Posted tagged ‘Wikipedia’

The horrors of easy access to information

November 6, 2012

Nearly 45 years ago I submitted a school project at the end of the term. I thought I had done a pretty good job. On the whole the teacher marking it agreed, but he added the following qualification. ‘I really didn’t like your use of Encyclopaedia Britannica as source for some of your facts.’ I thought I had better see him and find out what was wrong. Had my use of the encyclopaedia corrupted the analysis in any way? Were the facts taken from it incorrect? No, none of that. He just didn’t like Encyclopaedia Britannica, largely because, as he put it, ‘using it is just too easy.’

Before you rush to judgment, remember I was 13 years old and not exactly producing an article for a refereed journal. So, as he told me he had deducted nearly 10 per cent from my marks for this use of sources, I felt I had suffered something of an injustice; not least because I had assembled other sources as well.

Fast forward to 2012, and for Encyclopaedia Britannica substitute Wikipedia; in fact, add the whole internet. There is now part of a whole generation of ageing  academics who on the whole seem to think that, with the internet, research has become too easy for students; or maybe, they have so much easy access to information that they are ‘distracted’ by it and do inadequate work as a result. That, as it happens, is what a survey of teachers conducted by the Pew Research Center found in the United States. I suspect the results would be similar over here.

Of course easy access to information is not always a straightforward benefit. But it is still a benefit. I am not a supporter of the view that information is too precious to be made openly available to the uninitiated, or that it should only be used with the accompanying analysis of someone older and wiser. Indeed, when the printing press first became popular very similar arguments were made then. The task for teachers is not to persuade themselves that all this information and data ‘distracts’ students, but to ensure that students are trained and guided in its use. But we should avoid giving the impression that knowledge is too valuable to be openly shared. That is not what the academy is about.

The wiki generation

March 29, 2011

If you are like me, you may be getting a bit tired of the prefix ‘wiki’ appearing everywhere. I have to confess that it has taken me until today to find out what ‘wiki’ actually means. Actually, I still don’t really know, because there are various suggestions out there on the internet. The two most commonly given are that ‘wiki’ is an acronym that stands for ‘What I Know Is’; or that it is Hawaiian for ‘quick’ (or rather, it is half of that, as the Hawaiian word is apparently ‘wiki-wiki’).

Of course what made ‘wiki’ famous is Wikipedia, the online open access encyclopaedia that you and I can edit. It is now one of the two or three most frequently accessed internet sites, with literally millions of articles. It is the last (or sometimes first) resort of students writing essays, or of people wanting reasonably detailed answers on whatever interests them.

The academic and expert communities have always been divided on Wikipedia. Now nearly ten years old, the website has been criticised for inaccuracy and sloppy oversight. In 2006 some of the original founders moved away and created a new site, Citizendium, which was also to be written by volunteers but which was to have more careful and expert monitoring and checking. It hasn’t worked, because some years on it still only has 15,693 entries, and of these only 155 have actually been subjected to the kind of scrutiny that was to be the chief characteristic of the site. Meanwhile Wikipedia keeps growing, and it is now said that for many users of the internet it is the only site they visit if they want to have quick information. Whatever is on Wikipedia, right or wrong, is now the only authority many people ever get to know.

I recently chatted with a group of academics who all declared that it was their belief that the academy needed to fight the use of Wikipedia with all the energy it could muster. But there are others who take a different approach. So for example the Association for Psychological Science is organising its members to edit, correct and monitor Wikipedia articles relevant to its field, thereby creating a more accurate set of articles. Other groups have also been formed to work on a voluntary basis to enhance quality control on the site, including a group of academics in Imperial College London. A research team in Carnegie Mellon University has produced a learned paper suggesting ways in which Wikipedia can be enhanced as a reliable tool (‘Harnessing the Wisdom of Crowds in Wikipedia: Quality Through Coordination’). It may be that a gradual change of approach by the higher education community is under way.

Information gathering and distribution on the internet is constantly reinventing itself, and Wikipedia may yet be replaced with something different. But in the meantime it is there, and it is the information framework that most people now use and believe. There is very little point in fighting that, but there may be much to be gained from a better organised academic engagement.

At the cutting edge

January 9, 2011

Is this part of your day: do you switch on your PC some time in the morning, log in and check your email? Do you perhaps access a news site to catch up with the latest developments? Do you Google something you want to find? Do you send some emails, and work on a document in Microsoft Word or a similar program?

Is that you? You do know, I hope, that you are a complete and utter dinosaur. Much worse, you are so last year. The kids on the street make jokes about the likes of you.

Seriously, the online word is changing at an extraordinary pace, and those of us whose task it is to teach the young are often seriously out of step. The intercultural boundaries between the young and the slightly-older are constantly being redefined, and create barriers with serious implications.

Last week I attended a workshop in the United States in which we were told that young people, including students, no longer much bother with ‘the internet’. For them going online means going on Facebook via their iPhones. If they need anything else, it will be on one of Twitter, Wikipedia or youtube. Some are toying with Foursquare. But the very idea of messing around in the undefined prairies of various dot.coms and whatever it is you do on Outlook or Thunderbird strikes them as totally bizarre, and nerdy in a pipe-and-cardigan-and-slippers sort of way. Owning a PC, to many of them, is like owning a steam threshing machine, and laptops are rapidly going that way also. It’s all on the iPad or other tablet, or their smartphone; or it’s nowhere.

The impact of technology change and convergence is something we now seriously under-estimate. Many institutions are busily trying to upgrade from the day-before-yesterday’s technology to yesterday’s, and the gap may be widening. It’s not just the cost of constant changes, but getting into the mindset of how all this develops.

We can still insist on the use of certain technologies for students. In fact, two US academics at the workshop argued that professors need to lay down the ground rules, and that students ned to deliver their work accordingly. But if our ground rules seem wholly out-of-date as far as the students are concerned, it has implications. For better or for worse, we ned to keep pace with the world in which our students move, and we need to engage with it even when we think it’s going backwards.

It is indeed not always easy to see how intellectual inquiry can thrive in the Facebook world. But in the end, Facebook is just a medium, not a message, and we need to adapt to its idiom. In fact, we must stop always just catching up; we need to be ahead of the curve.


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