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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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May162007

Could Wikis Help Achieve Consensus on Edtech Policy?

If you had the opportunity to help craft federal education technology legislation, would you participate? The idea isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds, as politicians are beginning to explore wikis as a tool for collaborative policymaking. And educators could become pioneers in these experiments.

Last week I blogged about the recent feedback request by the U.S. Secretary of Education on the role of technology in the classroom. The secretary’s office has set up an online form and email address allowing educators and other interested parties to offer suggestions on edtech policy based on their professional and personal experiences.

In the blog, I encouraged educators to participate and make their answers public, so we could all engage in a broader online conversation about edtech policy. Blogs excel as platforms for conversation, and RSS technology makes it possible for us to conduct those conversations in a distributed fashion. It’s a great way to debate issues and share ideas, but it’s not necessarily the best tool for collaboration. In contrast, wikis are designed for this very purpose, allowing a group of people to access a shared space for writing and editing documents. That’s the fundamental idea behind Wikipedia and pretty much every other wiki on the Internet: a group space for crafting content.

Given this fact, it doesn’t take a major stretch of imagination to ponder the possibility of using wikis to craft public policy. Last August at Wikipedia’s annual conference, technology entrepreneur Mitch Kapor made the case for wikifying politics. “If I had one idea to offer,” he told the audience, “I think we need to have tools and software that help us argue better.” He argued that wikis are designed specifically for developing consensus, an aspiration we often fail to reach offline when it comes to politics. Online discussions related to policymaking are generally dominated by blogs, he said, but the tit-for-tat nature of blog discussions tend to calcify our political opinions rather than identify areas of common ground.

For a while now I’ve been thinking about what Mitch said last summer, wondering if the idea could ever work. Last night, I got a chance to hear from a Capitol Hill staffer thinking about the same thing. The DC chapter of the nonprofit technology network NetSquared invited Justin Hamilton, legislative aide to Rep. George Miller (D-CA), to talk about the potential role of wikis in policymaking. Hamilton has been pondering an idea similar to Mitch Kapor’s vision. He’s hoping to develop a wiki that will encourage the public to work together and achieve consensus on potential legislation. A wiki could allow members of the public to bring their collective expertise to the table and stake a claim within the legislative drafting process. It would take a lot of work, particularly in terms of keeping the discussions civil, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be done.

In at least one instance, the idea is actually proving successful at the state level. Steve Urqhart, a Republican member of Utah’s House of Representatives, created a wiki called Politicopia to invite Utahns into the legislative. Participants in Politicopia carefully articulate the arguments in support of a bill, as well as against it, then use the wiki’s discussion pages to debate them.

Rep. Urqhart tries to keep the rules simple:

Help Wanted. Anyone can edit or create a page. To discourage trolls and spammers, registration is required. This is an experiment in open democracy.

On the pro and con arguments, please stick to your side. If you don’t like the other side’s argument, rebut it on the other side of the ledger or tear it apart in the comments.

Be cool.

In the course of documenting these arguments, they seek to identify areas of common ground and actually rework the legislation so it better reflects those points of consensus. Justin Hamilton hopes a similar idea could work at the federal level as well.

Some of you must be wondering what does this have to do with education, apart from the fact that you might be a wiki enthusiast, or even a skeptic. Well, it’s because Justin Hamilton happens to work for the chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, whose portfolio includes the reauthorization of the federal No Child Left Behind legislation.

As Justin talked at yesterday’s event, I immediately began to envision this utopian group hug taking place on a wiki, with people of all political persuasions coming together to craft the perfect piece of education reform. I then must have snickered aloud, because a couple people sitting next to me gave me a look for just a split second. In the discussion following Justin’s talk, several attendees discussed the possibility of using a wiki to rewrite NCLB, and the general consensus in the audience seemed to be to avoid the idea at all costs, based on the assumption that it would be a disaster.

As the night went on, I began to realize that perhaps this might not be true, if it were done in a limited, focused manner. For one thing, if the wiki idea were ever to work, you’d have to start by developing policy ideas that are bipartisan no-brainers, so participants can build trust among each other and hopefully come up with an early success. Beginning this project by tackling all of NCLB wouldn’t exactly achieve that goal.

However, one might begin this congressional wiki experiment by inviting teachers to collaborate on one very small, but important goal of No Child Left Behind known as Title II, Part D:

To assist every student in crossing the digital divide by ensuring that every student is technologically literate by the time the student finishes the eighth grade, regardless of the student’s race, ethnicity, gender, family income, geographic location or disability.

Those 39 words are the legislation’s only specific requirement on achieving technological literacy, whatever that means. Should it be more specific? If so, in what way? And if not, why not? And who’s best to offer expertise on this issue? Technology-using educators, of course. And perhaps students as well, since they’re the intended beneficiaries of this goal.

