- THE RISE OF A PARTICIPATORY CULTURE -
Changing Notions of 'The Author' and Expertise
Critiques and Concerns
Implications for Curriculum Design
A culture of participation is rising. Its being fuelled by technologies which enable mass communication and collaboration, and its fires are being flamed by human passion, hunger for learning, and social impulse. Virtual spaces for communal co-creation and knowledge building are the flash points for these developments, where passionate individuals coalesce to engage in meaningful participative experiences. It is the intention of this essay to chart the rise of this participatory culture; how it has impacted notions of authorship and expertise, it’s critiques and concerns, and then finally, to suggest focus points in curriculum design for responsible, effective participation.
The Rise of a Participatory Culture
Our ability to come together and participate en masse hinges on the technology of the times. While there have been major leaps throughout the centuries enabling the diffusion and communication of knowledge (cave paintings, papyrus scrolls, movable type, telecommunication) few have had such a monumental impact as that of the world wide web (Lawlor, 2007, p. 14). Tapscot and Williams (2008) call them “weapons of mass collaboration” (p. 21) - low cost, low barrier to entry virtual platforms. Contribution can come in many forms: asynchronous and incremental, micro-contributions (Reagle, 2010, p. 51) or synchronous and detailed - participation need not be bound by geography or time (Wilder & Ferris, 2006). When the nature of these platforms is coupled with an exponential growth in internet connectivity (Zickuhr & Smith, 2013) tools such as wikis (a Hawaiian word meaning ‘fast’ or ‘quick’) provide compelling, effective, and easy platforms for participants to interact within (Gardner, 2014).
There exist a number of alternative (although interlinking) theories for understanding why people are coming together in these virtual spaces. One such theory revolves around the idea that participative spaces act as “communities of practice” - groups of people with a goal to extend understandings in a particular knowledge domain (Wenger, 1998). Within these communities, people find common ground and develop and share ideas. In 2005, James Gee offered his take - that the idea of a community inferred a belongingness and membership which was not necessarily present and so coined the term ‘affinity spaces’. Affinity spaces are more amorphous, diverse and informal learning spaces as opposed to the notion of a lasting community (Gee, 2005). And in later research, Mizuko Ito suggests three ‘participation genres’ which serve to relationally frame purposes for interacting: hanging out, messing around, and geeking out (Ito, 2010). These frames differ in that they are modes of participation - modes which can intertwine reflecting the idea that participants can have multiple, mobile identities which they deploy when seeking different interactions and outcomes.
Perhaps, it all comes down to human nature (Maslow, 1943; Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Rheingold, 2001). We have a deep human motivation to interact and work together in groups, and then once we do, we produce more than the sum of our parts - it is what has facilitated the advancement of the human species. We are a social animal with an imperative to communicate, always seeking technologies to enable this more effectively (Cambridge, 2002).
The reasons people come together, however, are never clear-cut, but a mixture of varied factors (Ito, 2010, p. 77). What actually occurs when people get together to collaborate, communicate and create however, is more visible. Virtual spaces are becoming rich fields of shared knowledge, reflection and deep thought, and when this is done at scale as possible through Web 2.0 technologies and social networks, the learning, knowledge and understanding generated through these shared connections is amplified (Siemens, 2004). As a result, waves are breaking throughout the realms of our social, economic and political landscape. Governments are being overthrown, galaxies classified, emergency responses coordinated, libraries digitised, and the world mapped - some incredible initiatives - the most well-known, perhaps, being Wikipedia, that vast and multifaceted mountain of crowd-sourced knowledge.
Changing Notions of 'The Author' and Expertise
Wikipedia. Launched in 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger - a multilingual, web-based, free online encyclopedia written collaboratively by over 75,000 mostly anonymous volunteers and, as of mid-2014, containing 31 million articles in 285 languages (Wikipedia: About, 2014). It’s an era defining project; a keyword of digital culture (Pfister, 2011, p. 217), one which highlights “the shifting relationship between expertise, the right to create and distribute texts, and the role of the author” (Carrington, 2009, p73) in our digital times.
Authorship is historically conceived of as a person or group of people who have created, own and control their own discreet works (Bruns, 2008). Authors’ names are inscribed upon texts and society enforces strict copyright laws which protect the rights of the author (Miller, 2005, p. 39). But the technology of our times is instigating an evolution of this conception, as sites like Wikipedia, where multitudes of individuals write collaboratively, leverage a different form of authorship - one which is undertaken by a mass of collaborators working together. In this mode, the role of the author changes from sole holder of expertise to a node of knowledge amongst a multitude of other nodes, connected together in a network (Biggs, 2010).
Our knowledge is tied up with our own personal stories (perception) therefore one person's knowledge is incomplete and boundaried by their experiences and cultural 'locatedness'. We are able to create a more expansive knowledge which more accurately reflects the reality of the way the world works (and therefore more useful knowledge) when knowledge is created from multiple sources and multiple individual's experiences (Wilber, 1998).
Knowledge production becomes a process of “collaborative invention, rather than the property of a single person” (Pfister, 2011, p. 222). Instead of revisions taking years in traditionally published works, In Wikipedia, every article is open for discussion and editing - reframing the idea of knowledge as that of a stable entity to one in constant flux: from product to process (Miller, 2005, p. 40). Being an author now means you are part of a conversation where knowledge is constantly being revised, rewritten, annotated and corrected (Coulter, 2014).
