Thursday, October 21, 2010

University of the future?

An amusing example of Web 2.0 nonsense, byJim Barber, vice-chancellor of the University of New England, is being discussed all over Web 2.0. It's the usual stuff. Wikipedia is 10 years old, it's full of 'user-generated content', Encyclopedia Britannica has lost the battle, Wikipedia has 10 million articles, reference to the 'Nature' article which apparently showed Wikpedia was more accurate than Britannica, open-courseware movement, blah blah.

Barber suggests "we could start by dispensing altogether with the term lecturer", and that "with the recent arrival of web 2.0 technologies and the imminent arrival of the National Broadband Network, social interaction is no longer constrained by space and time."
Universities that continue to regard user-generated knowledge as inferior to
that of experts and treat technology as an adjunct to genuine learning will find
it increasingly difficult to compete with the new virtual institutions that
offer open courseware without the capital-intensive overheads that campus-based,
proprietorial education imposes.
This is nonsense. As I have argued in a series of posts over the last two months, Wikipedia is not designed to produce 'user-generated knowledge'. It is a tertiary source reflecting information in secondary sources generated by subject-matter experts - indeed, century-old subject-matter experts. Wikipedia is not putting the academic world out of business.

But who is Wikipedia putting out of work? To understand this, and to understand the truth about 'user-generated knowledge', you could do no better than to read Joseph McCabe's excellent discourse on how encyclopedias are actually written (he is referring to Columbia encyclopedia, not Wikipedia):
But let me say at once that this encyclopedia [i.e. Columbia] has certainly one
distinction, though it does not boast of it. It has more ladies than men on the
list of its editorial and writing staff, 31 females and 28 males. We, of course,
applaud their bold vindication of the new equality of the sexes; or we would
applaud if we could take it as proof that the majority of experts on the many
subjects discussed are now feminine. Unfortunately, we cannot infer that if we
know the technique of creating an encyclopedia. A number of real experts are
paid handsomely to write and sign lengthy articles on subjects of which they are
masters, and the bulk of the work is copied from earlier encyclopedias by a
large number of "Penny-a- liners." None of the articles in the Columbia are
signed. You might infer from this that all articles are written by experts, but
we shall have reason, presently, to doubt this.

Doesn't that remind you of Wikipedia? The bulk of the genuinely encyclopedic content in Wikipedia is copied and pasted from other sources. Indeed, from 100-year old sources, as I have argued in earlier posts. At least traditional encyclopedias plagiarise more recent sources (I have an amusing example of that here)! and at least traditional encyclopedias have lengthy articles by masters of the subject, whereas Wikipedia has practically nothing.

See also the insightful essay by the late Roy Rosenzweig, writing in the The Journal of American History June 2006 about whether history can be open source. It was written four years ago, but his observations about Wikipedia then are true now, even down to the fact that the article Cultural history of the United States was a stub then and is a stub now - with the odd result that a Google search on 'cultural history of the United States' returns the article #1 on the search, even though there is nothing in it, apart from one banal sentence.

Will Wikipedia put professional historians out of business? asks Rosenzweig. No. "Good historical writing requires not just factual accuracy but also a command of the scholarly literature, persuasive analysis and interpretations, and clear and engaging prose. He puts his finger on why subjects like history (and, I would argue, philosophy) are so difficult for Wikipedia to get right. Broad synthetic writing is not easily done collaboratively. Good historical writing requires not just factual accuracy but also a command of the scholarly literature, persuasive analysis and interpretations, and clear and engaging prose. Exactly the same is true of philosophy, and more so.
Overall, writing is the Achilles' heel of Wikipedia. Committees rarely write
well, and Wikipedia entries often have a choppy quality that results from the
stringing together of sentences or paragraphs written by different people. Some
Wikipedians contribute their services as editors and polish the prose of
different articles. But they seem less numerous than other types of volunteers.
Few truly gifted writers volunteer for Wikipedia. Encarta, while less
comprehensive than Wikipedia, generally offers better—especially, more concise—
And the bottom line, in any case, is that students are not supposed to rely on any kind of encyclopedia.
Most readers of this journal have not relied heavily on encyclopedias since
junior high school days. And most readers of this journal do not want their
students to rely heavily on encyclopedias—digital or print, free or
subscription, professionally written or amateur and collaborative—for research
papers. One Wikipedia contributor noted that despite her "deep appreciation for
it," she still "roll[s her] eyes whenever students submit papers with Wikipedia
as a citation." "Any encyclopedia, of any kind," wrote another observer, "is a
horrible place to get the whole story on any subject." Encyclopedias "give you
the topline"; they are "the Reader's Digest of deep knowledge." Fifty years ago,
the family encyclopedia provided this "rough and ready primer on some name or
idea"; now that role is being played by the Internet and increasingly by

1 comment:

William of Ware said...

You might want to check this unfortunate development on Wikipedia and the left.

Here's how it begins "Prominent gender and media studies professors from across the country converged recently to help host what was dubbed by organizers as a “Feminist, Anti-Racist Wikipedia Edit-a-thon” to create or influence dozens of entries on the online encyclopedia."

Read the rest here: