Friday, February 15, 2008

Teaching digital literacy

AcademHacK David Parry has an editorial in Science Progress responding to educational institutions banning Wikipedia. He argues that outlawing sites like Wikipedia robs students of much-needed training in using new media.

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.

I particularly enjoyed Parry’s description of the encyclopedia:

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.”

While Parry might be giving “educational and policy institutions” short shrift [subscription needed], I think he is exactly right about encyclopedias. In fact, when I talk with people about Wikipedia, I like to go further and argue that the encyclopedia—the “static collection of facts and figures” Parry describes, which, I would argue, is held by many to be an objective repository of unassailable knowledge—has never existed, and never could exist.

Despite the protestations to the contrary of some encyclopedia creators, the encyclopedia has never been a repository of objective knowledge but is and always has been a situated cultural artifact that can only be reliably counted on to record what counts as knowledge at a particular moment in history. Subsequently, encyclopedias are as prone to error and crimes of omission as any other text, and criticizing Wikipedia for not being a “proper” encyclopedia—again, a thing that has never existed—is a bit like criticizing a horse for not being a unicorn.

That’s why I think Parry’s description of Wikipedia as an “organic” body of knowledge is a much more workable, accurate definition of the encyclopedia than the received definition. While Wikipedia does represent a shift in what counts as knowledge and how that knowledge is to be archived and accessed, the fact of the matter is that the encyclopedia has always been a shifting, living thing; with Wikipedia the technology has caught up to the reality.

There is a downside to this new approach to the encyclopedia, though. Wikipedia is not merely a living, organic body of knowledge, but it is also a democratized body of knowledge. As Parry notes, Wikipedia doesn’t merely provide the settled opinion on a subject, but it also provides “debate and discourse around” that subject. In the case of heavily debated topics like global warming and evolution, that preference for debate has given non-scientific voices a prominence they probably don’t deserve, making it seem that debate exists where it perhaps does not. However, I believe this democratization—where debate is open to the public—is preferable to the old hierarchy, where the authority of publishing is the final arbiter of which knowledge is approved and which is not, for it lends prominence to the rhetorical positioning of knowledge, making rhetorical tools much more important for those who would have their ideas accepted in the commons.

This problem only lends more support to Parry’s argument: that students need to be familiar with this new approach to knowledge ushered in by new media, and scientists and other knowledge workers “will need to posses a new type of collaborative literacy”—one steeped in rhetoric and the techniques for gaining adherence to ideas—in order to disseminate their findings.

No comments: