The following is based on the keynote lecture which I presented on Monday at the National Media Education Conference in Saint Louis. A more polished version of this talk will eventually appear in the media literacy journal, The Journal of Media Literacy, but I am offering this in a rawer, less processed form now in hopes of getting some more feedback from my readers and also of making this available to the conference attendees. Watch for a notice here later this summer when the exemplar about Wikipedia goes on line.
n Fall 2006, Vermont’s Middlebury College found itself the center of a national controversy when its history department took a public stand against students referencing Wikipedia in their research papers. The ban had been inspired by one faculty member’s discovery that a large number of his students were making the same factual error (dealing with the role of Jesuits during the Shimabara Rebellion in 17th century Japan) which could be traced back to a bit of misinformation found in one entry of the online encyclopedia. Despite the publicity that surrounded it, the statement was scarcely a condemnation of Wikipedia:
Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia, publicly supported the Middlebury History Department’s decision:
Wales’s analogy between Wikipedia and “Rock’n’Roll” suggests that the Wikipedia debate has also become emblematic of the divide separating the generation that grew up in a world where digital and mobile technologies are commonplace from their parents, teachers, and school administrators for whom many of these technologies still feel alien. As Jonathan Fanton, president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, wrote in an op-ed piece published on the eve of this conference,
“The real gap between tomorrow’s digital haves and have-nots will be a lag in competence and confidence in the fast-paced variegated digital universe building and breeding outside schoolhouse walls…. Today’s digital youth are in the process of creating a new kind of literacy; this evolving skill extends beyond the traditions of reading and writing into a community of expression and problem- solving that not only is changing their world but ours, too… In this new media age, the ability to negotiate and evaluate information online, to recognize manipulation and propaganda and to assimilate ethical values is becoming as basic to education as reading and writing.”
Responding to these challenges, the MacArthur Foundation has committed 50 million dollars over the next five years to support research which will help us understand the informal learning which takes place as children interact within the new media landscape and how we might draw on the best practices that emerge from these new participatory cultures as we redesign school and after-school programs. I was part of a team of MIT based researchers which drafted a white paper that accompanied the MacArthur announcement and sought to identify some of the core social skills and cultural competencies that young people need to acquire if they are going to be full participants in this new media environment. And I am the principle investigator for Project nml, a MacArthur funded effort to develop resources to support the teaching of these skills through in school and after school programs. As it happens, we are just now completing a documentary about the Wikipedia movement and an accompanying curricular guide. This documentary is one of a number of short films produced for online distribution through the Project nml exemplar library.
Here, I will draw on the interviews and research behind the documentary to explore what Wikipedia (and the debate around it) might tell us about the new media literacies. Through looking more closely at what young people need to know about Wikipedia, I hope to suggest some of the continuities (and differences) between this emerging work on New Media Literacies and the kinds of concerns that have occupied the Media Literacy community over the past few decades.
THE NEW MEDIA LITERACIES
According to a recent study from the Pew Center for Internet & American Life, more than half of all teens have generated media content and roughly a third of teens online have shared content they produced with others. In many cases, these teens are actively involved in what we are calling participatory cultures. A participatory culture is one where there are relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, where there is strong support for creating and sharing what you create with others, where there is some kind of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced gets passed along to newbies and novices, where members feel that their contributions matter, where members feel some degree of social connection with each other at least to the degree to which they care what other people think about what they have created.
A growing body of scholarship suggests potential benefits of these emergent forms of participatory culture, including opportunities for peer-to-peer learning, a changed attitude towards intellectual property, the diversification of cultural expression, the development of skills valued in the modern workplace, and a more empowered conception of citizenship. Access to this participatory culture functions as a new form of the hidden curriculum, shaping which kids will succeed and which will be left behind as they enter schools and workplaces.
Not all of these skills are dramatically new — they are extensions on or elaborations of aspects of traditional research methods, text-based literacies, and critical analysis that have long been valued within formal education. In some cases, these skills have taken on new importance as young people move into emerging media institutions and practices. In some cases, these new technologies have enabled shifts in how we as a society produced, dissect, and circulate information. Those interested in reviewing the full framework should download the report.
