Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Wickipedia: a Faith-Based Encyclopedia

TCS: Tech Central Station - The Faith-Based Encyclopedia

It's not surprising that Robert McHenry, Former Editor in Chief, the Encyclopædia Britannica, would point out serious problems with the Wikipedia. It is based on a very different model for the creation and organization of knowledge than commercially produced encyclopedias. He does make several interesting critiques of the Wikipedia. First, the quality of the writing declines with editing. Earlier versions of the article he examined were better written, he claims. This may well be. The process of collaborative writing is indeed complex and filled with compromises along the way. Another observation he makes is that inaccuracies exist within the encyclopedia that are not immediately resolved. Such inaccuracies diminish the reliability of the article being read.

Both claims raise for me the question of when one might consider an article in the encyclopedia complete. The Wikipedia has been underway for about three years now. If we were to step forward in time to five or ten years from now, would we see the same problems that McHenry draws to our attention. One of the advantages of the Wikipedia is that in a sense an article is never complete. As new information is gained, an article can be updated. But should there be a point at which a particular article is recognized as having completed the editorial process and is recognized to be factually accurate and hopefully well-written?

McHenry's critique is based, however, on the expectations users of encyclopedias have had in the past. He draws a fascinating relationship between Wikipedia and the pedagogical practice of requiring students to "journal" as a significant part of their regular assignments:

The combination of prolificacy and inattention to accuracy that characterizes this process is highly suggestive of the modern pedagogic technique known as "journaling." For decades, (following, we are probably meant to assume, some breakthrough research at a school of education somewhere) young students have been not merely encouraged but required to fill pages of their notebooks with writing. Not stories, nor essays, nor any other defined genre of writing; just writing. The writing is judged solely on bulk: So many pages are required per week or semester, but the writing on those pages need not be grammatical or even intelligible. Even the "talented and gifted" program at my own sons' school employed journaling as a principal activity, merely raising the quota over that of standard classrooms. It may well be that the practice of journaling in the schools, along with the acceptance of "creative spelling" as a form of personal expression not to be repressed, underlies much of the success of Wikipedia.

McHenry points to this as the root of what he identifies as a problem. It would be interesting to ask those who have been educated in classes that focused heavily on journaling if they see the same problem. Or has the educational process changed the way they view and think about knowledge, writing, and in fact the way they perceive the world.