Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Authority? What's That?

Tim Bray's latest blog entry raises a question I expect as a teacher and IT Coordinator I will hear more and more: how can we be sure that the info on a website is reliable and authoritative?

First, let me quote from Tim's blog:

Let’s ask an interesting real-world question that real-world people might ask: for each of the ten provinces of Canada, what is its population? Let’s suppose you’re not a Canadian insider who knows that the Source Of All Numbers is Statistics Canada. So, you could go to Wikipedia, which would be easy and quick. From East to West you’d look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newfoundland, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prince_Edward_Island, and, well, I’ll stop there, because the pattern is obvious. On each of those pages you’ll find the population, along with a lot of other basic facts, presented crisply and legibly, no further steps required. ¶But you know, that’s just the Wikipedia; some joker might have gone in and changed the number by couple hundred thousand up or down, just for fun. Wouldn’t you be better off going to a source with some real authority?

ongoing · Wikipedia: Resistance is Absent

Tim goes on to explain how he then searched on the government websites of the various provinces, and was confronted by lousy web design, URIs that only a machine or an ├╝ber-geek could conceive (for example, www.gov.on.ca/ont/portal/!ut/p/.cmd/cs/.ce/7_0_A/.s/7_0_252/_s.7_0_A/7_0_252/_l/en?docid=EC001035 -- wha...?) and he concludes that "Wikipedia is going to win". Given his original premise -- if you want to have authority on the Web, you have to show up on the Web... And those who ought to enjoy more authority than Wikipedia aren’t [emphasis mine] -- it seems safe to conclude that Tim isn't entirely happy with this situation.

So let me make a few observations.

Tim is probably right in thinking that far too many people would read the Wikipedia articles and be satisfied with that, not bothering to check further. Students often tend to do this. Mine would if I let them... but I don't.

I've taken to telling my students that websites are not "nuggets of information" waiting for them to come and pick them up, but signs on a trail leading to the "real answer". The trail metaphor is a handy one, since it suggests that they have to continue on, following the links, occasionally doubling back from dead-ends to re-find the trail, and so on.

Some of my students would have certainly found the stats Tim wanted much faster than Tim -- they would have scanned through the Wikipedia article's links and found at the bottom this link: StatCan 2001 Census which is sort of where Tim ended up, but via a longer route.

Then there's the issue of people changing entries in Wikipedia. There's no question, people do weird and stupid things, and changing entries in Wikipedia is one of them. But an even stranger thing also happens -- people fix the mistakes! They get very defensive about it. And it's why Wikipedia works.

But there's one phrase in Tim's blog that really stands out for me: Wouldn’t you be better off going to a source with some real authority? [Emphasis mine]

Define real authority. (Actually, I might pose this as a question to a senior Computing class.) Government websites? (Is that laughter in the background?) Newspaper columns? University sites? Books? (Remember Margaret Mead vs Derek Freeman? I won't even mention Derrida.)

I know that for many, the suggestion that "real authority" is largely ephemeral will ring of heresy. But I'm part of a generation that has grown up realising that the "authorities" all too often spoke (and still speak) a lot of BS.

I would like to think that students who are now growing up with the Web, like my own daughters, will turn out to be fairly savvy when it comes to evaluating info from the Web, from the media, from wherever. They'll know that there's a need to check and cross-check and evaluate and never take any of it for granted. And they may not need to know how to spell authoritative.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Web to point.. oh?

Last Thursday and Friday, I was at an IT Integrators Conference in North Sydney. I got to see an interesting cross-section of things being done in Australian schools, as well as hearing from some compelling speakers, particularly Jim Mullaney and Stephen Downes. The common theme was "Web 2.0" (though there was some discussion that maybe that term has now been copyrighted? Oh, please - next someone will try to take out a trademark on "ugg boot"... oh... right).
So now the places where IT and education are coming together are blogs and wikis and newsfeeds and learning management systems. That's fine for me, I'm familiar with all these things, but in a short time I will become responsible for staff who are almost totally unfamiliar with these things and who are still trying to get their heads around how to integrate web browsers and email and word processors and Powerpoint into their classroom practice. "Web 2.0? I'm still at Web 0.2, thanks!"
The challenge is how to bring these staff up to speed on what they can do in the classroom with IT, but on the positive side, Web 2.0 presents far more opportunity for students to be involved in the technology. I always worried (still do) about how Powerpoint is used in classrooms - I've seen too many people (from Principals down) using several thousand dollars worth of equipment to do what could be done with an old-fashioned overhead projector. (The term is "powerpointlessness" - thank you, Jamie MacKenzie - check out From Now On.) Web 2.0 tools - blogging, wikis - allow students to put their own thoughts and ideas online and participate in a dialog that can be larger than the classroom and longer than the lesson.
That's not to say that Powerpoint presentations, email and Excel spreadsheets don't have their place - obviously they still do. But Web 2.0 tools have the potential to redefine pedagogy in a way that "office" software and older web-base software didn't.
I think the key idea is dialog, with students being participants in the processes of uncovering and connecting disparate components of knowledge. If that's a little hard to follow, I suppose it's because I'm not exactly a constructionist, nor a connectivist in how I view knowledge.
How well I get this across to my colleagues remains to be seen.

Blogging with Flock

So I'm using Flock to manage blogs and newsfeeds, but in checking to see how it handled the feed from my own blog, it's not been too happy.

The problem would appear to lie in the way Flock is formatting the HTML it sends to Blogger. Or perhaps in what Blogger is doing with it.

As an experiment, I'm sending this post to Blogger via Flock, but I'm keeping a copy of Flock's html so I can compare it to what ends up in Blogger.

Should be interesting.

Update 1: So far, there's no problem, so I'll try editing in Blogger and see if it takes. (This is where things went awry before.) I'll add styling in this post, maybe that's where the problem lies.

The other issue is that the new post shows up in Vienna, but not in Flock itself. Very strange.

Update 2: adding styling hasn't caused problems.

I'll try blockquotes and links. Here's Ongoing.

What else can I try?

Update 3: the HTML gremlins have gone away, but Desultoration still won't show as a new post in Flock. $#@!

Update 4: it's the next morning, and suddenly the new posts in Desultoration have appeared in Flock. ?!?!? Okay, it's only beta software, and I should know better than to expect it to work perfectly. Still, if it continues to happen, I'll be giving the News part of Flock a wide berth.

Blogged with Flock