Last week I was chatting to my lovely friend, Victoria – online, because that’s how we all chat these days, isn’t it? We were on Twitter, in fact, and she posted this photo of a big stack of books on media and culture, groaning that she had to read and make sense of them all by 5pm that day. I summarized the content for her in a tweet: ‘we used to think internet powerful resource for democratization of knowledge. now know it’s for pics of cute cats.’ So we had a bit of a giggle over the ether then she said ‘if I could do my thesis in a series of tweets I’d be in heaven!’ We laughed some more (we’re easily amused) and then I started thinking well, why not?
It reminded me of a conversation I had with a colleague who said he let his students quote Wikipedia – a conversation that became a spirited debate that threatened to turn into World War 3. I was appalled by the notion that unattributed, unverified and occasionally utterly untrue sources could be considered legitimate academic resources. He argued (quite vociferously for a mild-mannered prof) that, as we teach media and communications studies, we have to recognize the contemporary media that students refer to; they can access a wealth of information online, far more than they’ll have access to hard copy. For him, the more we teach online to students in far flung corners of the globe, the truer this becomes.
Our debate/fist fight became not just about the legitimacy of Wikipedia as a resource but about online research more generally. The sheer volume of material now available threatens to overwhelm students and they need some kind of jumping off point. Used to be that you could read Foucault, a handful of books about him, a few journal articles (which were in actual journals in a actual library) and perhaps some conference papers and you had a broad overview of the man and his musings. Now, when a quick Google search brings up 21.5 million hits for ‘Foucault’ in 0.24 seconds, where on earth are students supposed to start? Why, Wikipedia, of course!
I’ll admit I’ve come full circle on this. Not that they should be citing Wikipedia – I can’t go that far – but that its use for ‘pre-research’ has become an almost essential part of the process of filtering information. This article from the Chronicle of Higher Education notes that the inaccuracy of some Wikipedia entries has actually prompted some academics to up their game. If students are going to use it – possibly to prevent their brains from exploding – it’s perhaps incumbent upon their professors to make sure what they find there makes sense.
Which brings us back to Twitter. When I started studying in – *coughs awkwardly* – the late 80s, we were still using the same techniques as medieval times. But what’s considered legitimate in academia is inevitably and necessarily changing more rapidly than ever before. I have little doubt, then, that before too long there’ll be a PhD thesis written in a series of tweets – or cute pics of cats…
The irony of not being able to find the name of the person who created the ‘Thanks Wikipedia’ image (found online, of course) is not lost on me.