A furious exchange erupted during discussion following my most recent presentation on Web 2.0 and education. Once again, the Wikipedia emerged as a lightning rod, a shibboleth, the symbol of academic anxiety about new technologies. I covered a lot of ground in my very compressed talk, but, as I expected, out of all of those emerging technologies the Wikipedia was the (already long emerged) Wikipedia that surfaced in professorial wrath.
One professor challenged the quality of the Wikipedia, based on his experience with a single entry, concerning a topic he knew well. He asserted that the entry on Carthage was not only "garbage," but that his edits didn't take. He inferred from this that quality improvement wasn't possible, and therefore disputed my call for academics to not merely consume, but help edit the Wikipedia.
To their credit, several other professors then rose to dispute this model. I don't have to rehearse their arguments here. But I must admit to being surprised when I visited the Carthage page. I expected, in good faith, garbage - a hash, a mess, a disaster, or a lame stew of ancient texts copied together. We've seen such poor samples before. Instead, I found the entry to be a very long, rich, and well linked piece. It immediately brought me back to my teenage love of the classical world, to my undergrad Roman history studies, and then taught me much more about the topic. The page touches on several languages, appropriately. The entry carefully describes problems in studying Carthage, given the historical record - i.e., keeps open historiography, rather than asserted baldly interpretations as facts, or facts which might be contested. It's neatly organized.
The professor ultimately admitted (although it took some probing) that his changes did take effect, that he had improved that page. Kudos to him for doing so - the result is impressive.
I might have to do more in presentations to demystify the wikipedia. I already have several strategies (distinguishing between 'pedia and the rest of the wikiverse, having the Nature study ready to hand, etc). It's getting harder and harder to talk wikis in higher ed, as their usage in the world grows in numbers and variety....
And I was reminded of several fine posts by edubloggers about such frustrations: Will Richardson, Laura Blankenship, Alex Reid. Networked learning, in all its informatic splendor and complexity, is certainly a dire threat to the deeply- and extensively rooted pedagogical practices of higher education. For instance, the Carthaginian professor didn't defend his wrath by describing his knowledge of or passion for the subject; instead, he simply described his credentials, which we were expected to read as standing in for them.
Further, it's a threat that's partly irrational. I don't mean to dismiss the anxieties - far from it - but to emphasize that Web 2.0, networked learning, etc. are simply not treated seriously in academic discourse, usually. Most faculty aren't aware of many of these tools; moreover, their awareness rarely goes beyond the instrumental. Forces beyond the professorite conspire to keep the discussions rare and poor, from the Chronicle's classic "internet: threat or menace?" approach to mainstream media's clumsy grappling with this stuff, to the sometimes marginalization of librarians and technologists who should be prime participants in conversation.
But to change this - that's why I do what I do, right?