Last week, one of my media course (ed PD) classmates talked about the ongoing struggle to help students make sense of the flood of information online. She cited a negative experience with wikipedia, which resulted in an energetic exchange about the merits (and challenges) with open online content.
It’s not about “authority” nor should it be
As a long time defender of the open web and open content, I wanted to point out that the educational bias towards “authoritative” or “received” sources, though relevant, is also highly political/ideological – especially in relation to emergent sources of knowledge (i.e., Open Content). Ideological in the contexts of: 1) who has access or control of the means of knowledge power and production 2) who endorses or authorizes those voices and 3) “what” forms are accepted as “valid”.
Knowledge power paradigm shifts
The power paradigm shift is not unique to education (see also Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions), it is the source of the crisis in every form of traditional knowledge power – from publishing and media/print news to television and, finally, education – power bases that are currently disintegrating under their inability to evolve from top down to bottom up models (or a healthy blend of both). Things are changing – rapidly. And much of the change concerns shifting power bases. In my view, it’s very simple: adapt or perish (though one can adapt critically and with creativity – adaptation mustn’t be confused with unthinking, mindless adoption).
Scaffolding “open” (is the answer)
To me, the bigger question here is who and what, precisely, are “authoritative” and why? And are the structures supporting their authority really truly agile enough to ensure their relevance (i.e., traditional peer review process v. online – and open – models where hundreds of thousands of people can evaluate and rate a document along with a selected few).
Many of my students are well aware of my issues with the “conspiracy” sites they enjoy visiting. I’ve explained why these sites are bogus – they get that. And they’re familiar with the alternatives – thing is, as a group of marginalised students who have experienced systemic racism and other inequities they distrust a lot of what we might call authority. Problem is, the depth of prior knowledge required to unpack the real reasons for these inequities isn’t easily (or quickly) acquired. And without that prior knowledge, the idea that a few websites could explain it all via an entertaining conspiracy is more appealing. Young people are looking for alternatives — alternatives to old power bases. We must teach inquiry and critical thinking, not deference to “approved” sources.
The issue with wikipedia isn’t credibility or merit, it’s how to effectively use an open source like this. For example, going directly to the “external links” and “notes” sections at the bottom of every wikipedia page, habits of traditional scholarly critique (i.e., checking citations, sources and the end notes – which allows you to discern the bias, depth or quality of research). This way, you, the reader, can go directly to the “legitimate” sources and verify their value or merit for yourself.
Crap detection (doesn’t mean dissing the web)
Teachers (and students) alike need to learn a new literacy. The literacy to “detect crap” online – without simply reproducing old power structures (or dissing emergent, democratic knowledge models). And this is where I turn it over to Howard Rheingold who makes sense of the why and how of crap detection with the most seasoned perspective I’ve seen. From his City Brights blog:
“Unless a great many people learn the basics of online crap detection and begin applying their critical faculties en masse and very soon, I fear for the future of the Internet as a useful source of credible news, medical advice, financial information, educational resources, scholarly and scientific research. Some critics argue that a tsunami of hogwash has already rendered the Web useless. I disagree. We are indeed inundated by online noise pollution, but the problem is soluble. The good stuff is out there if you know how to find and verify it. Basic information literacy, widely distributed, is the best protection for the knowledge commons: A sufficient portion of critical consumers among the online population can become a strong defense against the noise-death of the Internet.
The issue of info pollution has been on my mind since at least 1994, when I wrote “The Tragedy of the Electronic Commons” about the infamous Canter and Siegel – the first Internet spammers. A few years later, I personally confronted the importance of teaching information literacy to 14 year olds when I watched my daughter come of age at the same time online search engines became available. I sat down in front of the circa-1999 computer with my daughter and explained that most of the books she could get from the library could be counted on to be factually accurate. But when you enter words into a search engine, there is no guarantee that your search will lead you to accurate information. “You have to do some investigation before you accept anything you find online,” I warned her.”