The Digital Classroom in the Time of Wikipedia

The digital turn in education comes across a wide range of initiatives and processes. The Wikipedia which is the largest user generated content website stands as a figurehead of such a digital turn, writes Nishant Shah.
The Digital Classroom in the Time of Wikipedia

Digital Classroom

Context

The digital turn in education has been described across a wide range of initiatives and processes. These include the introduction of digital tools and gadgets as a part of the learning environment, building digital archives and repositories of learning and curriculum building, facilitating remote access to education through information and communications technologies  infrastructure, improving quality of access to education and learning resources, building diverse and customised syllabi to accommodate for alternative and contesting perspectives, building peer knowledge communities of information and knowledge production, and including non-canonical material and experiences into formal institutions of education. Different locations, contexts, geo-political circumstances, socio-economic factors, and cultural differences influence the spread, rise and integration of digital technologies in mainstream education. Much academic, policy and implementation attention has been given to these processes and several models of new learning environments and infrastructure have been postulated over the last two decades. The democratising promise of internet technologies has been largely if not exclusively about education, learning, literacy and production of knowledge from different parts of the world.

Wikipedia, one of the first and possibly the largest user generated content websites, that aims to put together the ‘sum total of all human knowledge’ in an open encyclopaedia, stands as the figurehead of such a digital turn. It questions and subverts the traditional analogue forms of knowledge production and relationships. The much discussed experiment conducted by Nature (Giles, 2005 and Orlowski, 2006) that established Wikipedia as an almost equal (if not more) reliable source of information to the fountainhead of print-based knowledge Encyclopaedia Britannica, has become the touchstone by which digital collaborative knowledge structures  seek their validity within mainstream classroom pedagogy and learning. Wikipedia itself has emerged as an object of deep scrutiny and contestation, with warring factions going strong about its strengths and weaknesses. The supporters look at how this collaborative peer-to-peer structure has changed knowledge relationships that defined consumers, producers and mediators of knowledge. They see in the rise of Wikipedia, and other such wiki-based structures and user generated content sites that remix, reuse and share knowledge within the digital realm, the potentials and possibilities of changing the futures of knowledge ecologies and economies. The detractors of Wikipedia make a strong case for specialised and expert curatorial practices of knowledge, without which the information explosion of the digital world would collapse all distinctions between speculative writing and rigorous accountable research.

Concerns

In the seemingly unbridgeable differences of these two contesting positions, there is however, a set of common presumptions which remained unquestioned and unchallenged. The example of Wikipedia accordingly serves to throw in sharp relief these more general questions regarding digitally produced knowledge and digitally enabled learning practices.

Design of Trust

The first among them is the concern around Authority and Authorship (Liang, 2010). Increasingly, as Wikipedia becomes a de facto global reference site available in different languages, there is a growing dependence on the authority of information available on Wikipedia. Given that the number of users of Wikipedia is exponentially higher than the number of editors on Wikipedia, there are many users who never confront the structures of participation, processes of editing, and questioning the source of information (Harouni, 2009, Broughton, 2002) found on the site. This is not a problem exclusive to Wikipedia. Given the explosion of user generated sites which often gloss over the problems of authority and authorship, misdirected or misguided information, there is a need for digital criticality which can help people sift through different kinds of information and develop the capacity for effective critical judgment regarding both truth or falsity and rhetorical persuasiveness or manipulation.  Especially within the context of scholarly and academic research and learning, classroom teaching and pedagogy, there is a need to define new parameters by which information introduced in the classroom or learning environment needs to stand deeper scrutiny regarding reliability (over authority).

Flattened Politics

The second concern has to do with the depoliticized perception of participation, collaboration and knowledge production on Wikipedia (Graham, 2010). Not only are geographical counters, experiential knowledges and non-standard forms of citation (Prabhala, 2010) ignored on Wikipedia, but they are also rendered redundant under the guise of objectivity. The essentially viral nature of information online and conditions of easy replicability that allow for copy and paste cultures often means that the information gets de-contextualised and de-politicized from its original intentions and circuits of production/distribution.

