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