While some have argued that these new media skills represent the different mindsets of “digital natives and digital immigrants”, that analogy breaks down for us on several levels. First, the participatory cultures we are describing are ones where teens and adults interact but with less fixed and hierarchical relations than found in formal education. It is a space where youth and adults learn from each other, but it would be wrong to see young people as creating these new institutions and practices totally outside of engagement with adults. Second, the “digital natives” analogy implies that these skills are uniformly possessed by all members of this generation; instead, young people have unequal access to the technologies and cultural practices out of which these skills are emerging and so we are facing a growing participation gap in terms of familiarity with basic tools or core cultural competencies.
Even if we see young people as acquiring some of these skills on their own, outside of formal educational institutions, there’s still a strong role for adults to play in insuring that young people develop a critical vocabulary for thinking about the place of media in their lives and engage in meaningful reflection about the ethical choices they make as media producers and participants in online communities. While the MacArthur researchers take serious youth innovations through media and respect the meaningful role that these experiences play in young people’s social and cultural lives, they also value what teachers, parents, librarians, youth workers, and others bring to the conversation. We want to help these adults respond to the changing circumstances young people face in a period of prolonged and profound media change. It is our belief that these new media literacies need to inform all aspects of the educational curriculum; they represent a paradigm shift in how we teach English, social science, science, math, and the other schoolroom subjects. If these skills are going to reach every American young people, it is going to require the active participation of collaboration of all of those individuals and institutions who impact young people’s moral, intellectual, social, and cultural development.
Our initial report raised three core concerns, which suggest the need for policy and pedagogical interventions:
1. The Participation Gap — the unequal access of youths to the opportunities, experiences, skills, and knowledge which will prepare them for full participation in the world of tomorrow.
2. The Transparency Problem — The challenges young people face in learning to see clearly the ways that media shapes our perceptions of the world.
3. The Ethics Challenge — The breakdown of traditional forms of professional training and socialization which might prepare young people for their increasingly public roles as media makers and community participants.
Educators need to work together to insure that every American young person has access to the skills and experiences needed to become a full participant, has the ability to articulate their understanding of the way that media shapes our perceptions of the world, and has been socialized into the emerging ethical standards which should shape their practices as media makers and participants in online communities.
This context places new emphasis on the need for schools and afterschool programs to foster what we are calling the new media literacies — a set of cultural competencies and social skills which young people need as they confront the new media landscape. Participatory culture shifts the focus of literacy training from individual expression onto community involvement: the new literacies are almost all social skills which have to do with collaboration and networking.Just as earlier efforts at media literacy wanted to help young people to understand their roles as media consumers and producers, we want to help young people better understand their roles as participants in this emerging digital culture.
In the discussion of Wikipedia that follows, I am going to be emphasizing four of the eleven skills we identify in our report:
Collective Intelligence — the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others towards a common goal.
Judgment — the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information source.
Networking — the ability to search for, synthesize and disseminate information.
Negotiation — the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative sets of norms.
Many educators express concern about young people’s increased reliance on Wikipedia as a resource for their homework assignments and research projects. These teachers worry that youth aren’t developing an appropriate level of skepticism about the kinds of information found on this particular site. There are legitimate concerns about the credibility of online information and the breakdown of traditional notions of expertise which should be debated. Our documentary project, and this article, reflects our assumption that these vital debates need to be shaped by a clearer picture of the Wikipedia movement. Our ultimate goal is not to convince you to use Wikipedia in your classes, but rather to argue that in a world where many young people are turning to this as a key source for information, educators need to understand what is going on well enough to offer them meaningful advice and guidance.
Much as educators responded to the debates in the 1990s about “political correctness” and multiculturalism by arguing that we should “teach the debate,” today’s educators should help young people to understand competing arguments about the value of Wikipedia. In this context,
it is not enough to construct policies restricting the use of Wikipedia as a source if we don’t help foster the skills young people need in order to critically engage with a site which has become so central to their online lives.
