Busting Up the Monopoly on Knowledge Production

Dariusz Jemielniak is a professor of management at Kozminski University, in Poland, a Wikimedia activist, and author of Common Knowledge: An Ethnography of Wikipedia. He views  Wikipedia as a professor's best friend.  He quotes Michael Gorman, a former president of the American Library Association, who wrote some years ago that "a professor who encourages the use of Wikipedia is the intellectual equivalent of a dietitian who recommends a steady diet of Big Macs with everything."

Jemielniak not only recommends that his students use Wikipedia but also encourages them to edit and develop it. I tried the same thing with my graduate students about 5 years ago. I wanted them to (1) find a topic in our area of study that has no Wikipedia article (2) create an account and post a first version (3) make additional contributions and get the article to survive until the end of the semester. They told me it was one of the hardest assignments we did. Some could barely get past part one.

I often think that teachers are fearful of Wikipedia because they don't really understand how it works. "Anyone can change something," they say, and that is true. But see if the change lasts. If it's inaccurate or opinion, it will vanish quickly.

Even though studies going back to 2005 show that Wikipedia does not have significantly more errors than the Encyclopaedia Britannica, people doubt it. Teachers at all levels may tell students "You're not allowed to use it in in your research" (as if they could actually monitor student research at all), but those teachers are very likely to use Wikipedia in their own informal or formal research.

Wikipedia has significantly grown and improved in the past decade and it's no surprise that articles often turn up at the top of search results. Everyone uses it.

Jemielniak thinks that the "real reasons for the general dislike of Wikipedia among scholars" is because they are used to having a "monopoly on knowledge production." The idea of these open-source loonies creating and managing knowledge without anyone wanting remuneration or even credit is absurd.

Do students plagiarize from Wikipedia? Yes, as they once did from books and have more easily done ever since we had word processing and the Internet.

And yet, the American Sociological Association and the American Psychological Association have started initiatives aimed at encouraging scholars and students to help develop Wikipedia.

One project I like is the Wikipedia Education Program which carries the tagline: "The end of throwaway assignments and the beginning of real-world impact for student editors."

It's not a difficult idea to use. Professors around the world assign their students to use Wikipedia to contribute to articles on course-related topics. More than 6,500 students have participated in the Wikipedia Education Program around the
world, adding the equivalent of 45,000 printed pages of quality content to more than 10,000 Wikipedia articles in multiple languages.

Writing a Wikipedia article is an excellent academic assignment that requires research, synthesizing facts, teaches how to properly use third-party sources, and is resilient to plagiarism. Wikipedians (those monitors of the pages) are more watchful for signs of plagiarism than teachers.

Just that first part of my assignment - finding a topic that is not yet covered on Wikipedia - requires imagination and a need to review sources with an eye to finding research gaps. These assignments have a life online too. They don't get a glance at the grade and a toss into the recycle basket. Some students remain connected to the article and monitor changes, and continue to write and edit other articles. I've never had a student write another essay that wasn't assigned.

The idea of sharing knowledge with those who do not have the knowledge or easy access also seems to be an ethical obligation that faculty and students should recognize and participate in making better.

One site I found is Adrianne Wadewitz's HASTAC blog. She was hired as an educational consultant by the Wikimedia Foundation and posts about teaching with Wikipedia and especially on gender.

Following the links below, teachers and students can use available instructions and training from Wikipedia on how to do this activity in an academic setting.

Just looking at the second of Wikipedia’s Five Pillars is a worthwhile discussion in any class involving writing:

"Wikipedia has a neutral point of view.
- Strive for articles that document and explain the major points of view in a balanced and impartial manner.
- Avoid advocacy. Characterize information and issues rather than debate them.
- In some areas there may be just one well-recognized point of view; in other areas we describe multiple points of view, presenting each accurately and in context, and NOT presenting any point of view as "the truth" or "the best view".
Please note: All article content should be verifiable based on published material. That means citing published, authoritative sources, especially on controversial topics and when the subject is a living person. Unreferenced material can be removed. Articles should not feature editors' personal experiences, interpretations, or opinions."

Good writing advice to all writers in all settings.

Further Reading

Download a nice 12 page PDF on How to_Use_Wikipedia_as_a_Teaching_Tool


Get involved as a teacher with the Wikipedia Education Program or as a student


Standards: Common Core and Others

The majority of K-12 educators seem to dislike the Common Core Standards. But you know who likes them? The for-profit education industry. Why? Because having common standards makes it a whole lot easier to produce educational materials and sell them to a wide audience. In New Jersey was using the same standards as Texas and California, things would be great for big vendors.