In many ways, Wikipedia’s adherence to an encyclopaedic model, promotes the idea that there is universal, objective knowledge which can be produced and understood without engaging with the politics of context, language, translation, evidence, etc. This adoption of an older model of aggregating knowledge becomes problematic in the light of new perspectives and theories of reading and writing, which establish knowledge as a contested terrain rather than the benign site that can be mediated through protocols, bots and procedures (Miller, 2007 and Rosenzweig, 2006). In classrooms, students and teachers are both faced with problems when they encounter the simultaneously authoritative and collaborative, definite and tentative nature of information on Wikipedia. The flattened structure of information further complicates our engagement with the larger contexts it refers to and often hinders the learner’s ability to go beyond the self contained universe of Wikipedia, unable to engage with that which has been omitted or left-out and only concentrating on that what has been written and represented.

Technology as Tool

The third concern marks a larger anxiety with the Web 2.0 technologies and their integration with formal structures of education and learning. It has to do with new configurations of power, recalibrated hierarchies of learning and teaching, and distributed communities of learning which might not often be cohesive and concurrent. With the unqualified emphasis on digital gadgets – OLPC, Smart Boards, iPads – and ubiquitous connectivity, there is often a danger to reducing these structures to sheer functionality. There have been experiments where pedagogues have merely introduced user generated sites as reference material and ways of accessing information without actually looking at how they posit questions to existing education systems. The larger trend of distrusting non-academic spaces continues.

Digital Technology

A lecture on the problems of Wikipedia is immediately followed by a ban on or “policing” of the use of Wikipedia as a reliable resource, trying to create a false and divisive distinction between offline and online learning tools (Davidson, 2007). With the increased focus on ‘Digital Natives’ within education policy and everyday classroom pedagogy, there is a call for changing the existing classroom and replacing it with a digital classroom – a classroom that challenges the teacher-student relationships, the authority of the prescribed curricula, and the form of learning and teaching within college and university structures. The Digital Classroom is often mistaken to be a virtualisation of the contemporary classroom, where virtual presences and cloud-based resources of learning structure the syllabi and the methods of learning. However, the larger anxieties are about rendering the physical classroom digital by establishing new relationships and structures at the levels of curricula design, teaching, learning and evaluation. The need is to look beyond the social media as a tool, and start unpacking the transparency of the digital interface and the perceived non-hierarchical nature of information filtering (Geiger, 2010) on Wikipedia and other such user generated content portals.

Quality of Access

The fourth concern draws from digital internet rhetoric of Do It Yourself. There is a heavy promotion of howthe only thing that stops a student (or anybody who is a learner) from being an intelligent and engaged student is lack of resources. This rhetoric finds bolstering in other political movements like FLOSS and A2K (Willinsky, 2006). There is a presumption that the teacher is merely a proxy for the paucity of resources and that once the students have unlimited access to the ‘sum total of all human knowledge’, they will be able to Learn everything on their own. The DIY University models, the proposition of phasing out teachers and investing in digital infrastructure instead, the idea that the digital native student has instinctive abilities to navigate through knowledge systems (like a fish does to water), all obfuscate not only the traditional learning processes but also reduce all learning to Access.

There is no debate about the quality of access. Even when factual errors are spotted, it is celebrated as an opportunity to improve so that information on Wikipedia is by definition flawed and always potentially in the process of being improved. There is little theorisation of both the role of a teacher in a classroom and the relationship with information access and learning. The presumption that the only gating factor to better education is lack of resources glosses over questions of social and economic disadvantage, political contexts, age, language, race, gender, sexuality, social support, etc., that come into play when designing inclusive education systems. Instead, there is a promotion of fact-based skill-oriented learning that fits the larger neo-liberal agenda of producing workforces who necessarily should not have to be critical in their everyday labours (Achterman, 2005). Universities and colleges are finding increasing pressure to produce students who work within such flat knowledge horizons towards market expansion and promotion of information capitalism rather than a critical learner who is able to deploy lessons learned from education in order to question and change the reality of the conditions within which s/he lives.

Rationale

Given these dramatic measures and accelerated changes happening in academia and within the university systems across the worlds, it is necessary to dwell on what a digital college classroom and learning environment looks like in the time of Wikipedia. A synthesis of perspectives from different stakeholders in varied disciplines, engaging with knowledge production, consumption, distribution and access is necessary to understand what the futures and contours of the university system and classroom pedagogy are. The ambition is to look at Wikipedia as a symptom of our times rather than a site of analyses.

