I recently read a somewhat scathing review of Wikipedia. The article was written by Robert McHenry, a former Editor in Chief of the Encyclopædia Britannica.
In his article, McHenry makes fun of pretty much everything Wkipedia attempts to accomplish whether it is the general idea of social software, or to J. P. Barlow and his ideas of information. To illustrate the futility of the entire project, McHenry picks apart a wikipedia article on Alexander Hamilton by showing that it does not contain several pieces of information that McHenry would deem necessary to meet his standards of a good encyclopedia article.
McHenry's concludes his article by comparing Wikipedia to a public restroom. "It may be obviously dirty, so the users knows to exercise great care, or it may seem fairly clean, so that he may be lulled into a false sense of security. What he certainly does not know is who has used the facilities before him."
This article is discouraging. The idea of self-organization rests on the idea that there is power in a thousand learners seeking out knowledge together. Many types of social software such as fan fiction, wikipedia, online games, and USENET, support learning. This idea of using social software to support learning does not diminish the learning potential of a a more traditional learning environment, rather it suggests that self organization and social software provides an alternative means to the same end; the end in this case being a person learning. As Dave mentioned in his week 14 lecture', "Formal education is one piece of machinery that can facilitate learning. There are potentially many others. A key piece of being able to build innovative learning technologies is being able to think differently about learning."
But McHenry's castigation of wikipedia, and those working on the project, brings the idea of self organization into question. Does McHenry have a point? Is using social software to support learning a cheap imitation at best to 'formal instruction'?
McHenry does have a point, but he comes to an erroneous conclusion.
To compare the wikipedia to an encyclopedia, or fan fiction to a formal creative writing class is a mistake. There are enough differences to make the comparison pointless. What needs to be compared are the outcomes. What are the writing skills of an active participant in fan fiction compared to a participant in a formal creative writing class. What is the understanding level of a user of wikipedia compared to a user of the the Encyclopædia Britannica. It is the ends that need to be examined, not the means. An encyclopedia article can be completely accurate, but if the users does not get the information he seeks, is the article useful?
A user can learn from reading an encyclopedia. A user can learn better grammar from taking a formal writing class. Are these formal pieces 'better' instructional tools than their self organized counterparts? If students are learning just as well using other methods, and if more students are learning using other methods, then it becomes a question of how do you measure 'better'?
If, as McHenry suggests, wikipedia is not as complete as an Encyclopædia Britannica article, does that mean students will not learn as well? If the feedback from a fan fiction article is not as thorough as the feedback from an English teacher, does that mean students will not learn as well?
The Pareto principle states that "for many phenomena 80% of consequences stem from 20% of the causes." This 80-20 rule is often used to describe a variety of events in the business sector. Twenty percent of your stock takes up 80 percent of your warehouse. Twenty percent of your clients do 80 percent of your business. Twenty percent of of a projects work (the first and last 10 percent) take up 80 percent of your time and resources, etc. etc. etc.
But the Pareto principle also has it's place in education. Couldn't it be argued that only about 20 percent of what is learned in formal education actually is needed for employment? Other job requirements are learned after an employee has been hired in the form of on-the-job training, or unofficial training. Many of the skills have been learned or reinforced outside of formal education such as communication skills, social skills, or many types of technical skills.
So if a learner only needs 20 percent of what formal education is offering, and a social software provides that 20 percent without as much of the other 80 percent, wouldn't it be better (in some cases) for a learner to explore these alternative options? If the end result is that the necessary knowledge is learned, what does it matter by what methods that knowledge was transferred?
Some will say that a formal education is more 'complete'. An electrical engineer learns math, but also about other cultures, history, current events, etc. While this is true, the same can be said about online self organized communities. If I learn the 20 percent needed to do my work, I have more free time to explore other areas of interest. Just because I'm not in formal learning doesn't mean I can't learn about other cultures, history, or current events.
The wikipedia failed to mention that the birth year of Alexander Hamilton is in question. *Because of this, McHenry declared the wikipedia to be inferior to the more traditional encyclopedia. Because the wikipedia did not contain 100 percent of the information McHenry deemed necessary, it is therefore unreliable. There are probably countless participles that get dangled on fan fiction, and are never corrected. Incomplete answers are given on USENET and bulletin boards every day. But people are reading, writing, and experimenting because of these pieces of social software, and most of the information out there is correct, useful, and direct. If it's not, users would stop using the social software! More people use these kinds of software every day. And as more users log on, the information gets better and better. The end result is that more and more people are learning. The means may not appear as professional or organized as formal education. The journey may be a bit rough, but if the end result is a student who has learned something new, how can you attack the method with which they have learned?
I submit that self-organization can be a very viable alternative to getting relevant, direct, useful information into the hands of more learners in an efficient, economical manner.
* It should be noted that since the writing of McHerny's article, the wikipedia entry has been updated to include this information