I am reminded of a powerful statement by Renee Hobbes about the role that media literacy education should play in shaping young people’s relationship to news and information:
“Some students, when asked to ask questions about the believability of media texts, may respond from deep within the familiar adolescent state of alienation and mistrust. In a more or less conscious way, they may answer, “I can’t believe in any of this information. Nothing is believable.” This cynical perspective is the antithesis of what the educational experience strives to foster. It is informed skepticism and a sense of the power of communication as a form of action to transform and shape society that educators hope to impart to students.”
The same might be said of teachers and their relationship to Wikipedia: educators need to adopted an “informed skepticism” rather than a dismissive attitude. Wikipedia is a very rich site for teaching young people about many of those things that have historically been at the heart of the media literacy movement but we can only capitalize on its potentials if we understand how it works and what it is trying to do.
Here’s what the About Wikipedia site tells us about the project:
“There are more than 75,000 active contributors working on some 5,300,000 articles in more than 100 languages. As of today, there are 1,843,251 articles in English; every day hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world make tens of thousands of edits and create thousands of new articles to enhance the knowledge held by the Wikipedia encyclopedia.”
All of this development has occurred since Wikipedia launched in 200. This volunteer army of writers, editors, and fact-checkers has been supervised, if we can use that word, by a paid staff of roughly five people. So much negative attention has been directed against Wikipedia that it is easy to forget the idealistic goal which motivates all of this activity. As Jimmy Wales explains, “Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing.”
Wikipedia has benefited enormously from its use of the encyclopedia analogy. People already know what an encyclopedia looks like; they start from a shared understanding of the kinds of information it contains, language it deploys, and functions it serves. This familiarity with basic genre conventions allows large numbers of people to roll up their sleeves and starting working and even more people to go to use Wikipedia as a central reference work.
Yet, like most analogies, calling Wikipedia an encyclopedia clarifies some aspects of the phenomenon while obscuring others. Describing it as an encyclopedia emphasizes Wikipedia as a product rather than focusing attention on the ongoing process by which its community pools information, debates what knowledge matters, and vets competing truth claims. Encyclopedias we have known in the past were depositories of an always already completed process of writing and research.
Wikipedia is something different. Andrea Forte, a Georgia Institute of Technology researcher who has studied Wikipedia, told our production team,
“When you first come to Wikipedia, it really seems like a collection of articles. It seems like a bunch of pages about different topics. Now when you talk to people who are very involved in Wikpedia, it becomes a collection of people who are carrying out a project….Wikipedia was a place where people were coming together to write about the world and figure out what’s true about the world and what kinds of facts are important to know about the world. These are the kinds of things I think students should be doing.”
Critics also argue that the analogy to an encylopedia is misleading. Robert McHenry, a former editor of the Encyclopedia Britanica, argues,
“To the ordinary user, the turmoil and uncertainty that may lurk beneath the surface of a Wikipedia article are invisible. He or she arrives at a Wikipedia article via Google, perhaps, and sees that it is part of what claims to be an “encyclopedia”. This is a word that carries a powerful connotation of reliability. The typical user doesn’t know how conventional encyclopedias achieve reliability, only that they do.”
Surely, the appropriate response to the problem which McHenry identifies is not to turn our backs on the enormous value of the Wikipedia project but rather to help young people place Wikipedia in a larger context, developing a deeper understanding of the process by which the its information is being produced and consumed. Wikipedians would push us further, arguing that we also should develop a more critical perspective on other, more traditional sources of information. If McHenry is correct that most people don’t know how conventional encyclopedias achieve reliability, that should be an indictment of how our schools teach research skills, not an excuse to blindly accept Britanica.
The Wikipedians sought to make the production of knowledge more transparent to everyday people. The practices around Wikipedia preserve traces of the disputes and disagreements that typically go on behind the scenes through the editorial processes that shape traditional reference works. Jason Mittell, a media studies professor at Middlebury College, explains,
“Wikipedia is transparent in its goals and rules, explicitly listing its policies and guidelines. As far as I know, other encyclopedias offer no such reflexivity as to what they are, how they work, and what type of content and form they follow. As an educator, transparency provides an excellent teaching opportunity to get students to reflect on sources and their usage.”
