Monday, 13 October 2008

Wikis as Epistemological Realities

- Noun [U] SPECIALIZED- the part of philosophy that is about the study of how we know things (from Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary)

Wikis are popular, as shown by the rapid growth of Wikipedia, but as Cummings (2007) points out to us they are changing the fundamental underpinnings of our knowledge about knowledge per se as follows:

Wikipedia has fundamentally and finally altered epistemology itself – our commonly held ideas about knowledge.”

What does this mean? Through the use of wikis we have shifted away from the past process of where a few credentialed experts had the means and know how to publish works of knowledege for the masses to a process whereby many non-credentialed people now have the means to contribute and builld a collection of common knowledgefor the masses. Cummings (2007) refers to this phenomenon as “global transition to networked epistemology”. Also Cummings (2007) reminds us that wikis as “epistemological realities” are less about reference sources of academic rigour but more about “shared truths”. In this context it is interesting to note that the Maori learners whom I teach also have a collective cultural view of a kete (basket) of knowledge which is shared (accessed) by all. The modern day wiki is an electronic version not dissimiliar to the traditional Maori “kete mātauranga “(basket of knowledge).

Thomas J Nelson in Cumming’s (2007) article makes the point that wikis are powerful examples of the social construction of knowledge through writing. Wikis are “by the people for the people” in that there is no single authority responsible for that knowledge (as in books authored by experts). Where traditonal encylopedias have been a closed shop authored by specific experts wikis are “open source” and “open ended” works in progress.. As suggested by the image above wikis (like the printing press of old) have swung open the door on sharing knowledge allowing the many, and not just the few, to participate in the collective compilation of knowledge.

Certainly wikis are a quantum epistemological leap from the traditonal knowledge acqusition to a new collective order but “are we going to throw the baby out with the bath water” as there are still some niggingly old fashioned concerns to be addressed for me such as standards, scoping, authenticity, academic rigour, and information versus misinformation . Will this new wave of democratic knowledge building create its own internal system of checks and balances (as any natural system on earth has) or are we all going to be surfing a tsunammi of information overload from millions of publishers? Again it is with some comfort that in a recent article about Wikipedia and epistemology Don Fallis (2008) points out that a number of empirical studies have revealed that Wikipedia has good epistemic consequences. How so we ask? Apparently the reliability of Wikipedia compares favorably with the reliability of traditional encyclopedias and the epistemic advantages of Wikipedia are its speed, power and fecundity – okay I admit I had to look up the meaning of the latter which is – fruitful or capable of abundant production!

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