Truth of open and socially constructed information

I’m back from ITK conference and what catched my attention was all the discussion about how can we be sure that the information we read from open systems (Wikipedia, blogs, Open Source etc.) is truthful and accurate? This concern is often voiced by teachers who see the potential of resources like Wikipedia
but are afraid that it cannot be used as an educational resource
because there is no widely accepted scientific method in the background.

As Jussi Silvonen pointed out in finnish, this all goes to the epistemology
of how we understand knowledge. The social web is affecting the leading
paradigm of what is proper education. In this article I seek for a new
paradigm to base our current educational system upon, starting from the
school books.

Our current society is mainly based on the foundations of Cartesian knowledge, the idea that we need to seek the truth and objectivity to replace beliefs and God with accurate scientific knowledge. Descartes wanted to replace God with facts.
This is what our educational system teaches. Our school books and
encyclopaedias are based on the idea that what is contained within is
truthful and we need to memorize and learn exactly what is written
inside. Then we have exams to test if the student is able to replicate
the same truths as written in their school books.

I find this thinking a bit disturbing. Knowledge is always in the intersection of beliefs and truths.
As we cannot see all the facts or have all the first-hand experiences,
we generalize and believe that what we know is the truth. We live in a
uncertain world and history has shown, that what is written in our
school books is constantly shifting. The truth we teach is shaped by dialog between our current beliefs.

Now the social web is growing with social information that is blurring
the line between who is the author and what is the method, as
everything is actually a remixation of a wide range of sources. Uncertainity
is rising because of the social web but at the same time conversations
that shape this uncertainity are increasing in volume.

Montaigne
offered a different perspective where we actually agree that we live in
the middle of uncertainities and through conversations we will be able
to find common understanding on how to live together in this unstable
world.

The increasing ammount of socially constructed knowledge then becomes
actually food for thought, inspirations for new conversations where
knowledge is created. People make their decisions on information not
based on the list of authors and textual references but what others say
about it. They use their trusted peers to live in the middle of
uncertainity.

So the importance of information as a building block for creating new
knowledge is more important than preserving something that we believe
is the truth.

Right now our students go through many years and thousands of books and
they are constantly trained like animals to trust that the content what they read is the one and only truth.
We need something to balance this and teach them critical thinking and
ability to seek balance through conversations in the middle of
uncertainity.

I go on and suggest a new school book paradigm. Turn everything around.

Write a school book that has purposefully inserted factual errors. Make it as uncertain as possible, so that the student needs to seek conversations to make any sense out of it.

Make the point of the course to discuss the book and what things are
actually true and what are not. Base that on conversations reaching to
other information sources and people for answers outside the course as
well. Help them to be curious to seek different points of view. Make
critical peer review and discussion the central process. Make them realize that to cope with untruths they need humble conversations rather than forcing their own beliefs.

As a conclusion, Wikipedia is not really there for educators, news papers or fact seekers to refer as a truth. Wikipedia is not really about teaching facts. It’s about conversations.
A wiki page is inviting for a change. It’s never ready, it’s never a
truth. It has a discussion section for seeking a common ground.
Wikipedia is our greatest gift to education, because it makes us
understand that facts are constantly shifting based on open
conversations.

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4 Responses to “Truth of open and socially constructed information”

  1. Olga says:

    Teemu, I do agree with you that school should teach us to be more critical and reflective, but THAT objective should be addressed before we let ourselves to be swept away with new and exciting technologies. Furthermore, I think blogs and wikis serve a purpose in learning but the danger is that we forget pedagogy (which wasn't discussed in the panel at all). I have yet to find an eLearning conference where pedagogy instead of technology comes first… There is a general resistance to new technologies because a lot of the teachers have to become convinced that by using a certain technology learners actually learn, it is easier to stick to old methods.

    Also, I must admit that "the neoliberalism of education, each man for his self attitude" bothers me. The Finnish education system is supposed to promote equality regardless of your background. What happens when your daddy hasn't even seen a computer and your are supposed to be able pick and choose your learning content? Social class, disability, etc. do not completely disappear online.

    Anyway, Thanks for a thought-provoking discussion! :-)

  2. Tleinone says:

    I (of course) agree with most of your points, but would not forget the idea of standing on the shoulders of the giants. You wrote:

    “People make their decisions on information not based on the list of authors and textual references but what others say about it.”

    If the list of authors and textual references are given in a study guide of a well-known university or school, I consider these references worth of reading. I do not need to know the professor who made the list by person, read his blog or know what he think about the materials. I can trust that they are in the study guide because they represent something she has found useful for students of her field.

    I can trust that the professor of the university is one kind of giant who have read a lot about the topic and have select meaningful reading for her students.

  3. Teemu Arina says:

    You are right, my argument was a bit weak in that regard. What I really meant was that often we trust social recommendation systems when we don't have the time to check the sources ourselves.

    I use conversations with my trusted peers to ask advice on what professors I should read on a field that is yet unfamiliar to me, even though many of these professors might all come from well-known universities.

    My friends give me a better starting point than what I can come up with on my own in the same time, because they know the field and they know me and my preferences… hopefully :)

  4. Darren Kuropatwa says:

    Teemu, this is a brilliant idea! One of those things that you read and go: "Of course!" Often someone has to articulate it first before we can see the "obvious" implications of a new tool. I teach math and often struggle with trying to get my students to think about the inconnectedness of the topics they are learning as opposed to just learning a bunch of contextless rules. I think a wiki with a bunch of "solved problems" laced with both common and uncommon errors left there for the students to "fix" would go a long way towards helping me reach my pedagogical goals. Thank you for pointing out what probably should have been an "obvious" use of a wiki. ;-)

    Cheers!
    Darren

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