Just as the Secretary of Education is seeking feedback on her department’s role in edtech policy, why shouldn’t we expect the same of Congress? Using a well-managed wiki so educators could debate the federal role of technology literacy requirements would be a fascinating way to begin this congressional wiki experiment, because the notion of students achieving technology literacy isn’t a partisan one. We may disagree on the means to achieve that end, or what specific goals should be met within the definition of technological literacy, but it’s still an end goal we all share generally. A congressional wiki seeking the best thinking of classroom practitioners on technology literacy would be one small way for teachers to participate in the edtech policy process. Would it work? Who knows. But it would be a shame if we didn’t try. -andy

Filed under : Media Literacy, People, Policy, Wikis

Responses

First, I really liked the idea of the Utah representative creating a wiki on bills. The major downside to that is that he’ll only get responses from those tech savvy enough to find and edit his wiki, and not all (most?) of them will be his constituents, let alone Utah voters. Still, the need and potential for wikis and the Net in general to engender political participation is an excellent idea.

As far as those few words regarding “8th graders being technologically literate” I have one a one word response: pathetic. First it is so overly broad and vague as to reach the point of meaninglessness. Second, I see this being used as a way of eliminating courses and access to tech after 8th grade. Third, most states haven’t even adopted tech standards (although I’d simply recommend using the ones that ISTE has in place). Fourth, I definitely agree that having a wiki in place where tech savvy educators could put in their own two cents would add a great deal of meaning to that section (obviously not thought through by the politicians who wrote it). Fifth, “tech literacy” is an ongoing process that means education in general understand the needs of students regarding 21st Century Skills. This also means teaching across the curriculum and moving away from simply looking at tech (or any subject) in isolation.

I seriously doubt given the weight given to “standards” and high stakes testing that NCLB will move away from encapsulated courses, which really are an atavistic approach to teaching, let alone learning. Still, I think that if educators were given more of an opportunity for input before the next round of NCLB is up, we might have a chance to improve the situation.

The best part of your idea is the notion of “seeking the best thinking of classroom practitioners,” and certainly a wiki would bring out the best of the (tech-savvy) best. My Question: can we use a wiki tool that automatically generates the Executive Summary section — which is all the legislators and their staffs will likely read?

The power of a wiki is in both collaboration and debate (the Discussion tool). A true grass-roots effort needs to draw attention to the latter part of the process, as well. We could give a test on comprehension skills and “main idea” from the Discussion area, perhaps?

Andy:

Thanks for this great post and idea. I’m a huge fan of wikis, but for the dialog Secretary Spellings is asking for, I feel that a threaded forum discussion would be much better. So I set the four questions up at www.Classroom20.com. We have almost 1000 educators/friends signed up there, and anyone can join in.

Maybe, just maybe, we’ll even get the Secretary’s office to participate… :)

Andy:

What has occurred to me, now that there has been some dialog on this, is that a wiki would be really good if there were some proposed legislation to work from. Then people could respond and make tweaks here and and there, or radical reformations, but you would really need a base to start from.

There are a lot of ways in which wikis “work,” and maybe there is another way that a wiki might work for this. What the dialog is making clear to me is that there are a lot of ways of looking at this complex topic, and the whole thing is a little bit of a confusing mess at this time. If someone, or a small group, determined to organize the ways in which computer technology is used in education, and then to classify the arguments before and against its value, a slightly fleshed-out skeleton could be created in wiki form that could also generate refining/reforming contributions. This has the added benefit of potentially inviting good “neutral point of view” contributions from all sides.

I actually like this second idea a lot. It is the creation of a wiki for the purpose of better understanding, and starts with someone or a group surveying the current situation and building enough structure to invite participation. Anyone game to work on this?

That sounds a lot like what we talked about at the NetSquared meeting. Several folks warned about setting up a policy wiki without providing context, perhaps starting with a draft of something that wasn’t too controversial and have people practice. Then as the community develops trust, they can roll up their sleeves and dive into some bigger projects. And the Politicopia example shows the utility of having people map out pro/con articles on different policy issues.

Perhaps you should get in touch with Justin Hamilton, the brains behind the congressional wiki project, unless you’re thinking of doing something more independently.

Andy:

I agree with the comments from NetSquared. I do think it would make the most sense for this kind of a wiki to come from the educational community itself.

As an example of what we’re discussing, I began to think of the different uses of technology in education, and it became quite clear to me that discussing the computer as though it were only one tool in education is sometimes the problem. In just 15 minutes I came up with the following list of beneficial uses for technology in schools—and I am sure there are more (better) categories than this. But this does begin to build the kind of structure that could provide productive wiki work:

Administrative (traditional: accounting, attendance, scheduling, etc.)
Administrative (progressive: “data mining,” student trends, early problem detection, etc.)
Teacher Use
* Preparation
* In-class (projector, whiteboard, etc.)
* Professional Development
Student Productivity
* Writing Tool (descendant of pencil and typewriter, keyboarding)
* Business Analysis Tool (spreadsheets, databases, presentation programs)
Instructional
* Computer-aided Instruction (software to aid in teaching existing material)
* Programming (Logo, logic training)
Professional Training
* Programming
* Computer administration
* Design and manufacture
Learning Enhancement (probably the main focus of this Classroom 2.0 network)
* Writing (blogging)
* Communication (email, video-conferencing, internal and external communication)
* Self-study
* Distance education
* Collaboration (messaging, wikis, web 2.0)
* Customized Learning Platform
Future / Unknown / Transformational (uses of the computer that we cannot predict, but which will come just from having the technology available)

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