The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age, or Why this Professor Loves Wikipedia


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As the fifth in a series of reports commissioned by the MacArthur Foundation to explore digital media and learning, “The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age” examines how institutions of learning (from K-12 to universities and beyond) have changed–or, more precisely, failed to change–in light of the new affordances for shared and interactive learning made possible by the Internet and the wide-range of collaborative digital tools.  The report, written by Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg, the co-founders of HASTAC, has been published by MIT Press and will form the basis of a larger book.  Earlier versions of the report were made available on the blogging engine, Commentpress, and the final report engages the rich conversations of more than 300 contributors, who commented on the blog and/or participated in various symposia.

The argument rests on the observation that institutions of higher learning are remarkably unchanged since their inception in the Medieval period.  They are still physically and intellectually sequestered places, often with highly guarded archives and libraries, where admitted students engage with professors in a rigidly hierarchical setting in order to learn the rules and structures of knowledge of increasingly specialized fields and subdomains.  As Michel Foucault, the late French philosopher of discursive systems, argued in his inaugural address at the College de France, “The Discourse on Language” (1970), the production of knowledge at such institutions has always been tightly “controlled, selected, organized, and redistributed” according to systems of inclusion and exclusion, procedures that codify what is and isn’t knowledge, and institutions of support that enable and promote truthful utterances (whether the book-system, publishing, the tenure and promotion system, etc). It is, by and large, a self-enclosed, circular system in which knowledge is handed down from generation to generation, doled out from expert to student.  The problem, as Davidson and Goldberg argue, is that learning institutions are acting “as if the world has not suddenly, irrevocably,  cataclysmically, epistemically changed” (19).  What happens when anyone or perhaps everyone can create, curate, publish, share, and interact with knowledge using the most basic tools of digital media (say, this blog or YouTube)?

What if Wikipedia–rather than facilely dismissed, as is so often the case–was taken seriously as a new learning institution: A multilingual, global, and collaborative knowledge-generating community and platform for authoring, vetting, distributing, and versioning knowledge.  It could, in fact, be a model for rethinking institutions of higher learning, which are all-too-often fixated on “individual training, discrete disciplines, and isolated achievement and accomplishment” (14).  Not only would we have to rethink how knowledge gets created, but we would also have to rethink who gets to create knowledge, how it gets legitimated and authorized, and how it is made accessible to the whole world (rather than just a select community of scholars, those who Foucault sardonically calls “fellowships of discourse”).

In so doing, Davidson and Goldberg argue for the vitality and flexibility of open networks for knowledge creation and distribution that place a primacy on process, collaboration, access, interaction, and creativity.  Indeed, this is the time for bold, visionary thought, if learning institutions are to have a future that is not a conservation of their past and a one-way ticket to 21st century irrelevance.  Wikipedia is a model for this kind of new learning and could even be held up as a banner for what the future of learning institutions can be (ie, global, open, multilingual, collabarative, virtual, and iterative).  This is why I encourage my students to use it–that is, consult it, contribute to it, try it out in different languages, analyze the processes of versioning and editing, critically interrogate the content of the articles and make them better based on their own fields of expertise and knowledge.  Wikipedia may turn out to be the most comprehensive, representative, and pervasive participatory platform for knowledge production ever created by humankind.  Indeed, every teacher should be inspired by this.

  1. #1 by meg on July 9th, 2009

    Call me naive, but I still cannot get over the fact that we’re *having* this discussion. I’m not dismissing the point by any means; I’m just sad that it needs to be made — and in 2009, for that matter. Gah.

  2. #2 by Todd Presner on July 9th, 2009

    Agreed, Meg. We’re having this discussion (and need to keep having it) because things have barely started to change. How many institutions are even recognizing blog publishing as part of the review process for tenure/promotion? We are still fixated on print media (academic articles and books) and the culture of authority that this medium has slowly calcified over several hundred years. Beyond that, how have institutions themselves changed — I mean, a serious and radical rethinking of accreditation, degrees, disciplines, departments, expertise, knowledge production and dissemination, pedagogy, and community/civic engagement through digital tools and technologies? Wikipedia is in some ways a lone example — but it’s compelling because it isn’t part of university or traditional knowledge community (library, archive, museum, etc). And it’s wrongly dismissed over and over again as anti-intellectual or sophomoric. It’s so much more about the process — what it enables — than the specific content. Alas, there is, as you point out (sadly), more work to be done…

  3. #3 by Ewan Branda on July 10th, 2009

    To mitigate the standard warnings on Wikipedia that instructors are obliged to issue to students I always stress that we don’t have to look as far as these kinds of radical differences from traditional book-scholarship to find its virtues. To me it succeeds where its critics claim it fails: reliability. The more print-based “scholarly” sources I read the more mistakes I am surprised to find. Under the eyes of hundreds (often more) stakeholders a Wikipedia article has good odds of being accurate (sometimes). Not surprisingly I have found that the best articles are neither on very common topics (too many uninformed opinions) nor on very obscure ones (too few critical readers) but on topics obscure to the Wikipedia user base as a whole but commonplace to a narrow expert community..

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