A Wiki Education

PUBLISHED: January 18, 2011

Educators concerned over the digital revolution’s impact on schools should review two notable quotes that have kicked around for decades.

The first came from the renowned journalist A.J. Liebling who wrote in The New Yorker, ‘‘Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.’’ Liebling made the observation in 1960, before the Internet and digital technology began the process of turning printing presses into museum pieces.

The second is attributed to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, who famously noted, ‘‘Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts.’’ Moynihan said it before the term ‘‘wiki’’ entered the lexicon, forever blurring matters of fact.

The ability to self-publish and to be simultaneously reckless with facts should raise a warning flag for all modern communicators, but nowhere is the need for caution greater than in education.

A shift from printed textbooks to electronic formats is well underway and is, for the most part, a good thing. But a wrinkle is the ease with which digital teaching materials can be altered, even distorted, by users.

Publisher McGraw-Hill now operates a division called Create, through which teachers can design their own textbooks. The primary resource for these texts is McGraw-Hill’s library of over 4,000 books and 5,500 articles, from which content is culled electronically to create a new book. The finished product is available in both printed form and as an e-book.

In creating their own volumes, teachers are able to delete portions of existing texts and intersperse their own writings and notes. The benefit of giving individual teachers such power is likely to depend not only on their expertise and skill, but also on such factors as their political and religious beliefs.

Teacher discretion about course material has always varied among schools and districts, even when old-fashioned printed texts were the only option. Yet, the statewide or district-wide approval process for books tends to provide a framework in which teachers must operate. It also gives students the clarity and comfort that comes from a larger, usually more accomplished, authority.

That’s not to say that textbooks aren’t already facing criticism in many regions. In Texas, for example, books have been modified by state order to reflect recently revised views about such things as taxes, separation of church and state, and what Texas officials have deemed are the ‘‘unintended consequences’’ of affirmative action. This is troublesome enough without giving rogue teachers the power to tailor texts to suit a particular agenda.

Even the Texas Board of Education stopped short of adopting a proposal that would have required all textbooks to refer to President Obama only by his full name, Barack Hussein Obama. But if an individual teacher wishes to have it read that way in a self-published e-book, it can be done with a few keystrokes.

The Wikimedia Foundation, operator of the enormously popular Wikipedia Internet encyclopedia, has a companion site known as Wikibooks, containing 2,333 online textbooks that, the site proudly proclaims, ‘‘anyone can edit.’’ In an announcement aimed at educators, Wikibooks describes itself as ‘‘uniquely suited for use in classroom collaborative projects.’’

Is it possible that while many teachers flatly prohibit students from using Wikipedia for research because of its very wiki nature, some would embrace Wikibooks as ‘‘uniquely suited’’ for inclusion in class?

The shift into the digital world is not only inevitable; it is essential to the larger task of modernizing and elevating America’s standing in education. However, with each new tool comes the requirement for caution.

It is true that a press is no longer needed to publish. But it remains unequivocal that no one is entitled to his own facts, especially in the classroom.

(c) Peter Funt. This column first appeared in The Boston Globe.

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