Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Wiki War

By John Glaser

Here's an interesting article on higher ed's relationship with Wikipedia from Inside Higher Ed's Steve Kolowich:
Of all the Web 2.0 tools that have become de rigueur on college campuses, wikis fundamentally embody the Internet’s original promise of pooling the world’s knowledge — a promise that resonates loudly in academe.

And yet higher education’s relationship with wikis — Web sites that allow users to collectively create and edit content — has been somewhat hot-and-cold. Wikipedia, the do-it-yourself online encyclopedia, vexed academics early on because of its wild-west content policies and the perception that students were using it as a shortcut to avoid the tedium of combing through more reliable sources. This frustration has been compounded by the fact that attempts to create scholarly equivalents have not been nearly as successful.

However, academe’s disdain for the anarchical site has since softened; a number of professors have preached tolerance, even appreciation, of Wikipedia as a useful starting point for research. As the relationship between higher education and wikis matures, it is becoming clearer where wikis are jibing with the culture of academe, and where they are not.
Every professor to ever assign a paper to me in my four years of college explicitly warned against use of Wikipedia, citing harsh penalties if found out. There was a palpable disdain for it, as if the open-access internet encyclopedia had publicly denounced the incentive structure of tenure policies or something. It is obviously not the end all, be all, and it is no substitute for good old fashion research, but it is a brilliant supplement and a wonderful starting point (just checking the references at the end of each Wiki entry can direct you to everything from credible news sources to peer-reviewed scientific studies). In fact, as the respected science journal Nature concluded years back, Wikipedia is about as accurate as the Encyclopedia Britanica, when it comes to its science pages.

But even this misses the point. Forget Wikipedia specifically. As the tug of war over the relationship between traditional university curriculum and scholarship and educational technology rages on, we should ask ourselves how much further (and more scholastically acceptable) educational technology would progress with the full embrace of the professiorate as well as the school administrators at the top of America's most respected universities. As Steven Kolowich reports,
Anyway, Jones says, the professoriate is too entrenched in traditional publishing to summon much interest in helping curate academic wikis.

“To the extent scholarship in academe is caught up in questions of status, promotion, and tenure,” he says, “then it is slightly misaligned with wiki-style approaches.”

“We’ll probably need one of two things to happen before wikis can take hold in scholarship the same way that they have in teaching and administration,” Jones says. “Either senior, post-promotion faculty will need to lead some successful wiki-based projects, or there will need to be an overhaul in the way we think about publication.”
Alternatives like Scholarpedia, Citizendium, and Google's Scholar and E-book initiatives are ideas in that direction, but the professorial aversion and scorn for all things universal and web-based must first be tempered. As Anya Kamenetz frames it,
Existing institutions don't want to give up their authority, nor their faculty jobs. Even among gung-ho early adopters, there's a divide over basic issues: some see an economic opportunity, while others are eager to spread free education; some want the university to absorb the new information technologies, others see the digital age absorbing the university.
The advantages of so called "E-Learning" are already begining to make themsevles known, even with the remaining resistance. The relationship between the two will be a significant factor in overcomming our current problems.

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