of expertise.

No longer is an encyclopedia a static collection of facts and figures…it is an organic entity.

Although Wikipedia was certainly in the public discourse for quite some time—Wired featured Wikipedia in March of 2005—it was the Seigenthaler controversy which brought the encyclopedia “anyone can edit” to the forefront of public consciousness. In May of 2005, as a hoax, an individual edited John Seigenthaler’s Wikipedia entry so that it read that for a short time Seigenthaler, who was the Assistant Attorney General under the Kennedy administration, had been implicated in the assassinations of both John and Robert Kennedy, a patently false claim. In September of that year, a friend of Seigenthaler discovered the error and reported it to Seigenthaler, which led to a public debate between him and Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia. This incident seemed to prove what many had feared: that this new encyclopedia was a cesspool of misinformation, not to be trusted. In the words of a Britannica editor, Wikipedia is like the public restroom; one never knows who used it last.

Not surprisingly, much of the ensuing debate around Wikipedia centered on its level of accuracy, and several studies were initiated to compare Wikipedia to other sources such as Britannica. In many of these studies, Wikipedia fared equally as well as its competitors, with the added advantage of being able to correct its own errors and relish the fact that others could not do the same. Unfortunately, this debate obfuscated a more important aspect of this event.

Seigenthaler and his colleagues are, I assume, a relatively educated group of individuals. Seigenthaler is a lawyer and a journalist, obviously a man who is gifted with words, and comfortable writing. However, rather than edit the Wikipedia entry himself, he emailed others about it. The entry was not changed until, after some time, another colleague of Seigenthaler decided to edit the biography. Why did it take so long after the error was discovered for someone to change it? I am not trying to play blame the victim here; I am merely pointing out that what seems like the easiest and most obvious initial response was not so with respect to the 78-year-old Seigenthaler.

And this is why digital literacy is so crucial for educational institutions: we do a fundamental disservice to our students if we continue to propagate old methods of knowledge creation and archivization without also teaching them how these structures are changing, and, more importantly, how they will relate to knowledge creation and dissemination in a fundamentally different way. No longer is an encyclopedia a static collection of facts and figures (although some of its features might be relatively so); it is an organic entity. To educational and policy institutions which, for a substantial portion of history, have maintained control over static codex centered archives—think not only academic libraries, but national ones as well—the shift to an organic structure which they no longer control or solely influence represents a crisis indeed. But to train students in old literacy seems to me to be fundamentally the wrong approach. As Howard Rheingold suggests in Smart Mobs, in the future individuals will be divided between “those who know how to use new media to band together [and] those who don’t.”

Not only does Wikipedia contain the “hard science,” but it also records and contributes to the politicization and dissemination of scientific research and communication.

Because Wikipedia users tend to be more tech-savvy than the rest of the population, and because tech-savvy individuals are more likely to have science and engineering backgrounds, entries on these topics are some of the strongest in the encyclopedia. This website has grown into an immensely useful resource for background information on a wide range of scientific subjects, and can serve as a quick reference for any number of scientific facts. What is perhaps more important and useful, though, is the extent to which Wikipedia also preserves the debate and discourse around a particular subject. Two of the most important features that I point out to students when I teach them about Wikipedia are the history pages and the discussion pages. Unlike traditional archives, Wikipedia preserves not only its past representations, but also the discourse which produced the current entry. A strong example of this is the entry on global warming, which does a good job of dividing the controversy of global warming from the science on global warming. While the main page serves as a good primer to the science of global warming, students miss out if they do not also consult the discussion and history pages to understand how this article was produced. In prior models of knowledge, storing and recording important discursive histories was a less than transparent process; indeed, those functions were entirely unavailable. (Who decided that Pykrete was not important enough to make it into Britannica?) Now these features are relatively open to the public.

What this means for training people working in science and technology is that they will need to posses a new type of collaborative literacy, an ability to understand and negotiate an archival structure which is always in flux, and to which they can contribute. As we clearly see in the global warming article, not only does Wikipedia contain the “hard science,” but it also records and contributes to the politicization and dissemination of scientific research and communication. And, in order to be participants in these debates, students will need to understand the structures and rhetorics within which they take place.

And here the policy implications extend beyond Wikipedia, for it is not only about teaching people about Wikipedia but, more importantly, about this collaborative literacy in general, wherein the notion of the individual authority or expert no longer holds. To be sure, this runs counter to the ideology of most institutions where individual degrees are the measure of authority but, like it or not, the networked digital archive changes our basis of knowledge and training people for the future is about training them for this shift. What is no longer archived in the same way is no longer lived in the same way.

When I hear debates about the digital divide, access is often the largest issue, as if merely having access to computers solves the problem. “Bring computers into the schools and fund technology” are the regular solutions. However, the technology here is merely secondary: what is more important is teaching people how this technology changes the social sphere so that students too can be empowered to engage the polis rather than being passive users of Word Processing programs. Knowledge of how to indent paragraphs on a computer or make bullet points for a Power Point presentation is meaningless without the more important literacy of how to use these new media collaboratively to create a different kind of knowledge. Literacy in modern society means not only being able to read a variety of informational formats; it means being able to participate in their creation, with Wikipedia serving as the marquee example.

David Parry is an assistant professor of Emerging Media and Communications at the University of Texas at Dallas.

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