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Scholars to consider the role of technology in academia

Should college students be banned from using Wikipedia in their research?


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Duke interdisciplinary studies professor Cathy Davidson - PHOTO COURTESY OF DUKE UNIVERSITY

Should college students be banned from using Wikipedia in their research? In February, the history department at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt., made news by doing just that—well, not exactly. It set a policy prohibiting students from citing Wikipedia in their papers, consistent with its policy of not citing print encyclopedias. The news prompted other colleges to follow suit, and led some to call for an outright ban on use of the collaboratively authored Web site.

Duke professor Cathy Davidson jumped into the discussion with an opinion piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education. She agreed with the policy while addressing the anxiety and derision that some of her academic colleagues express about the Internet's role in higher education.

"Rather than banning Wikipedia, why not make studying what it does and does not do part of the research-and-methods portion of our courses?" Davidson wrote. "Instead of resorting to the 'Delete' button for new forms of collaborative knowledge made possible by the Internet, why not make the practice of research in the digital age the object of study?"

Davidson teaches interdisciplinary studies at Duke's John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute. She's also co-founder of the Humanities, Arts, Science Technology and Advanced Collaboratory, or HASTAC (pronounced "haystack"), a network of more than 80 universities, science institutes, libraries, museums and other institutions across the country and abroad. HASTAC members embrace the Internet as a tool for education and research, and they want scholars in the humanities to take a pro-active role in shaping the future of digital culture.

This weekend, Duke hosts HASTAC's first international conference, "Electronic Techtonics: Thinking at the Interface," on the Duke campus from Thursday, April 19, through Saturday, April 21. The conference will bring scientists who created the Web together with scholars who use it and who are concerned about issues of teaching, research, intellectual property and fundamental humanist issues.

HASTAC began with a conversation between Davidson and University of California-Irvine professor David Theo Goldberg at a meeting of humanities scholars in 2002. Colleagues at other institutions quickly joined the group, which Davidson describes as a "social network." With funding from the MacArthur Foundation, but no formal membership structure or dues, the group launched its first programs on participating campuses in 2003.

"The kinds of issues of the information age are collective intelligence, social learning, thinking together about the future and actually creating the architecture of that future," Davidson says. "Technology issues like life and death, what it means to be human—if those aren't humanities issues, then get rid of the humanities. Those are the most humanistic issues you can think of, and if humanities professors aren't saying, 'This is our topic and we can give history to it and put it in context,' then why bother?"

John Seely Brown, former chief scientist at Xerox Corp., will give the keynote address titled "The Social Life of Learning in the Net Age" at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Nasher Museum of Art, at one of three conference events that are free and open to the public. Other speakers include Duke Law Professor James Boyle, co-founder of the Center for the Study of the Public Domain, and Dan Connolly, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who collaborated with Tim Berners-Lee on the creation of the World Wide Web. The sessions will address social justice and ethics, copyright, media history, educational gaming, funding sources and the future of the Web.

The ultimate goals, Davidson says, are lofty. "I hope that the future of the Internet is as equitable as it is creative, and that these kinds of conversations can instill those kinds of values among the people who have not only the intellectual ability but the power to actually shape the future directions of technology." She also hopes to change the culture of education, to help the classroom move beyond what she describes as 19th-century styles of instruction, "to make the learning in schools be as inventive and creative as the informal learning that kids do everyday on the Internet."


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