Having to individualize resources costs more money. Having to customize learning in your classroom costs you more time.

A vendor can label a product as being “Aligned with the Common Core” and pick up some easy sales. If you have to apply the same standards to all your students - no special accommodations - your teaching life is easier.

If in 4 years your college freshman composition class is filled with students who went through high school with the Common Core Standards, you should be able to expect a certain homogeneity to their knowledge. Right?



Of course, the idea of having adaptive and personalized instruction was very popular the past few years. What happens to that?


I was part of an effort in 2006 to build a K-20 (AKA K-16 or P-20) program to bring colleges and secondary or lower schools together in order to better prepare the pre-college student. One of the the goals was to align K-12 education with postsecondary goals.

Now, you have elementary and secondary schools in 45 states and the District of Columbia trying to implement new standards for math and language arts in order to improve college and career readiness for every high school graduate.

An admirable goal to be sure. The first set of assessments will be in the 2014-15 academic year.

Perhaps the first department to feel the heat at a college will be the school of education. They need to prepare students now to work in a school environment that will be using the CCS as soon as they start. 


Sure, other college departments will probably sense a different kind of student (better or worse prepared, depending on your current bias). But that probably won't be really evident until students arrive who were taught with Common Core-based curriculums in elementary, middle school and high school. That will take a decade.





I like standards. Standards of weights and measurement were very important to industrial and technological progress. And while I feel that students who graduate a high school in Vermont or Alabama should be equally prepared for work or college, I also think have observed in my own classrooms for 38 years that having the same standards for every student in a class sometimes just did not make for the best learning in that room.

This is not going to be easy.




Yada Yada: Using Seinfeld, Pooh, Doctor Who, Harry Potter and Popular Culture To Teach Serious Stuff

I wrote an earlier version of this post back in 2010 and focused on some academics using the TV series Seinfeld in their courses. But in fixing some broken links in that post, I discovered a whole industry has popped up using popular TV shows to teach more serious stuff.

Now, you can find material on using everything from using How I Met Your Mother to teach philosophy and popular culture, to using Doctor Who (Bigger on the Inside) to teach. As Chris Hansen (editor of Ruminations, Peregrinations, and Regenerations: A Critical Approach to Doctor Who ) says: "Do you want theories and contradictions of time travel? It’s in there. Do you want a deep examination of the nature of identity, as understood through the Doctor and his regenerative ability? It’s in there."

What got me to jump into this rabbit hole was Seinfeld which ran for nine seasons on NBC. I have seen every episode. Multiple times. In our household, Seinfeld references are a common thing.

The phrase that was always attached to the show (and became a meme in the show-within-the-show that George and Jerry create) was that it was a “show about nothing.” But almost every episode is about at least three different stories which are often very cleverly intertwined.

Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer encounter odd people and unusual situations that are surprisingly not so different from our own lives. For example, have you ever had to deal with a rental car agency at an airport?  Then you can probably identify with Jerry's consternation at a reservation that doesn't actually reserve a car for you. They can TAKE a reservation. They just can't HOLD it. And holding it is what really matters.

There's a good classroom discussion-starter in that scene for a business class. That's true for many of the episodes.

As a child of television, you can always get my attention with a clip. I'm not original in this idea of using TV clips in class and some academics have decided to use Seinfeld in their classrooms.

I first saw a piece on a Wall Street Journal blog about a professor using the show in an economics course.

“This is a paper about nothing.” So begins Princeton economics professor Avinash Dixit’s academic paper “ An Option Value Problem from Seinfeld.” The paper uses option pricing theory to deconstruct Elaine’s decisions in the “Seinfeld” episode number 119 “ The Sponge.”

In it, Elaine’s preferred contraceptive sponge goes off the market, sparking an ultimately fruitless hunt for a greater supply. Her limited supply of contraceptive sponges forces her to reassess their usage, and decide whether a potential partner is “sponge-worthy” or not.

Using these clips (as well as clips from other television shows or movies) makes economic concepts come alive, making them more real for students. Ultimately, students will start seeing economics everywhere – in other TV shows, in popular music, and most importantly, in their own lives.


“You are deciding whether or not to make an investment decision,” Prof. Dixit says. “The mathematical techniques are exactly the same as financial options.”

There is also a site called "The Economics of Seinfeld" that has the nice URL of  YadaYadaYadaEcon.com (an inside Seinfeld joke). The site creators select clips from the shows and suggest economic concepts that might be taught using them.