Mittell’s blog documents some of the teachable moments as his students tried their hands at producing their own Wikipedia entires:
Aaron was one of the first to dive into Wikipedia, choosing to edit an entry on a Columbian volcano that he’d previously written a research paper about. As he blogged about his experiences, the act of becoming an editor made feel invested in a topic that he’d otherwise just learned about as an assignment. Simply the act of sharing his knowledge made him feel like an expert and care about a remote subject. He followed up by considering how other people’s edits to his information made him feel part of a community, even though the other editor was anonymous and remote…
Paxson created a new entry on Eagle Peak, a mountain near his hometown in Alaska. He discovered that unlike Aaron’s entry, nobody seems invested in this topic, as he’s the only editor who has contributed. But he did learn a lesson about copyright, as he uploaded his own photo of the mountain, which was immediately tagged for lacking the proper copyright – he needed to give it a public domain, GPL, or Creative Commons license to fit with Wikipedia policy. Although we’ll be reading about copyright issues later in the semester, this hands-on experience with the practicalities of the system are far more pedagogically striking.
…Scott had a less productive experience – he created an entry for the Middlebury College hockey team, which was “speedy deleted” for not justifying its notability. Scott & I sat down and together rebuilt the entry, following the template for other college sports teams with me teaching him some of the language & protocols for wiki editing, an experience which certainly increased his fluency and strengthened his awareness of how Wikipedia functions as a self-regulating process.
Wikipedia empowers students to take seriously what they have learned in other classes, to see their own research as having potential value in a larger enterprise, and to take greater responsibility over the accuracy of what they have produced. Much as young people become more critical consumers of media when they have engaged in production activities, young people ask better questions about the nature of scholarship and research when they contribute to Wikipedia.
Educators ask the wrong question when they wonder whether Wikipedia is accurate, because this implies a conception of Wikipedia as a finished product rather than a work in progress. Wikipedians urge a more skeptical attitude:
“Wikipedia’s radical openness means that any given article may be, at any given moment, in a bad state: for example, it could be in the middle of a large edit or it could have been recently vandalized. While blatant vandalism is usually easily spotted and rapidly corrected, Wikipedia is certainly more subject to subtle vandalism than a typical reference work.”
The key word here is “at any given moment.” The community has taken on responsibility to protect the integrity and accuracy of its contents; they have developed procedures which allow them to rapidly spot and respond to errors, and the information they provide may be more up-to-date than that found in printed encyclopedia which in school libraries might sit around for decades. As historian Roy Rosenzweig explains,
“Like journalism, Wikipedia offers a first draft of history, but unlike journalism’s draft, that history is subject to continuous revision. Wikipedia’s ease of revision not only makes it more up-to-date than a traditional encyclopedia, it also gives it (like the web itself) a self-healing quality since defects that are criticised can be quickly remedied and alternative perspectives can be instantly added.”
Yet, the accuracy of an entry has to be judged “at any given moment.” Some entries, which receive heavy traffic, also receive more regular attention than others which might represent tide pools that lay stagnant for extended periods of time. Someone using the Wikipedia needs to assess the state of a current entry. The good news is that Wikipedia provides a series of tools that help us to trace and monitor the process by which an entry is taking shape.
We can see this process in action if we visit the entry on the Shimabara Revolution which caused such controversy at Middlebury. At the top of the site are two warning tags. The first tells us that “This article or section is in need of attention from an expert on the subject” and if we follow a link there, we find ourselves in a Talk section where participants weigh in about the contents of the entry, including discussing extensively the criticisms raised by the Middlebury history faculty. This section tells us the entry is being reviewed by the WikiProject Japan, which is seeking to improve the quality of entries on Japanese history and culture and by the Military History WikiProject, which gives the entry a B for its overall quality. The section includes a list of details under dispute and tasks which still need to be completed.
