Last modified on 30 October 2005, at 03:25


My extended bio can be found at [1]

Some of my thoughts about the direction of the wikiversity project follow... My name is Alex Goldman. I am a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Florida. You can find out more about me at The idea of open source social science has recently captivated my attention. presented a poster [2] at the American Sociological Society this August on the concept and I hope to find as many other people as possible to help develop this project further. I am also in the process of writing a social theory paper based on the idea that the information technologies that have made the Wikimedia projects possible now provide the impetus for a real transition away from our educational and journalism institutions (and the industries that support them) having a monopoly on the power to produce and distribute "knowledge". I don't want to come off as here as sounding pompous (no worries – it’s really poorly written) or overly judgmental, since this is my first contribution to the wiki project, but I am very skeptical of the way that this idea of wikiversity is currently being characterized (and I guess advanced albeit slowly). The idea of accreditation to me seems folly as does the overriding focus of reproducing the textbook paradigm (which as anyone in education can tell you one of the ugliest rackets around). What encouraged me to really get involved in this project was a post I found by a "WoWo" [[3]] whom I have not yet been able to contact. I have no expertise in anything but the social sciences, so I will do my best to keep my remarks centered on matters I see as directly related to this supposed body of knowledge. The wikibooks project (which is certainly an improvement over Project Gutenberg) is a noble idea that is motivated by a true hope for more widespread public access to information. I understand that access problems abound. However, I would posit that the larger dimension of the access problem has to do with the way that most "credible knowledge" looks today. Most of the books that get produced in today’s universities are so highly specialized that 99% is directed at only a small community of like-minded specialists would be interested enough to even try to comprehend it. Most of the really cool cutting edge stuff is published in academic journals anyway. For a layperson to be able to begin to fully comprehend this kind of material, they would need access to the preceding work which made the "production" of this new "knowledge" possible. The current system behind academic journals makes access very expensive. Still, none of this really matters because the information presented within is so densely jargon laden and pedantic (at least in the social sciences) that no one would want to read it anyway. To me, the purpose of the wikiversity project (as the wikipedia project) is to provide a structure that rewards people for slogging through this information and helping to digest and excrete a well summarized version of what the document had to say. This is possible to do. In fact, this is what graduate students in the social sciences spend most of their time doing. The problem is that the various summaries do not follow a set format and are not archived in a centralized location. This should be the most basic role for this social science wiki. The next step is to begin to integrate this knowledge into a format more centered on debates over current events. The founding purpose of the social sciences was to help the public find ways to improve the quality of their lives. Many would say that this mandate has never really been fulfilled, but instead distorted and repackaged into mostly impotent academic institutions. This project must revitalize these concerns by organizing itself around the issues that concern the public most. For instance, there is greatly uninformed discussion taking place all over the country (but in my home state of Florida in particular) about the issue of child molestation. To even begin to understand the nature of this phenomenon, you need to understand what studies in psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics, law, history, and other research areas have to contribute to the discussion. I could spend the next five hundred words engaged in delineating just the broadest disciplinary areas that address the different but interlocking angles on this issue, but I will instead leave it as a worthy thought exercise for the general readership. At current, no information source exists where that people can get a good synthesis of the knowledge that relates to this issue. The mainstream media will produce a butchered abridged version made with entertainment in mind (though NPR did the best they could in an hour) and academics will produce disparate studies that touch on various angles of the problem that they could procure institutional funding to carry out, but they will likely never be put in a context where they can speak to one another to produce a higher level account of the situation and what needs to be done. Open Source Social Science holds the promise of enlisting the general public to take on this job - which is one that neither academics nor journalists were suited for in the first place. Disciplinary boundaries are not entirely useless (but likely outmoded by ever increasing specialization), but it is a waste of energy to focus on reproducing them here. Our job is to facilitate the production of small summaries of recent social science documents which will in turn provide the materials cited in a central synthesis which should be marketed toward the literate public. The challenge is to provide a structure for these "issue pages" that will be able to honor and integrate the many different explanations that the different disciplines (and factions within the disciplines) will provide. Other than the nasty habit of confronting powerful groups, the key factor which has held the social sciences back since their inception is their ununified accounts (this is always in comparison to the natural sciences) about what is happening in the world. Infighting is largely unproductive and should be minimized through wiki talk pages and left mostly to academics. However, I believe that this diversity of thought is indeed an advantage if it can be presented in the correct format. This project can do this only because of the "liquid information" advantage that the internet - and open source wikis in particular - now provide. To get this idea off the ground, I recommend the following strategies: Find professors who are interested in teaching (they can’t be too research oriented or they would never take on the added burden) and convince them to alter the nature of their class assignments to provide the necessary summarizing student labor force needed to produce primary raw source material on which this project will run. I believe this can be done in a way that actually improves how much students learn in a course (see my syllabus). Alternatively, if they are not willing to go that route for one reason or another, there is the other option of producing summaries and extensions of the information that makes up various textbooks in a particular course (there are many competing publishers). This is not up to date material, but its saving grace is that it supposedly represents an index of the best studies ever produced in a particular field, which of course would be a significant boon to the project (its backbone really). Now, to get the general public involved in the process, I think two main strategies are appropriate. One would be to have them searching just outside of the academic gates of journal subscriptions and college library cards. This means that they will scour other materials that are available to them: journalism sources, blogs, websites, public records, census data, etc. The phenomena of a news dump is perhaps the most analogous concept. Basically, you put out a call for help on finding info on a particular topic and interested people go to work. The only issue is how to keep them from doing redundant work, but I think that issue is of a more technical and organizational nature – programmers and leaders please stand up. Another would be to have them actually develop their own research agendas. This could be as simple as just talking to some neighbors or much more complicated using research methodology that hopefully we could provide them with scaffolding to help them acquire necessary skills through this very project. At first blush, independent public research would likely produce myriad ethics controversies, but here is not the place to deliberate on this matter. Finally, a permanent search committee should be established to find individuals with the skills and knowledge background necessary to produce the synthesis issue pages that will serve as the front door to the world. They must be able to comprehend and cull an incredible amount of information to produce worthy overarching position pieces. However, it would seem that as soon as these pages go up, they will recruit more and more people who have more attuned and thus more efficient information gathering skills. A system to rate the quality of particular contributors from their past submissions could likely be established to improve efficiency further. This is still but a skeletal idea structure, but I hope it advances the general debate I have seen. If nothing else, it represents me throwing my hat in the ring. I’m serious about making these ideas a reality and I hope to find like minded others to collaborate with on this project as soon as possible.