The Religion of Wikipedia

A few months back Robert McHenry, former editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, published an article criticising Wikipedia, "The Free Encyclopedia."  That got the pro-Wikipedia forces hopping mad.  In January, Aaron Krowne published a long rebuttal, which is gaining attention right now due to a post on BoingBoing.  (Links to the articles are below.)

Krowne scores a few points, but for the most part I think McHenry’s arguments are stronger.  Maybe I’ll do a little point-by-point analysis later, but I’m not sure it’s worth the effort… Read the articles and decide for yourself.

A couple of quick observations:

By god Krowne is angry!  His first tack is to label McHenry — he’s one of them, a non-believer, a "FUD" as it’s called in the free software encyclopedia community.  From Krowne’s article:

For the uninitiated, FUD stands for “Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt.” It
is a term popular within the free software community, used to describe
the use of lies and deceptive rhetoric, aimed chiefly at free software
projects. It is an accurate term. In brief, the goal of FUD is to make
money when the free software competition cannot be defeated fairly in
the marketplace. This can be done by scaring consumers through wild
propaganda, or more recently, confusing courts through more subtle
arguments.

So from the start, Krowne makes it clear that this is more than a debate on substance; this is a religious fight. (And that is an accurate term, or at least I say so. 🙂 )

I personally think that Wiki the technology (not the encyclopedia) is excellent.  It has clearly worked for some things, but it won’t make a good encyclopedia.  It works for narrow, uncontroversial domains with expert users — e.g., for collaboratively writing user manuals for open-source software, or for sharing information on a particular interest, like Sensei’s Library on Go.

Links:

Robert McHenry: The Faith-Based Encyclopedia

Aaron Krowne: The FUD-based Encyclopedia: Dismantling fear, uncertainty, and doubt, aimed at Wikipedia and other free knowledge resources

(via Boing Boing: Why Wikipedia works, and how the Britannica bully got it wrong)

Google and Inquisitive Kids

Ed Gottsman writes at ZDNet about how Google makes kids more inquisitive… and maybe even smarter:

… Some elementary school teachers (unscientific survey coming up) say that kids today are asking more questions than their predecessors–possibly because their parents use Google, so they hear fewer "Because!" responses and more actual answers, which encourages them to ask yet more questions. … So, Google may actually be nurturing a very different attitude toward life-long learning, and in so doing may be creating a fundamentally new kind of person–someone who’s less patient, more inquisitive, less willing to take "No" for an answer and more certain of his or her facts. In other words, a pain in the neck. Oh, well. I suppose it couldn’t all be good news.

I doubt it’ll cut down on ADD either.  Inquisitiveness is good, and a little bit of Googling on the side isn’t hurting anyone, but there’s a limit, of course.  Instant access to factoids can’t replace real knowledge and understanding (i.e., you can’t just trade breadth for depth).  As kids get more and more websearch-savvy, will they still develop the patience to learn any subject that’s too difficult to grasp in 30 seconds?  You could argue that search engines (and the web in general) are a recipe for distraction; their very structure discourages the kind of sustained attention that’s vital for true, meaningful learning.

(Begin grumpy old man story)… In my day we had an instant-answer technology at home too — it was called an encyclopedia.  Sure it was one of those crappy grocery store sets, but it got the job done (and it was exciting, for a nerdy kid, to anticipate each new volume arriving in the mail).  It didn’t double as a video game.  If it didn’t satisfy your curiosity, you went to the library and got some books on the subject, etc. etc.

Link: Google as mental prosthetic | Between the Lines | ZDNet.com.

NYT: Is Instructional Video Game an Oxymoron?

The New York Times has an article today about the exponential growth in online educational games.

Hundreds of recent video games reward players for shooting villains,
vaporizing monsters or solving puzzles. But only one encourages regular
and rigorous hand washing.

That game, Stop Fluin’ Around, came
not from a major developer but from an alliance of several public
interest groups, including the Partnership for Food Safety Education.
Free on the Internet, the animated interactive game rewards players for
answering questions like "Where can the flu hide?" (The answer to that
one: on hands that have not been washed.)

Other examples are a cigarette shooter (with rubber bands) and, from Greenpeace, "Nuclear Tetris, which challenges players to stack hazardous waste neatly."

Link to NYT story
Scrub Club

BBC: Games find home in the classroom

FutureLab is a UK organization trying to "accelerate educational innovation" through the use of technology.

Here’s a BBC story about it:

Video games could soon be transplanted from their natural habitat to the more academic atmosphere of the classroom.

With violent titles continuing to top the charts, gaming
and learning have not always sat well together but the tide could be
beginning to turn.

Recent research by the London Institute of Education concluded that games have a valid place in the classroom.

"Games teach life skills such as decision making, problem solving," said Martin Owen, at Futurelab.

Mr Owen said games could also help children make quick assessments of situations and learning by trial and error. …

What FutureLab is doing certainly sounds like valuable research, especially if it gives some strong data (finally) on how/if computer technology really can improve education.  This games effort sounds like a lot of puffery, though (at least from the BBC story) — "feedback from students has been positive", it satisfies "children’s desire to rise to a challenge."  That doesn’t sound like much in the way of evidence that learning is improved.