First New Year Blog — In Defense of Wikipedia

The Wikipedia, a collaborative, open source, online encyclopedia, has been greatly talked about in the discussion spaces and traditional media. Mostly condemned for its supposed lack of accuracy (compared to traditional publication), the wiki-based information source boosts nearly 900,000 articles in English alone, with more topics defined in more than 50 other languages (the ones with character sets my computer could display).

I believe that this Wikipedia is exactly what we need right now.

More about that later.

We do have a problem, though. But it is not a problem that will be solved by erecting barriers to protect our students from information that has not been approved. Our problem is that we now live in a society that demands full literacy. The model of literacy that has driven schooling for the last many decades does a pretty good job of teaching sufficient numbers of students to consume content (read) and perform mathematical operations on a limited quantity of numbers (arithmetic). We were taught some writing, but the emphasis was on reading and math (NCLB).

Being able to function, contribute, and prosper in this new information environment — more conversation than library — requires full literacy, the ability to interact within that information environment in a way that adds value. It means expanding our notions of literacy beyond reading the text on the paper in front of you. It means being able to expose truth within the information that surrounds you. Students must learn to:

  • Find information appropriate to their needs
  • Decode the information regardless of its format or medium
  • Evaluate the information in order to determine its value
  • Organize valuable information into personal digital libraries

Full literacy goes way beyond being able to perform mathematical operations with a dozen numbers on a piece of paper. It means being able to employ information that can come as thousands of numbers, regardless of what they look like. They may be numbers. They may also be the bits and bytes of text, images, sound, animation, or video. We must know how to process all of this information to add value.

Communication is key to accomplishing almost any goal today, and communication goes way beyond being able to write a coherent paragraph. If students can not express ideas compellingly with text, images, sound, animation, video, and any remixed combination of these, then that student is not literate.

Finally, full literacy happens only when information participants work within an ethical context that recognizes and puts into practice that it is we who must protect the information; it’s reliability, its ownership, and the infrastructure that it rides on.

We live in a time of rapid change, where we are faced with new questions, new problems, and new goals. We need the Wikipedia and this conversational web because the solutions to new situations do not necessarily come from credentialled authorities who owe their position to what they were taught ten years ago. New answers will come from something that somebody said yesterday, from her living room, on another continent. New answers and new solutions will come less from what we’ve been taught. Instead, they’ll come from our experiences, and our ability to reflect on those experiences, mix and remix them into something valuable, and contribute our conclusions and insights to our global neighbors.

Our challenge is much greater than simply blocking off our classrooms. Instead, we need to, “Hack the school! Hack the Classroom! Hack the Curriculum!”.

2¢ Worth