Sunday, June 6, 2010

What is Social Knowledge? Does it Have An Academic Role?

By Susan Codone

David Weinberger, a technology blogger, describes Wikipedia content as “social knowledge” in his book
Everything is Miscellaneous: the Power of the New Digital Disorder (2007). It’s true that Wikipedia thrives on collecting and organizing socially-produced and vetted content. As professors, many of us disdain such information. Why? While we wall off our scholarly world from the advance of social knowledge, many of us  at the same time are instructional adherents of constructivism, where the creation of socially constructed knowledge through experience is highly valued and considered to be authentic and retained longer in long-term memory because of its richer meaning. Is there a disparity here?

There are several websites collecting and organizing socially constructed information:Veropedia (currently down), Citizendium, Wikipedia, and Google Knol. Wikipedia has survived and is very successful largely due to its depth and peer reviewing feature, in which (usually) experts comment on each article and “approve” its content. There are many examples of Wikipedia articles that have been thoroughly and exhaustively vetted by experts in the field. Because some articles exist with errors, and some articles are changed by content vandals, many academics dismiss Wikipedia and its competitors from consideration as viable sources of academic knowledge.

Jeff Maehre, a reference and instruction librarian at Frostburg State University, offers a recent thought-provoking article about using social knowledge in academic writing and how we may need to grasp a new paradigm about what information is acceptable even within rules of traditionally accepted academic rigor.

His article, “What it Means to Ban Wikipedia – an Exploration of the Pedagogical Principles at Stake”, written in the fall of 2009 and published in College Teaching, offers professors compelling arguments for teaching students to evaluate and use social knowledge in the process of becoming a researcher and writer. Maehre poses this pedagogical question – is it better to teach students how to recognize an academic article or how to evaluate good information, no matter what its source?

In my university, we offer a junior level technical writing course in which students write feasibility reports comparing 3 or more technologies or innovations and then recommending one for use. Most of these students are studying engineering, and the technologies they examine are often not “academic” in nature; some are so new that they have very little available documentation. Because we want the report to be engineering-based but academically sound, we ask them to find peer-reviewed scholarly articles about their topic. What if their topic is the processor chip to be used in the newest, fastest computers? In this example, they are hard-pressed to find academic sources that relate exactly to their topic. While this information may be “socially” available, we often tell them that the quality of the content of most websites is debatable and Wikipedia may be full of errors. Where should they turn?

Maehre would say that in my example, we teach students how to recognize an academic, peer reviewed document as part of a directive action with rules – use 5 peer reviewed articles in your reference list along with correct APA style. At the same time, we often tell students to stay away from using websites and sources like Wikipedia and Google Knol. What if we taught students how to evaluate good information – using basic information literacy techniques – to make source choices more widely?

The University of Idaho Information Literacy Portal says that: “Information Literacy is the ability to identify what information is needed, understand how the information is organized, identify the best sources of information for a given need, locate those sources, evaluate the sources critically, and share that information. It is the knowledge of commonly used research techniques.” Maehre poses this question – what happens if we teach students information literacy skills and then make them responsible for the quality of their references? The University of Idaho doesn’t say that Wikipedia is bad and academic journals are good – it says that we should evaluate sources critically and share that information. Would students be better served by learning such skills to make content quality decisions themselves?

A paradigm changes when a new way of doing things proves superior to the old ways. Many of us, including me, have been stuck in an old content gathering paradigm. Maybe it’s time we open our toolkit to teach students how to use the tools of information literacy and critical evaluation to widen the pool of information available, especially that of social knowledge. If we don’t, we may be left behind.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this essay, Susan. You've looked at my essay with a lot of care, and that's very satisfying to me. Best of wishes in all your teaching endeavors.