COBRA…

Your source for official open educational resources

Recently I’ve started a project for (gasp!) a traditional educational textbook publisher, writing most of a new student edition for a middle school textbook. Within pages and pages of instructions (and revised instructions) for the inclusion of sidebar material, questions, lesson reviews, primary sources, and so on, there is this:

Wikipedia, an encyclopedia that people can change to make accurate or more up-to-date, is also available online. It is a useful reference, but should never be used as a single source and should not be cited. However, there are footnotes and links that go with the articles that can be helpful in tracking down scholarly information on the topic you are researching. 

I’ve been curious about the undertones of this short cautionary note. Clearly the words are mostly positive: people change Wikipedia entries to make them “accurate” and “more up-to-date.” Wikipedia is “useful” and “helpful,” too. Its footnotes and links direct you to “scholarly information.”  However, Wikipedia should “not be cited” and “never be used as a single source.” Like many so-called scholarly resources, Wikipedia is peer reviewed. Literally, sometimes, thousands of people have agreed that the information contained about Thing X is accurate. That’s way more people than a scholarly journal relies upon when it vets articles for inclusion (perhaps three outside volunteer reviewers, with luck). What “scholarship” has that Wikipedia does not is an institutionalized history, external forces propping it up (think “publish or perish”), and sometimes a profit motive behind it (think of those conferences). Scholarly journals are officially sanctioned because…well, because we all sanction them.

My professor in my University of Manitoba “Open Educational Resources” course wondered whether the future of OERs would include “official” OERs. By that, I am assuming he means given the old okey-dokey by teachers, scholars, researchers, practitioners…or perhaps there will arise some sort of Council of Officially Blessed Resources for the Academy  (COBRA)? More acronyms and bureaucracy always lead to order and civil society. With officialism we can sleep more soundly knowing that an organization is  looking out for us. The squirrelier part of me wants to add “COBRA” to the Wikipedia page that lists all possible cobras as acronyms or snakes. I could perform an experiment to see how long it might take someone to stumble across the page and question the entry. To foment the illusion, I could also create a fake COBRA website complete with downloadable forms that ask respondents to “submit your Educational Resource with the accompanying 12-page form” and wait six weeks for “a decision from the committee of scholars in your subject area.” Using the web, I could insert photos of people in suits hovering over the round tables that hotels use when you tell them your meeting is “interactive.” Then I could get on Twitter and complain that COBRA rejected my educational resource, directing people to my anti-COBRA Facebook page where my friends would log in and demand that COBRA identify its rationale for acceptance of some OERs and not others.

With all this evidence, would anyone know it’s a mirage?

Last semester when I taught first-year composition, my students were surprised that I encouraged them to use Wikipedia; evidently, none of their other professors found it acceptable. But as I explained to them, using Wikipedia actually requires a little bit more of them as researchers and readers than does an article they find in a scholarly journal. They must actively verify whether the information on Wikipedia is worthwhile. How they accomplish that intellectual task is another opportunity to further their education and develop the skills they need to be actively engaged, questioning beings.

I suspect there may be some COBRA-type organizations springing up now or later, but it’s all rather silly. The only good reason I can think of for a body to sanction OERs is as a result of collectively organizing against those whose interest is vested in deminishing any online information source (say, for instance, textbook publishers) or those who want only their own version of what “education” means (say, Bill Gates, the Khan Academy, and so on). But a reactive position is never a strong one. The stronger position invites more and more people to create, redefine, criticize, question, and use OERs.

8 Responses to COBRA…

  • damoclarky says:

    An outstanding blog post Leah, and you make a very good point. I was particularly taken by the quote in your textbook, “… [wikipedia] should never be used as a single source and should not be cited.” Integrity of information is going to be an ongoing challenge of the information age in which we live. Blanket statements such as made in the aforementioned quote do not educate people in how to go about ensuring accuracy and integrity in what you produce. The mere label of “officialism” does not necessarily ensure accuracy and integrity. Consider the Sokal affair of the 1990s where physics Professor Alan Sokal intentially submitted a fabricated article to an academic journal publication known as Social Text as an experiment in evaluating academic rigour. The paper was not peer reviewed, nor submitted for crique by outside experts in physics, and published in 1996 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sokal_affair).

    Put academia aside for a moment, and instead consider a journalistic example. How often do you see mistakes in journalistic publications, which are considered “official” sources of information. In Australia, we have a television program called Media Watch (http://www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/) that investigates and critiques journalistic integrity in the Australian Media. It is a fascinating watch, and staggering the number of times and even the scale by which the media can get it wrong. And how often they copy the same mistakes from one-another, because very few “check the facts”.

