CLA faculty members talk about issues regarding student online research, the Wiki-ization of knowledge, and the role of academia as a gatekeeper for knowledge.
By Linda Shapiro
The internet is not only an information superhighway, but also a haphazard ecosystem in which infinite varieties of information ricochet around like supercharged particles, provoking a revolution in how we think about the nature of knowledge, how it is acquired, who creates it, and where its authority comes from.
In such an era, how do professors deal with issues around student online research, such as plagiarism
and source verification? Has the collaborative nature of sites like Wikipedia—the encyclopedia where anyone can edit or contribute to an entry—democratized knowledge? Or has it merely facilitated a reductive Wiki-ization of learning that leads students away from libraries and toward suspect online data bases? And has access to sources outside of the professor's control encouraged profound changes in the way academia is viewed as an authoritative gatekeeper for knowledge?
We asked CLA faculty members from a broad spectrum of disciplines about how this exploding internet world has affected their teaching. Here's what they had to say.
—Shayla Thiel Stern, assistant professor, School of Journalism and Mass Communication
“A blessing and a curse"
Online tools definitely are a blessing and a curse. Even though Google is one of my favorite inventions of all time, I curse it every time I grade a sub-par essay in which it's clear the student found the information in Google's top three results rather than in the fabulous databases available through the University Libraries' Web site. I've had good luck laying down my ground rules for research at the beginning of the semester, and one of those rules is: No citation of Wikipedia as a source. It turns into a great teaching moment because we can then discuss exactly how Wikipedia works, and students can see that while it's a great invention, it might not be the best source for college-level research. It's still a useful tool for them as kind of a first-stop for basic background information, but they must be taught to view it with a critical lens.
I think the idea of democratized knowledge might be an overly utopian view of what is happening online. Many people—usually based on their race, class and geographic location—are still not included in this information gathering and sharing in the first place. But in the sense that many people use the Internet to gather and share information and build knowledge and community from it, I think the
professor has to become more of an interpreter and a guide for students.
—Eugene Borgida, professor of psychology
Online resources are just that…another resource, and so I am not freaked out that students are using them. I assume that they often know how reliable or slanted these resources are, and I will question them if necessary. But I do the same thing with “offline" resources as well. I have never tried to regulate or offer policy positions on online searches in my courses. My assignments do not really lend themselves to that, though I am sure students do what I do and seek out articles online. Whether students find term paper sites is another matter. I am always on the lookout for this possibility. One way I check on this matter is by assigning some thought essay assignments in my classes so I get a sense for a person's writing style.
—Michelle M. Wright, associate professor, English
I haven't had any truly egregious uses of online sources in any of my classes, but I do explain to the students that almost anyone can write something and have it posted or published. Therefore, all information, whether located online or in a book or scholarly journal, needs to have its claims verified.
I also explain that “citation loops" are not uncommon: the first author/ webmaster/blogger
references someone else who in turn references someone else...who in turn references the first guy!"
I dislike the terms “gatekeeper" and “guide" because they remind me of the oppressive ways in which so much knowledge is “oligarchic" in nature, and dissenting views are simply ridiculed and denied access to certain presses and forums. So the Web can be a good balance to that. I think that balance is improved with students themselves questioning accepted wisdoms. One of the challenges and pleasures of teaching is having to explain and defend one's own truths as an active scholar, researcher, and teacher.
—Tim Johnson, assistant professor, political science
There are clear perils and pitfalls to the wiki-ization of learning. First, anyone can add information to sites such as Wikipedia. Students who use such sites for research may not be getting information and data that has been vetted by quality control mechanisms such as peer review. Given that there is no control (most of the time) over what goes on wikis, students may not get the best information, and they may actually get completely wrong information. Second, wikis make students lazy. It is much easier for them to go to a Website that appears to have all the information they need than to go to library sites that will send them to scholarly materials.
Our job as professors is to instill in the students the work ethic to learn about and complete the research process. Our job in terms of knowledge is to guarantee that students obtain the best, most accurate information and data available. We need to teach them the difference between good and bad sources, and to help them understand from where they should be drawing information.
—Teri Lynn Caraway, assistant professor, political science
One pitfall of online research is plagiarism. It's so easy to cut and paste content directly from Web pages into papers. And when the best sources for papers are unavailable online, students may be unwilling to take the time to physically retrieve sources from the library. On the other hand, students have easier access to journal articles, and that reduces the cost of coursepacks and facilitates research. Also, they have easy access to primary sources produced by the government, non-governmental organizations, and corporations, as well as to valuable electronic archives.
Knowledge hasn't really been democratized, there's just more of it out there. Our job as professors is to help students to develop the tools that they need to evaluate sources critically. And most professors require students to consult peer-reviewed sources in their papers—at least I do.
—JB Shank, associate professor, history
The Internet is here to stay so perhaps the better question is what this medium means for the practice of research and learning. The Internet places a new importance on individual skills of critical discernment and judgment. Ironically for the technophiles, I think these challenges actually present a new argument for traditional liberal arts education. I see no more powerful way to equip oneself to deal with the chaos of the digital mediascape than through the old traditions of critical reading, thinking, and writing.
The traditional authority of the professor as a possessor of expert knowledge is certainly evaporating quickly, as is the authority of disciplinary, scholarly knowledge as a separate and superior form of knowing. Yet universities still have crucial roles to play in empowering individuals to use and comprehend the mediascape that we are inhabiting. Professors may have already lost their status as purveyors of truth and gatekeepers of access to it, but they could become instead powerful agents of empowerment in this newly decentered environment by refocusing their energies toward critical engagement with knowledge formation itself. But this means letting go of the authority of the university as an enclave of true knowledge in a sea of mere information, and seeing knowledge more and more as a product of the interactions within the mediascape that include universities—but not as sovereign monopolies of truth.