Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Creating New Knowledge: Academia and Social Software

My colleague Michael De Percy has been driving a conversation at the University of Canberra about the role of what he calls "new media" in academia. I don't like his term - I prefer the more common terms Web 2.0 or social software to describe the same concepts. The term used, however, is not important; it is the concept and the conversation around it which is vital. This is my contribution to the conversation. Using a blog to contribute to this conversation may, however, be preaching to the choir.

Academia is the driving force behind the creation and dissemination of new knowledge in our society. As academics, we should always be exploring new ways of creating and disseminating knowledge. The tried and tested methods of monograph and peer-reviewed journal publication will still be a dominant method of achieving this but they are not the only ways. Social software adds new methods of creating and disseminating knowledge and we should be exploring the ways that these tools can leverage our existing practices.

We do not yet know if some or any of these tools will prove to be effective. Some may be like a supernova; burning brightly for a moment before disappearing from sight. Others may become ubiquitous like email and the WWW have become. But if we do not explore and experiment we will not know what is worth retaining. Not all academics need to be on the bleeding edge but they do need to be monitoring developments and ready to adopt when a development is shown to be useful.

The problem we find is that many academics are not willing to consider the new opportunities but are acting as latter-day luddites, trying to protect their outmoded practices. Some examples of this attitude can be seen in the resistance to Wikipedia: whether we like it or not, Wikipedia has become the first reference examined by students. To fight this is pointless; we need to harnass this to make it effective research.

Mary George from Princeton has coined the term wigwam research (Wikipedia - Internet - Google - Without - Anything - More). The wig is not the problem, it is the wam. We need to show students that Wikipedia, like a textbook, is a useful starting point for research but not the ending point. We need to explain the qualitative difference between secondary and primary sources and point out that Wikipedia is a secondary source. We need to emphasise the quality assurance that comes from peer review and highlight that Wikipedia is not peer reviewed. Finally, we need to show students how to use Wikipedia's references to expand and improve their research.

If we acknowledge that students will use Wikipedia and encourage them to use it properly, our attitude to it should change. Instead of fighting it, we can work to make it better. As subject matter experts, we can edit Wikipedia to ensure that its entries are up-to-date, complete, unbiased, and properly referenced. By working with Wikipedia, we can make our students better researchers.

Another example where academics are unwilling to explore social software is in the developments of networks. Most academics will acknowledge that the value obtained from attending conferences is not from the papers presented but from the networks formed. Attending conferences is an expensive (in dollars and time) and ineffective method of building networks.

Social software allows the creation of networks and the sharing of ideas among the network. Martin Weller uses epizeuxis to stress the importance of Twitter for networking. Social network sites like Facebook facilitate the personal side of network management, instant messaging and VOIP allow one-to-one communication, microblogs give one-to-many communication, blogs permit the sharing of ideas and comments on those ideas. Effective social networks can generate new knowledge more quickly and more cheaply than traditional network methods.

Academics should be embracing social software, not fighting it. We need to explore how it can make our work more effective.