The rise of a participatory culture is challenging long held notions: expertise over a knowledge domain does not rest in the hands of the privileged few who control distribution channels and whose work is deemed to have the requisite level of robustness. Now anyone who is interested can participate and authorship then resides in the multiplicity of contributions within a diverse network. But are there risks within this participatory environment? Can you trust everything you read? What are the pitfalls of living in a Wikiworld?
Critiques and Concerns
Wikipedia is the focus of much critical discussion - most of which stems from what is considered its greatest strength but also its greatest risk: its contributions are generated from a large, diverse number of people with open editing rights (Wikipedia: About, 2014). This raises some key concerns: that information held within Wikipedia can therefore be inaccurate and that it can be the focus of “trolling” or e-vandalism.
Inaccuracies come in the form of misinformation (factually wrong information spread unintentionally) and disinformation (which is intended to mislead) (Fetzer, 2004). Articles which are monitored closely maintain a high standard; glaring trolling, e-vandalism, factually incorrect or misleading edits are removed promptly (Wikipedia: About, 2014) although in less well monitored articles, inaccuracies can persist for longer.
Despite these concerns, Wikipedia is very similar in terms of reliability to traditional encyclopedias, such as the Encyclopedia Britannica (Giles, 2005, p. 900). The very fact Wikipedia even has a self-correcting mechanism - something traditional published works do not - makes Wikipedia a robust and relatively reliable source of information (Benkler, 2006). Considering the open, complex nature of Wikipedia, this is an astounding testament to the power of a passionate community of contributors. What is important though is to treat Wikipedia as a resource, as fallible as any other, when seeking information. Being a critical user of knowledge is of the utmost importance in this age of limitless information (Jenkins, 2009, p. 80) - a competency which many learners, despite looking like they are technologically savvy, lack (Conole, 2012, p. 52).
Implications for Curriculum Design
Learning to be literate in this participatory world “requires practices with technologies and text that are qualitatively different than those attached to print literacy and the moral economies that surrounded it” (Carrington, 2009, p. 68). The following points explore some of the foci for the design of a curriculum taking this into account.
Mass collaboration involves a cacophony of voices, opinions and biases and as such, many of the literacies required in a participatory culture revolve around social skills (Jenkins, 2009, p14). The particular literacy required to bridge those different perspectives is what Jenkins terms ‘negotiation’ - an ability to find that common ground, or at least be empathetic towards others’ points of view (Coulter, 2014). It is an attitude as much as an ability (Carrington, 2009, p. 76). Nurturing this skill involves giving students practise in traversing diverse communities and issues, tackling issues containing multiple perspectives and understanding subjectivity and bias, especially their own - very deep and reflective thinking.
Students also need experience in understanding and working within the fluid, amorphous, complex knowledge ecology of today. Carrington suggests that students need to be “explicitly engaging with the contingent nature of text” (Carrington, 2009, p. 76). As authors, students also need to become comfortable with the editing of their own ideas by others: how it could be appropriated, added to, and remixed. Linked with this, students need to have a good grasp on intellectual property laws and the creative commons - when it is lawful for themselves to reuse material or others to reuse theirs (Bruns, 2008). Students need experience ‘letting go’ of their ideas - tagging and organising their work so it is accessible and discoverable by others (Bruce, Hughes & Sommerville, 2012, p. 47).
In an environment filled with competing voices, fact checking, validating information, sourcing, and double checking also becomes of central importance for producers as well as consumers of information as misinformation and disinformation is easily perpetrated (Barlett & Miller, 2011, p. 58 ). An affordance of the digital age is that these “knowledge trails” (Siemens, 2005) can be made more transparent and immediate to follow through functions such as hyperlinking and embedding. Growing a facility with the production and critical reading of nonlinear, multimodal texts over different platforms and purposes, and practice linking together ideas and citing sources is way one to grow this capability with students.
Perhaps overarching these curriculum design opportunities lies the necessity of an overall transition towards a learner-led rather than teacher-led classroom. Much like the collaborative, democratic nature of participation in a Wikipedia article and the discussion behind it, authority and expertise in a classroom should be dispersed rather than directed from the top (Zhao, 2012). Encouraging student agency, choice and voice can perpetuate the notion student do have the power to shape the world around them - they need not be passive consumers but active, self-governing participants.
The digital age is upon us - but that is not to say that what has come before us does not matter. Traditional notions of literacy are still important and students still need to experience what it is like to be an author (Jukes, McCain & Crockett, 2010). What does need to happen though is a broadening of our understanding of what literacies and fluencies will be necessary for the future. Education institutions need to start focusing on what it takes to be an effective participant within these massive, crowd-sourced conglomerations of collaboration, as they will become more and more of a catalyst for the continued advancement of our collective knowledge.
Youtube Video One: "Henry Jenkins on Participatory Culture (Big Thinkers Series)" by Edutopia via Youtube Terms of Service
Image One: "Hand Drawn Social Media Icons" by rafiki270 (used with permission)
Slideshare One: "Wikipedia: An Essential 2 Minute Guide for Students and Educators" by Dylan Bennett is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0