Thursday, May 29, 2008

Citizendium and Eduzendium

The medium of innovation: Citizendium and Eduzendium

Robert L. Fielding

With almost universal access to the Internet comes what may be described as the ‘democratization of access to information’ – access to information once confined to specialists has now become available to anyone with a connected computer.

Sites such as Wikipedia proliferate, and although some are devalued, others such as Citizendium and its sister site, Eduzendium are striving to maintain credibility with users.

Co-ordinated by Dr. Sorin Matei, Associate Professor at Purdue University, Eduzendium seeks to provide high quality English language entries for Citizendium. It invites university instructors ‘to include the crafting of an article for its pages into an assignment.’ In other words, it is starting collaborative educational and knowledge generation initiatives with higher education institutions such as ours.

Working from the notion that anyone who struggles with the meaning of fundamental concepts regularly (what teachers do every day) turns them into competent authors. As educators, we all know that to be able to teach something, you first have to fully understand it – put the other way round, if you fully understand something, you can teach it and also write about it.

And while it is admitted that teaching a subject is entirely different to writing intelligibly about it, it is surely true that a good working knowledge of a subject is a prerequisite to writing about that subject.

Now, while we might all claim to know our subject, how many of us would feel competent writing it all up? This question brings me to another one: Why do we expect our students to write about something about which they may know very little, and struggle with the nuances of the language at the same time whilst simultaneously admitting we are not always comfortable doing it?

Citing the two sites: Citizendium and Eduzendium, what I would like to suggest is that we as educators ‘go back’ to basics for a while by going through some of the steps required to write a readably informative article for such a site.
Even writing about something as familiar to us as our own life events, we would be faced by such considerations as coherence and cohesion – two aspects of writing, that while being essential to something we refer to as being ‘well-written’, are often given scant consideration in the language classroom, particularly when we are overwhelmed by those monumental areas of students’ errors in writing: grammar, punctuation and spelling..

In laymen’s terms, we may speak about whether an article is readable as well as delivering the amount and kind of information we expect from it. Everyone has had the experience of plodding through some densely worded academic apotheosis at undergraduate level, only to discover later that its content never deserved to be clothed in such fine linguistic raiment.

‘Keeping it simple’ might well be frowned upon by some in their ‘ivory towers’ elsewhere, but the ability to write sentences that are succinct and economical is a skill that needs practice. Here, in Eduzendium, is a means of learning that skill.

If, as said earlier, the world-wide-web is a force for the universality of knowledge, then the language used must be accessible. Just as a CEPA question for candidates to answer must be to the point whilst staying within the specified corpus of words, so must an article hit the target of the audience at which it is aimed.

The rewards for writing an acceptable piece for inclusion in such a site’s pages are immediate: seeing one’s words ‘out there’, as it were.

Of course, the process of creating something worthy of such inclusion may be a fairly long one – hopefully, not longer than a semester, and after all, a great deal of learning would take place in the meantime, would it not?

And, as the authors of the site say, ‘writing a high-quality encyclopedia article requires, and trains, a specific sort of effort or discipline.’ Connecting a plethora of facts into something that can readily be understood and even enjoyed is a skill that stands anyone achieving it in good stead for a life in the modern world, replete with the need to successfully and quickly decode or encode messages.

University students are surely the lucky ones – they are taught how to do this before they face it in real life situations in the workplace. The rest have to muddle through where success or failure can mean the difference between having an occupation that is satisfactory, in every sense, and one that is not.

At the site ( ), Dr. Lee Berger provides advice to instructors that have made the decision to use the program in their courses. No particular, specific expertise, it claims, is required to join a collaborative effort. Guidance is comprehensive and the journey so guided will certainly be an enriching one – educationally and spiritually as a confidence-building scheme.

Citizendium offers a wide variety of stimuli and support to educators and would-be contributors, ranging from blogs to writing competitions – one such is the ‘Monthly Write-a-thon’, as well as a competition to write the 4,000 highest priority articles.

Forums on actual policy making decisions are linked on the homepage, as are Workgroups, organized in six categories: Natural Sciences, Arts, Social Sciences, Humanities, Applied Arts and Sciences, and Recreation. The site provides users with the opportunity to request new Workgroups, illustrating an openness and a willingness to incorporate work on all areas of knowledge.

In the Social Sciences, Workgroups on the following areas are included:

Ø Anthropology
Ø Archaeology
Ø Economics
Ø Education
Ø Geography
Ø Law
Ø Linguistics

Within Humanities, Workgroups exist in these areas:

Ø Classics
Ø History
Ø Literature
Ø Philosophy
Ø Religion

Within Arts:

Ø Architecture
Ø Music
Ø Theatre
Ø Visual Arts

Applied Science Workgroups include ones in the following areas:

Ø Agriculture
Ø Business
Ø Computers
Ø Engineering
Ø Food Science
Ø Healing Arts
Ø Health Sciences
Ø Journalism
Ø Library and Information Science
Ø Media
Ø Military
Ø Robotics

From Recreation, there are Workgroups centred around:

Ø Games
Ø Hobbies
Ø Sports

And in the world of the physical Sciences:

Ø Astronomy
Ø Biology
Ø Chemistry
Ø Earth Sciences
Ø Mathematics
Ø Physics

Within the pages provided b y the Computer Workgroups, there are 367 articles of varying lengths on subjects such as Podcasting, Phishing and Piazza Telamatica, and about such items as Artificial intelligence, Akalabeth, and Assembly Language.

In Journalism, articles are already provided on Editing copy, Copyrighting, and Citizen Journalism.

The breadth and variety of articles already provided online and growing in number daily should ensure that students’ attention is riveted, particularly when getting involved in writing entries for existing workgroups and initiating new ones is possible. What this project amounts to, in not so many words, is a people’s university in which students and teachers can become both writers and editors, as well, of course, as readers wishing to further their knowledge.
Robert L. Fielding


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