Wikipedia challenges us to adopt a pedagogy of questions

Notes from David White’s talk at Wikimania 2014


David White wants to know: will you be staying here long, in the internet?

This is the question he posed back in 2008 when, as part of his research at the University of Oxford, he attempted to articulate a better taxonomy of web users than the “digital native”/ “digital immigrant” distinction used so glibly and so often around that time. These terms referred to whether an individual had been of a certain age before the mid-1990s, when the web and mobile devices started taking off. The age has always been ill-defined, but it was trying to connect the general concept of “awareness of a world before the web, email, mobile phones etc.” and “comfort at using digital media and tools now”.

David concluded that to find a meaningful distinction, it was less useful to think in terms of ages and skills, more about attitudes. In particular, he identified a distinction between those who see the web as a place to “inhabit” and those who see it as just a bunch of tools. People would, by this interpretation, be either “residents” or “visitors” to the internet (or, of course, something in between).

(Incidentally, I see a parallel, if unrelated distinction play out frequently when it comes to people’s conceptions of social media — most see them as communication channels or perhaps a source of information — just a bunch of tools — whereas to me and a minority of others, their real strength lies in the connections you make, the information merely being the currency of the medium. Social media are, in other words, a place to inhabit.)

Today, I listened to David give a talk at Wikimania 2014. This eclectic event at The Barbican Centre in London revolves around Wikipedia and its role in society (or something like that, it’s a little imprecise). I’m particularly interested in the education streams as I began working for an organisation recently that runs a number of schools.

David’s talk focused on the broad issue of Wikipedia’s relevance to educational institutions such as schools and universities. It’s no secret that teachers and educationalists essentially see Wikipedia as somewhere between a joke and a threat. There have been many claims by institutions to be taking a fresh approach, but the gap persists between those who use Wikipedia (everyone, basically), those who admit it (geeks), those who love it (Wikipedia editors and a few others) and those in academia.

David wants us to accept three things:

  1. Students use Wikipedia anyway, so teachers need to accept that it exists and teach accordingly
  2. Failure to disclose this use fosters a “learning black market”
  3. Education as equipping students to find answers becomes redundant, while this black market exists

His solution is twofold:

  1. Admit Wikipedia exists, is used, is excellent, and makes answer-seeking redundant
  2. Recognise that education is about questions, not answers

He also, in a nice addendum, suggested that creating, editing and improving Wikipedia pages would be a far better assignment for a student than tests or essays. There was a murmour of nervousness here in the hall as all the Wikipedia editors felt the fragile walls of their world bulge inwards momentarily. But then it was all OK again.

One addendum of my own: from what I heard today, the International Baccalaureate is on to something in its structure and direction regarding questions instead of answers. The key is putting the power of enquiry into the hands of students and helping them realise, through their units of enquiry, connections such as that between a question and the real world, the connection between a question and many possible answers, the connection between evidence and fact, the connection between truth and falsehood and all the other connections that arise when you start with thinking about what the question is in the first place. Incidentally, I’m not saying the English national curriculum is not on the same path — I don’t feel I fully understand this yet. With that in mind, here’s a great post outlining some of the differences between the two by head of Bromsgrove School in the UK, Chris Edwards (hat tip to Ben, my boss, for spotting this).

Last point: When I shared the following notes with Ben, he found an interesting parallel between Wikipedia and academia on the one hand, and knowledge and understanding on the other. In his words, he speculated that perhaps “Wikipedia is about knowledge, education is about understanding”. He also made me see a distinction between the emergent motivations of Wikipedia and the commercially-motivated ones of academia (controversial, perhaps?). Finally, there may also be a nice parallel between the hyperlink structure of Wikipedia and the educational approach of the International Baccalaureate — start here, get there, but find your own path. Again, this may be true also of the English national curriculum, I’m not certain.

Anyway, here’s the notes I made during David’s talk — I hope they make sense.

My notes on David’s talk, with some photos

3pm Saturday 9 August, 2014
Why does the education sector laugh at Wikipedia? Why is it that if you mention Wikipedia in the classroom, you get laughed at?
Even when we all know that all students use Wikipedia. All the time.
The learning black market. Learners are not making it clear to their educational institutions that they are using Wikipedia and other non-traditional sources (for the reasons above). Educational establishments are not having a conversation about that.
In the drive to gather all the knowledge in Wikipedia, you have a huge impact on the education system, and on epistemological investigation. What makes someone an expert? In the education world, experts might be “anyone who’s paid by a university”. But the issue of credibility becomes far more complex if people are undertaking small amounts of niche but relevant research during their editing of Wikipedia.

The system whereby universities and educational establishments reject Wikipedia because “anyone could write that” may have a point, but if so, it’s a tiny one. After all, the same argument can be levelled against any website, journal or other publication. The only thing that prevents “anyone” from writing in an academic a journal too often seems to boil down to the fact that the author is paid by a university. In fact, what we’re really trying to get to here is credibility.

So why is Wikipedia not credible, and in particular, why is it not credible in the context of the university-academic system?