For example, in "The Apartment" we look at Jerry's NYC rent-controlled building. If you want an apartment, you need someone to die, because no one moves from a rent-controlled place.  Elaine is looking for a place and when Mrs. Hudwalker dies, she finds out about the opening from Jerry. She's the first one to get it, so it goes for $400 per month. But then the super realizes he can play around with the demand side of this situation. Yada, yada, yada, he is offered a $5,000 bribe and Elaine doesn't get the place.

Lessons? Price ceilings and rationing mechanisms.

Jerry talks about locations where no business can survive in the “Bermuda Triangle" and it can be used to discuss "free entry and exit" - "a term used by economists to describe a condition in which can sellers freely enter the market for an economic good by establishing production and beginning to sell the product. Along these same lines, free exit occurs when a firm can exit the market without limit when economic losses are being incurred."

The site offers some clips and the DVD information (season, disc and the times for the key scenes) for using them. A department could pick up the Seinfeld complete series on DVD or just the seasons needed.

I never smiled once when I took economics as an undergrad. This would have eased the pain and helped me stay awake.

These economics professors are not the first to consider another side of Jerry and friends.

I bought Seinfeld and Philosophy: A Book about Everything and Nothing when it came out. It's for those with or without any real philosophical background.

There are essays grouped into four acts.

Act One looks at the four Seinfeld characters through a philosophical lens - Jerry and Socrates: The Examined Life?

Act Two examines historical philosophers from a Seinfeldian standpoint (Plato or Nietzsche? Time, Essence, and Eternal Recurrence in Seinfeld).

Act Three is Untimely Meditations by the Water Cooler, which explores philosophical issues raised by the show - Is it rational for George to do the opposite?

Act Four is called Is There Anything Wrong with That? and has discussions of ethical problems of everyday situations.

Years earlier, I had read through a set of books that use the characters from the Winnie the Pooh series in a similar way. I read the Tao of Pooh and Te of Piglet and really enjoyed this other way of viewing the "children's books" I knew from years ago.

Then came from another perspective: Winnie-the-Pooh on Success and Winnie-the-Pooh on Management (subtitled: "In which a Very Important Bear and his friends are introduced to a Very Important Subject") and then Winnie-the-Pooh on Problem Solving.

I suppose with the holidays coming, these might make good gifts for that academic on your list - or for that non-academic to feel better about watching Seinfeld reruns and clutching their Pooh stuffed bear while reading on the couch.

But here are the new kids on the block.

I added Harry Potter and Philosophy: If Aristotle Ran Hogwarts to my Amazon Wish List and I discovered there an entire popular culture and philosophy series that is available.

I used House as a way to teach critical thinking and problem solving, but it could easily be used to address ethical questions. (The book for HOUSE is subtitled " Everybody Lies").

And you know there had to be a Star Wars and Philosophy edition too.

I'm sure you have students you followed Breaking Bad and binge-watched entire seasons of this engrossing drama. The tale of the mild-mannered chemistry teacher with an an advanced cancer diagnosis who goes from trying to provide a nest egg for his family to becoming a feared drug lord and remorseless killer is full of lessons and questions on ethics, morality, justice, the drug trade and family. How about starting with asking why TV viewers remained loyal to a series where the hero becomes the villain? Does Heisenberg’s Principle of Uncertainty actually play a role in the arc of the show's story, as suggested by the main character, and rule our destinies?

You can find ways to use Lord of the Rings (One Book to Rule Them All).

If you already teach Ender's Game, then using the frighteningly title "Genocide Is Child's Play." The book's blurb talks about discussing" "the violence and cruelty of children, the role of empathy in war, the balance of individual dignity and the social good, the justifiability of pre-emptive strikes, how Ender’s disconnected and dispassionate violence is mirrored in today’s drone warfare, whether the end of saving the species can justify the most brutal means, the justifiability of lies and deception in war, how military schools produce training in virtue, how Ender as the “good student” is held to a different educational standard, which rules can be broken in games and which cannot, Ender’s world as a mirror of our own surveillance society, the moral hazards of child warriors, the value of Ender’s ability to sympathize with his enemies, the meaning of a “hive-mind,” the limits of our ability to relate to one, the relationship between Ender’s story and Card’s Mormonism." You couldn't even fit all that in one course!

Did you have trouble understanding Philosophy 101 AND you were confused by the Matrix films too? Then The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real is perfect for you.

