Sausages and Scholarship: Wikipedia and Digital Literacy

The Economic and Social Research Council is supporting a series of academic seminars on “Digital Policy: Connectivity, Creativity and Rights”, led by Prof. Gillian Youngs … Continue reading “Sausages and Scholarship: Wikipedia and Digital Literacy”

  • Martin Poulter
  • November 24, 2011

The Economic and Social Research Council is supporting a series of academic seminars on “Digital Policy: Connectivity, Creativity and Rights”, led by Prof. Gillian Youngs of the University of Wales, Newport. Last Friday’s seminar at the University of Leicester invited four representatives from outside academia, including myself for Wikimedia UK. Although the day’s theme was “digital literacy”, the twelve presentations covered a dizzying range of issues, from the legal structures that regulate television, to community journalism, to “sexting”.

My presentation paraphrased the German saying, “People who enjoy sausages or legislation should not watch them being made.” I contrasted this with scholarship: it is better to have a closed system of publication and review, or an open, wiki-based process which lets us see the sausages being made before we eat them?

For the topics of rights, connectivity, creativity, digital policy, and digital literacy, I argued that the Wikimedia perspective comes down to openness and freedom (in the sense of free content). Free content guarantees users’ rights: it treats them not as passive consumers of a finished product, but as active editors and re-users. Free content lets people build something together that they couldn’t on their own, hence it supports creativity. Freedom and openness are crucial to bring about the volunteer effort that makes Wikipedia a success: like most volunteers, I donate time and money to Wikimedia because it is a charitable project serving the widest possible public, not a commercial operation serving shareholders. Policy (whether in a country or an institution) can make openness either straightforward or difficult.

As a Wikipedia author, I’m very concerned that people understand the site’s limitations and biases as well as its strengths. To me, “digital literacy” means seeing digital resources as the result of a process, and understanding the implications for quality and reliability. Wikipedia educational projects are a low-cost opportunity to do this. If open publishing is like letting people see the sausages being made, then an educational assignment is like setting students loose on the machines to make their own sausages.

During questions, David White of Oxford University mentioned his own research into the use of online resources in schools and universities, which is feeding into the JISC ‘Developing Digital Literacies’ programme. While many schools in the UK and USA forbid children from even looking at Wikipedia, the site’s page views confirm that it is by far the most frequently-consulted source (nearly half a million hits on “Henry VIII of England” in one month, for example).

Wikipedia emerged as a topic in other discussions through the day, including the way it allows a natural division of labour: people who follow a topic obsessively can summarise it on Wikipedia for the benefit of people who are interested but less obsessive. In his round-up at the of the seminar, Matt Chilcott of University of Wales, Newport pointed out that the Wikipedia article on Digital literacy is still quite basic, and urged all present to improve it.

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