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Epistemology and Digital Culture

Imagine your favorite lesson — that day that you look forward to every semester because you are good at it, it yields results, and is a turning point for the class. List the most important elements of that lesson. More than likely, students have digested some kind of material and your lecture or activity is one that in some sense “assembles” the content they have learned into a new, usable framework.

Here’s an example: in your anthropology course you love getting to the lesson on marriage and kinship. Before class your students have read a journal article or two or a chapter from the textbook about kinship, and you facilitate a class discussion in which students contribute examples from their own family histories, kinship models with which they are familiar through media, and their reflections on the reading. You build toward a group understanding of kinship models that values both a) “the literature” from the discipline on models of kinship and b) situating a variety of collectively understood systems with this framework. Essentially, the lesson blends theory (from experts) and application (from the group).

Back to that favorite lesson of yours. How much of its value comes from experts and how much from the students themselves? In the attached discussion, name your lesson and its intention, and then compile two lists — one list of items that the experts bring to the table and a second list of examples, attitudes, or insights that students contribute. To do this right, you have to consider something you’ve done well several times, so that you can capture average content rather than just what happened on one good day. Our goal is to focus on the best learning that happens in your classroom and an analysis of where the knowledge “comes from.”

CUT: It’s possible that the expert text wakes everyone up to a new understanding they did not possess themselves, but that moment of “awakening” does not happen until the students engage together over it.

In his article “A Seismic Shift in Epistemology” (2008) Chris Dede draws a distinction between classical perceptions of knowledge and the approach to knowledge underpinning Web 2.0 activity. “The contrasts between Classical knowledge and Web 2.0 knowledge are continua rather than dichotomies,” Dede writes. “Still, an emerging shift to new types and ways of ‘knowing’ is apparent and has important implications for learning and education.”

Our culture is shifting, Dede argues, from only valuing the opinions of experts to the participatory culture of YouTube or Facebook. The “important implications” are both philosophical and pedagogical. Understanding knowledge as fixed and linear is part of the classical learning model, and is demonstrated mostly strictly by a standardized test. On the other hand, concentration on how knowledge is socially constructed [occurs through class discussion or activity/reflection.]

Important implications indeed. Some elements of post-secondary education have a principled resistance to following the momentum of digital culture. Web 2.0 epistemology wants to dethrone the experts? “No!” you can hear some our colleagues cry. “We fought hard for our expertise, and we will not let it be degraded by making it vulnerable to a Facebook like/unlike button.” The good news is that the digital or classroom need not, and should not, embrace either position of epistemological extremism. Education can and should instead employ the strengths of both epistemological value systems. However, most of us have been educated by the classical perspective and instinctively follow the classical perspective of knowledge. The digital landscape challenges us to open to the participatory knowledge making practices of Web 2.0 while situating our academic authority within it.

“But the terminology of Chemistry is not up for debate,” one professor might complain. “Regardless of anyone’s epistemological position, we can’t relegate lab-tested scientific principles to the court of student opinion.” Of course not. What we can do, as pedagogues, is reconsider how Web 2.0 knowledge construction may help students in learning, memorizing, or demonstrating that knowledge. In the classical epistemological paradigm, the Chemistry student might study a glossary, memorize terms, and faithfully compose definitions for those terms on a quiz. Under the epistemological priority system of Web 2.0, students may prepare collaborative study guides, practice the use of scientific terminology in a peer-reviewed online writing space, and demonstrate their new vocabulary while performing tasks rather than answering questions.

In many ways that we don’t examine, our epistemological priorities determine our pedagogical ones. It’s worth examining whether a revision of either or both system will allow our students more direct avenues to knowledge production and success.

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