    The moral of the story is that there is more to ethical and professional writing than avoiding wikipedia as a single source.

    • Great points all! On the mark in comment about journalism. Remember how a story was made up just before the Bush One election about draft dodging? That caused the journalist to go into early retirement.

  • Pingback: Week 5: OERs – information accuracy and integrity « Damo’s World

  • Agree with damoclarky for the need to instruct students in how they can spot suspicious claims rather than just choose “safe” sources. Teaching that truth comes from certain sources and not others without explaining why is hardly instructive. What is instructive is the presumption in telling students what is and isn’t usable knowledge based essentially on the privilege of power given to instructors and publishers of expensive text books.

    If school is about indoctrination, correctness and exclusive access to and determination of the truth then I suppose the publishers little rant on Wikipedia is permissible. But what if we were training students to populate a democracy, wouldn’t we want them to make their own judgements? And what about telling them what the can and can’t learn from as if it was up to the publisher to determine educational policy?

    We grant instructors powers based on professional principals we assume they adhere to–plus they are people we know as part of our community. They are approachable. What standards do faceless publishing corporations adhere to? How would we interact with them, have a dialog with them or challenge their content? At least Wikipedia is approachable and not so presumptuous as to self-proclaim authority.

    I think we’d all be in less of a mess if we trained people to ask more questions and account for their beliefs in a manner that respects their honest effort to assemble knowledge in a way that best suits them. Shame the publishers have reacted in this way.

    Scott

  • Stu Harris says:

    You are generating a lot of thought with this weeks post. The whole idea you present reminds me of the Great Lakes Whale Watching website [http://greatlakesgazette.wordpress.com/2011/04/01/asian-carp-and-whale-watching-on-the-great-lakes/] and the North American Tree Octopus [http://zapatopi.net/treeoctopus/] website that remain live to this day to be used by teachers to show students the value of authenticating information. COBRA would make them work even harder to discern truth from fiction.

    Your additional point about Wikipedia is spot on. What better method than to have students of all ages actively participate in both authenticating information already available and to add to the knowledge base as well. Knowing that a significant number of people are working to improve a given article made available within an open environment [a very democratic one at that] raises the profile of the source..at least for me.

    There is also a huge creative aspect to all of this [we want kids to be creative and critical] and unfortunately Sir Ken Robinson says it perfectly. Schools have done such a good job of killing creativity that I now think we don’t consider creativity at all. If we did a better job of cultivating rather than killing creativity then our OER banks might be overflowing.

    Stu

  • Eva Brown says:

    Leah, this looks like an excellent scheme! Perhaps a project for your students down the road … A few years ago, one of my colleagues was teaching students how to create a wiki space–design, content, etc., and introduced the lesson by having students explore wikipedia. Our school has a page on wikipedia’s website, and as members of wikipedia, we are able to edit the content of our school’s page. My colleague had his students edit the school information–slightly–to purposefully be incorrect to determine exactly what you are illustrating. After some time, the errors had not been challenged. My colleague had his students correct the information at the end of the semester. Of course, there are a number of variables in play here that affect the reaction of readers: how many hits does the page receive, how extensive and prominent are the errors, i.e., format, content, etc.
    I agree with you that there are many people who have creative ideas. Have you ever tried to get wikipedia to accept your topic or group? That is not an easy task! Many checks and a long process later may finally find your topic published. It is important that creativity be encouraged so whether it is on wikipedia or elsewhere, it is great to share these ideas.
    Thanks for your ideas Leah!
    Eva

  • Vincent says:

    Hi Leah,
    I really like your point on Wikipedia. It is used as a reference so often by students as the only source of information. We are making a greater effort to triangulate, three points of view, for references in order to validate their information. This expands the use of Wikipedia, improves their search skills and brings forward several different nuances of the meaning of the topic of study. This is key to the students formulation of knowledge.

    Vince

  • Ben Akoh says:

    🙂 I chuckled after reading your post. Not so much from its content, which was well thought out, but because you linked to a wikipedia article to describe the word “mirage”. An irony of sorts.

    It is not so much the justification for the existence and use of wikipedia that astounded me, but your underlying inference to its use as an educational resource. In that respect, would it gather the acceptance of “COBRA” and its custodians if put through its procedural rigor? Or not.

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