With Breaking Bad over, the current hot property is The Walking Dead which also has a book (The Walking Dead and Philosophy: Zombie Apocalypse Now).

It's even more interesting to me that Canvas Network has offered a MOOC about the series that examines some of those same issues. Does equality or fairness have any place in the post-apocalyptic world? Do theft, assault and murder become acceptable under desperate circumstances?

Consider using some popular culture in your syllabus because - well, for one thing, it is popular. Having something that students are already interested in reading, watching and talking about is a great start to the serious discussion or writing to follow.


Computational Thinking

I stumbled upon a Google site to promote computational thinking in K-12 classrooms.  http://www.google.com/edu/computational-thinking/

Computational thinking (which they abbreviate as CT, but I think of CT as critical thinking) involves a set of problem-solving skills and techniques that software engineers use. It makes sense from a Google perspective to approach things like an engineer, but I am not so sure that all things in education need to be approached that way. I always thought that Google's problem with doing social (see Orkut, Wave, Plus) was that it was designed by engineers rather than a mix of people with the emphasis on non-engineers.

Nevertheless, here are a few examples they give of techniques that their engineers use to write programs.

Decomposition: When we taste an unfamiliar dish and identify several ingredients based on the flavor, we are decomposing that dish into its individual ingredients.

Pattern Recognition: People look for patterns in stock prices to decide when to buy and sell.

Pattern Generalization and Abstraction: A daily planner uses abstraction to represent a week in terms of days and hours, helping us to organize our time.

Algorithm Design: When a chef writes a recipe for a dish, she is creating an algorithm that others can follow to replicate the dish.
That last item, Algorithm Design, is something we hear about frequently these days even though most of us have no idea what that measn other than "it has something to do wih math."  They define it as the ability to develop a step-by-step strategy for solving a problem. Algorithm design seems to include the other techniques: look at the decomposition of a problem and the identification of patterns that help to solve the problem. In computer science as well as in mathematics, algorithms are often written abstractly, utilizing variables in place of specific numbers. Look at the examples they provide:
- When a chef writes a recipe for a dish, she is creating an algorithm that others can follow to replicate the dish.
- When a coach creates a play in football, he is designing a set of algorithms for his players to follow during the game.
- In mathematics, when we calculate the percent change between two numbers, we follow an algorithm along the lines of:

If the original number is greater than the new number, use the following equation to calculate the percent change: percent decrease = 100*(original - new)/original.
If the new number is greater than the original number, use the following equation to calculate the percent change: percent increase = 100*(new - original)/original.
If neither is true, then the original and new numbers must equal each other and there is no percent change.
They lose me when they say that you can take it "a step further" and implement this algorithm in Python so that a computer calculates this for us:


original = float(input('Enter the original number: '))
new = float(input('Enter the new number: '))
if original > new:
percent_decrease = 100 (original - new) / original
print 'Percent decrease:', percent_decrease, '%'
elif new > original:
percent_increase = 100
(new - original) / original
print 'Percent increase:', percent_increase, '%'
else:
print 'There is no percent change.'


Of course, the "step further" is the key for an educator. Google says in its professional development section that this is intended for math teachers and on the web resources page it is all math, science and computer science. What I would be interested in seeing are some applications in other areas.

The one site I could find was the Interactive Journalism Institute for Middle Schoolers which is a research project that introduces students to CT via the creation of online magazines. The computational thinking is via digital media, interactive graphics, animation, video and database design in a collaborative setting. It is designed to foster computational and writing skills and they also get to to share their online magazine with family, friends and teachers. This research project is led by three computer science and journalism faculty and a gender-equity specialist at The College of New Jersey.


Advance Your Search

I'm always a bit surprised when I see someone do a search online and be disappointed to get either too few results or, more likely, too many irrelevant results. Most search sites have an "advanced search" feature which often solves those issues and others.==On my Serendipity35 tech learning blog, I wrote about using Google for better search. That's useful for yourself and is also something anyone who teaches should make sure their students know and use.

I want to note here an example of a vendor search. Most of us use Amazon to find books and media, but far fewer people use their advanced search feature.==Start by going to the Advanced Search on Amazon. From there I could set up a search for books on "HTML5" published after "2011", and available for the Kindle and get only those results.




After doing my advanced search, I can even limit the search further from the list provided in the left column on the results page. If I wanted the really new publications, I could choose to see only the titles published in the last 30 days.

Amazon's advanced search also works for music, TV, movies, magazines and toys and games.