Going back to the top level of the page, we see a second and even more troubling flag: “This article does not cite any references or sources” and a link to a page which lays out standards of verifiability:
“The threshold for inclusion in Wikipedia is verifiability, not truth. “Verifiable” in this context means that any reader should be able to check that material added to Wikipedia has already been published by a reliable source. Editors should provide a reliable source for quotations and for any material that is challenged or is likely to be challenged, or it may be removed.”
If one reads the history pages of most Wikipedia entries, one can see vigorous debates about what counts as reliable evidence. Many of these pages offer compelling case studies that teachers could use to teach the logic through which historians, or other scholarly communities, interprete, evaluate, and contextualize the information they gather.
Wikipedia taps the power of networked culture by providing hyperlinks where-ever possible; this make it very easy for readers to return to the original source and weigh its evidence for themselves. Wikipedian Kevin Driscoll has proposed a game, much like the popular “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” where students challenge each other to see who can find the quickest pathway between two seemingly unrelated concepts. So, for example, we might ask whether one could trace the connection between William Shakespeare and the Apollo Space Program in five or fewer links: We could go from William Shakespeare to his play, The Tempest (move one), from The Tempest to the science fiction film, Forbidden Planet, which was losely based on Shakespeare’s plot (move two); from Forbidden Planet to the larger category of Science Fiction Cinema (move three); from Science Fiction Cinema to La Voyage Dans La Moon, one of the earliest science fiction films (move four); and from La Voyage Dans La Moon to the Apollo Moon Mission (Move five). This trajectory takes us between high and low culture, across the divides between science and the humanities, across several periods of human history. and across three national borders.
In doing so, students follow their curiosity, tap their knowledge, and draw connections between topics that might not seem intuitively linked. As Joseph Wang, one of the people we interviewed at the Wikimania conference, explained,
“You have to just, every now and then just step back and say, “What do I think is fun? What do I want to learn?” As you learn more you realize how much there is in the world that you don’t understand. And that’s really fun. And the thing that I find fascinating about Wikipedia is that there is all this cool stuff that I didn’t know I didn’t know.”
Just as young people coming of age in a hunting based culture learn by playing with bows and arrows, young people coming of age in an information society learn by playing with information. This playful relationship to learning and knowledge is one of the things that motivates the community’s participation, though the Wikipedians are quick to stress that they also take on very hard tasks, such as proofreading and fact checking pages.
The practices and tools that sustain Wikipedia are designed to insure the highest degree of transparency — the most controversial entries come with the maximum numbers of warnings. Yet, realistically, many young people are going to the site in search of quick data and may lack the critical vocabulary necessary to use its contents meaningfully. So, at the most basic level, a media literacy practice around Wikipedia needs to focus attention on the basic affordances of the site, so that students are encouraged to move beyond the top level and see what’s going on underneath the hood.
Researchers have shown that the current generation of young learners often exploits digital tools to copy and paste information, sometimes getting confused about where any fact came from, or blurring the lines between their own insights and those from secondary sources. Preliminary work from the researchers at a MacArthur funded project at the University of Southern California suggests that differences in access to digital technologies further impact young people’s research practices. Those children who have the most extensive access to networked computers are most likely to look critically upon the kinds of information that they draw from Wikipedia: they have the time to experience knowledge production as a collaborative process. For those young people whose only access is through schools and public libraries, however, they need to get in quick, get the information they need, and make way for the next user. These time constraints encourage them to see the web as a depository of information and often discourages them from taking time to closely examine where that information comes from or under what circumstances it was produced. This is only one of the many consequences of what we are calling the participation gap.
The participation gap is shaped by uneven access to technologies but also by unequal access to formative experiences and thus unequal opportunities to acquire the social skills and cultural competencies we are calling the new media literacies. Participation in these online communities constitutes a new hidden curriculum which shapes how young people perform in school and impacts the kinds of opportunities they will enjoy in the future.
TO BE CONTINUED