Call for Proposals

This is a call for proposals towards a special Reader, from people who are interested in producing historical and contemporary accounts of relationships between education, technology, learning, and pedagogy in order to map existing crises and questions of our present times. We take the classroom as the unit where different processes and flows of the education system meet. In this context, we invite researchers, academic practitioners, students, artists, new media theorists, education policy actors and historians of knowledge to look at the Digital Classroom in the Time of Wikipedia as an opportunity to question global trends in education and ways by which Wikipedia (and other such structures) can be fruitfully integrated in formal education towards better learning. Proposals can be for producing theoretical accounts, critical analyses, case-studies from one’s practice, review of information and knowledge, narratives of art and activist interventions, regional and local snap-shots, and other innovative forms by which the diverse and complex questions can be elaborated.

Key Questions

Proposals can be inspired by but not limited to some of the questions listed below that we identify as beginning points for engaging with the area:

  1. What does a digital classroom look like? If we had to think beyond just integration of digital tools into the classroom, what are the new models and structures of classrooms (physical, pedagogical, or otherwise) that we are looking at?
  2. What are the new relationships that we are mapping in the time of Wikipedia – student-teacher, teacher-curriculum, student-classroom, student-student, technology-education, pedagogy-learning? How do we account for the shifts and map the transitions?
  3. How do we understand the changing nature and function of the university and education with the rise of the internet? What are the policy and practice visions of the University of the Future?
  4. What does the integration of Wikipedia and similar structures in everyday classroom practice lead to? What does it change and for whom?
  5. What is the role of the teacher in the age of ubiquitous information access? How do we restructure our ideas of pedagogy, learning and evaluation?
  6. What are the historical tensions between technology and education that are being replayed with the rise of the digital?
  7. What does the rise of Wikipedia mean for our traditional understandings of data repositories? What are the politics and implications of Wikimedia’s other projects on Alternative Citation, Wikipictures, GLAM, etc. on the larger knowledge ecology and industry?

References:

  1. Achterman, D. (2005). “Surviving Wikipedia: Improving student search habits through information literacy and teacher collaboration”, Knowledge Quest, 33(5), 38−40.
  2. Davidson, C. (2007). “We can’t ignore the influence of digital technologies”, Education Digest, 73(1), 15−18.
  3. Geiger, S. (2011). “The Lives of Bots”, Critical Point of View A Wikipedia Reader (Eds.) Geert Lovink and Nathaniel Tkacz. Institute of Network Cultures : Amsterdam.
  4. Giles, J. (2005). “Internet encyclopedias go head to head”, Nature, 438(7070), 900−901.
  5. Graham, M. (2011). “Wiki Space: Palimpsests and the Politics of Exclusion”, Critical Point of View A Wikipedia Reader (Eds.) Geert Lovink and Nathaniel Tkacz. Institute of Network Cultures : Amsterdam.
  6. Harouni, H. (2009). “High School Research and Critical Literacy: Social Studies with and Despite Wikipedia”, Harvard Educational Review, 79 (3), 473-494.
  7. Liang, L. (2011). “A brief History of the Internet from the 15th to the 18th Century”, Critical Point of View A Wikipedia Reader (Eds.) Geert Lovink and Nathaniel Tkacz. Institute of Network Cultures : Amsterdam.
  8. Miller, N. (2007). “Wikipedia revisited” ETC: A Review of General Semantics, 64(2), 147−150.
  9. Orlowski, A. (2006, March 26). Nature mag cooked Wikipedia study, The Register. Retrieved December 17, 2011, from http://www.theregister.co.uk/2005/10/18/wikipedia_quality_problem/
  10. Prabhala, A. (2011). People Are Knowledge. Documentary retrieved from December 17, 2011 from http://vimeo.com/26469276.
  11. Rosenzweig, R. (2006). “Can history be open source? Wikipedia and the future of the past” Journal of American History, 93(1), 117–146.
  12. Willinsky, J. (2006). The Access Principle: The Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship. MIT Press :Massachusetts.
    Collaborators: Dr. David Theo Goldberg, University of California Humanities Research Institute and Claudia Sullivan, Digital Media and Learning Initiative, HASTAC.
    Photo source: Flickr (Creative Commons-licensed content for noncommercial use requiring attribution and share alike distribution).

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