Are we facing a crisis of credibility, where it’s getting harder to say for sure that a source or piece of information is credible at all? (On a personal note, the social media information coming out of Ukraine earlier this year and Gaza in the more recent past have certainly stretched the definition of credibility. As governments, agencies and interested groups have slammed the social media sphere with information, there’s little time to understand the credibility-chains, or suchlike, that should be helped by things like validated accounts and the transparent retweet system. These systems fall down if it turns out credibility and objectivity are completely unrelated concepts, which in terms of geopolitics, they essentially are.)

Why no-one loves Wikipedia

So why is Wikipedia not considered to be a credible source by many of those people who spend time online and are otherwise digitally savvy? This is an interesting question, because you’d think that Wikipedia would have credibility with at least one of these two audiences.

One possible source of this twin lack of credibility ventured by David is that Wikipedia falls between the two ends of his visitor-resident model. In his model, the visitors drop in, read something, go away. Residents leave a social trace, engage, interact, build reputation over time, gain value and therefore have self-interested reasons to consider what they say/write.

Look! It’s my model from 2008

Wikipedia does not fit with this model. It is less obvious who people are — trading in edits, rather than personal identifiers. Perhaps Wikipedia fails in the credibility game because it fits neither into the web culture or the education culture. As a matter of fact, the audience sniggered so loudly at this point that David elected to move quickly on!
Now looking at other possible sources for the lack of credibility. David cites a famous flow chart (see the picture below), much loved by Wikipedians, that helps you know when to follow the rules, break the rules, or break the rule that says you need to follow the rules.

David White trying to choose whether to break the rules or not…

The argument he makes, I think, is that any system where rule-breaking is this overtly supported, must lack the kind of credibility required by academia. (Actually, I suspect strongly that this isn’t what David meant — I’d love to know what he was getting at here Update: see note on the right for David’s clarification). For me, at any rate, this is a non-sequitur. I see no reason that rule breaking should be inconsistent with credibility. In fact, the transparency involved here would surely be a credibility-enhancer?

Perhaps Wikipedia’s credibility issue stems from the dictum that “anyone can change Wikipedia”. No, argues David, this is a red herring. It’s actually not, in any really simple way, true that “anyone can change Wikipedia”, at least not unnoticed. There are plenty of checks and balances, watch lists and wary editors and it would be really hard mendaciously to edit something significant for any period of time and get away with it.

Finally, David reaches what he thinks is the real reason for the gap between the academic world and Wikipedia — and it turns out to be more about conceptions of education than of Wikipedia.

“We often ask our students, if you could have anything to help you in your education, what would it be?” says David. The most common answer is something like “perfect Google”. This would be Google, where you know that the top result is correct.

Perfect Google: where you know the top answer is correct

Think about “perfect Google” in the context of an academic approach to research. Academics, like David, would say research follows a path something like this:

  1. find multiple sources
  2. analyse them critically
  3. synthesise them into a cogent argument

The “perfect Google” argument essentially says that students would prefer not to have to do this thinking.
And clearly, this is in opposition to the education culture.

Learning as finding questions

So finally, we get to a point where we can understand why academics don’t much like Wikipedia: it is, essentially, too good. It makes finding information too easy. It takes away a necessary skill. It is not to do with the chunks of information on the site: it is rather to do with the loss of ontology in the student’s enquiry entailed by Wikipedia. You no longer need to understand the system of knowledge in order to find the information you need, when you need it. The cartography required to build a map of understanding is lost. Remember: the nodes are not important; the connections are. In a world of “perfect Google” or — let’s say — Wikipedia, the nodes become all there is.

What’s the difference between learning and getting an answer?

Many students will find an answer on Wikipedia, but they won’t learn anything. Right? No, says David. We can reach a starkly different conclusion:

“If the answer to the homework you’ve set is a Wikipedia page then you need to change the way you teach,” he says. The part of this statement doing a lot of work is the word “answer”. Education is no longer concerned with answers.

Education is concerned with questions.

What needs to happen next

David proposed some of the things that could help to narrow the gap between the worlds of education and Wikipedia.

First, he argues, the education system has to admit the way Wikipedia exists, and engage with it — influence the way it works. (Personally, I think this is so true as to be mildly embarrassing to the teachers of the world — if you don’t think Wikipedia is very good, rewrite it, for goodness’ sake!)
Second, and most substantially, educationalists have to shift from a pedagogy of answers to a pedagogy of questions. There’s no point setting work to find answers, where the answer has already been written on Wikipedia. Education needs to be about the questions. This needs to become the way we educate 7–10 year olds, not wait until final undergraduate year.

We have to move to a pedagogy of questions

David proposes programmes to get students to improve Wikipedia pages as an assigned activity are of more value, potentially, than writing essays (some links relating to this at the bottom of this post). This type of assignment would challenge students to consider what constitutes a fact, how to verify facts, how to test theories uncovered by research. It pushes against the culture of “think less, find more”, or of the “perfect Google”.

Educators often think of the web as being like a huge, chaotic library. But it is not. Everyone can get involved. This is essential to Wikipedia, but has not been to education.
David’s conclusion was simple:

Wikipedia is not a threat to the education system — it is a massive gift. It allows teachers to stop trying to cram answers into people’s heads, and instead to teach them to think.

Talk by David White, Head of Technology Enhanced Learning at UAL

If you were interested in David’s talk, recommend and share this post — I’ve no doubt both education and Wikipedia would benefit from a more honest, open relationship.