Conference Report Session III: Wikipedia and (Political) Education

Posted: September 26, 2010 at 8:15 pm  |  By: Andreas Möllenkamp  |  Tags: , , ,  |  1 Comment

Author: Christian Pentzold, TU Chemitz

Peter Haber, researcher at the seminar for general modern history, University of Basel, presented some initial results from a research seminar he gave at the University of Vienna which was titled: Source critique in Wikipedia. A research report. His presentation dealt with the online encyclopedia from a historiographic point of view. The general direction of the academic ‘experiment‘ addressed the question how Wikipedia functions with a special focus on articles on historic and historical subjects.
The key term Peter Haber set out from was the notion of ‘historical source critique‘ as the core competence for historians. As such it forms part of the elementary historic training and centers on the handling and scrutinizing of historic material. With his group of research students, Haber took this concept to inform the analysis of some Wikipedia articles in the English- and German-language about historic topics.
The investigation sampled entries on historical terms, epochs, events, persons, and methods. The leading assumption was that an inter-linguistic (and thus inter-wiki) comparison would shed light on their varying structures and quality. As criteria for article quality they took the entry’s correctness, objectivity, formality, references, currency, orthography, readability, comprehensibility, illustrations and the existence of multiple points of view. As a reference point they choose the respective Brockhaus entry.
On the one hand, their analyses sustain the well-known fact that article length does not correlate with quality. However, on balance, the English entries are longer and better structured. On the other, the results point to the tendency that although the articles usually compile long lists of literature, they nevertheless do not make active use of this body of sources as references and they include a fair amount of trivia and varia about historic persons. Moreover, Haber’s and his research group’s examination of articles like ‚Mexican revolution‘, ‚French revolution‘, or ‘classical antiquity’ show that small clusters of ‘power users’ dominate the editing process of single articles or sets of articles. All of these insights led them to conclude that the common suggestion to take Wikipedia entries as a starting point to gain some first knowledge about an unknown topic is a myth. Especially the articles trying to tackle complex issues fail to present up-to-date material and have no clear structure. Therefore, such entries, Haber argues, are no viable point of entrance to such fields of knowledge.

In the second panel presentation, Timo Borst, head of IT at the central library for economics at Kiel and Hamburg, sketched his theoretical background which plays on a postmodern notion of knowledge that negates the relevance of fundamental truths and grand theories. Instead, the reflexivity, contextuality, and contingence of ‘truth’ as collective social construction are highlighted. Yet, Borst posed that such sort of intelligibility and knowledge is fraud with risks and uncertainties. As examples he firstly looked at tagging practices on the social web. The spontaneous, relatively unsystematic and partly anecdotal character of the folksonomies that arise from such activities, he argues, presents a sort of semi-professional indexing. Hence, it presents a form of ‘postmodern’ or ‘narrative’ type of knowledge besides the indexing of libraries or archives that aim at timeless and to some extend ‘classic’ ways to categorize and name material. In the same vein, Borst discussed recommendation systems like on where personal, idiosyncratic judgments are aggregated. Finally, he thinks of Wikipedia too in terms of the contingency of knowledge. There, he explored the discursive negotiation of knowledge that seems to him to follow an own logic in Wikipedia’s virtual realm. However, Borst also encounters instances in these processes where almost ‘classic’ criteria of relevance and quality are applied, for instance, the review process for sighted and proofed version or the election of excellent articles.
Coming to the question, what media literacy that accounts for such developments might look like, Borst developed on some ideas regarding uncertainty and the formation of some type of ‘risk competence’. While he takes perils as an uncontrolled sort of uncertainty, he thinks of risk as a form of ‘known and partly controllable uncertainty’. As such, it’s pivotal to coping with the erosion of intermediaries and the novel forms of knowledge production on the social web where common modes of knowledge acquisition and professional competences are put to question.

In the last talk, Ute Demuth, practitioner in the field of political adult education, showcased some of the experiences she collected in her work. Its premise is that democracy needs constantly to be leaned by active citizens. In her courses, she employs Wikipedia as a topic and a tool. Different to the idea, Wikipedia has turned into a mainstream phenomenon, her participants not only voiced various critical concerns and partial attitudes about the online encyclopedia but seemed to also quite ignorant of the resource and its working mechanisms. Therefore, in her training seminars Demuth aims to get people involved in active writing so to disprove mistrust and Wikipedia’s negative image and to stress its potential. What she and her participants encountered when entering Wikipedia, was a ‘commitment to controversy’ and serious endeavors to stick its internal quality criteria. Nevertheless, Demuth sums up her argument by highlighting Wikipedia’s opportunity to open up spaces for individual and collective initiative in times of narrowing possibilities to such possibilities. Hence, the gap between individual action and common welfare is addressed and, perhaps, bridged. From this perspective, Wikipedia stands for the Web 2.0 promise to enable massive cooperation and the blurring of distinctions like lay vs. expert, reader vs. writer, or teacher vs. learner.


  1. » Blog Archive » Wikipedia and (Political) Education says:

    September 29th, 2010 at 23:42 (#)

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