Conserve, disseminate, and advance knowledge: higher education has these key responsibilities. To the degree possible, the preferred means to conserve, disseminate, and advance knowledge have been open, cooperative, and shared. In the higher learning, secrecy becomes sorcery; science seeks the universal and puts it to tests through experiment and practice open to all. Digital information networks are creating important opportunities to conserve, disseminate, and advance knowledge more effectively through open, cooperative means. Production costs and communications constraints traditionally incurred in conserving, disseminating, and advancing knowledge are diminishing significantly, creating new opportunities to improve the work of higher education. We seek to realize these opportunities fully.
Encyclopedias have been an important means of conserving and disseminating knowledge and traditionally they have been both expensive and awkward to produce and to distribute. Wikipedia is showing how the Internet can reduce these constraints, enabling the cooperative peer-production of an encyclopedia that is free and open to all. Wikipedia is young and still rapidly developing in scope, substance, and character. It engenders both enthusiasm and concern.
An interesting concern about Wikipedia is whether it should serve as a source for students in higher education. The concern is interesting because it shows the degree to which educators are subject to cultural lag. They assume the assigning of research papers - in which students ascertain the state of knowledge of one of a myriad of potential topics and write it in prose that is too rarely lucid and too often labored. Should Wikipedia articles, which vary across the spectrum from excellent to awful, serve as a respectable source? This is the wrong question, for the assignment itself has become rapidly obsolete. Research papers have often become make-work for students and a drudge for professors to correct and annotate, a surviving testament to continuing belief in the transfer of training, for surely all that work on papers hidden away in unopened files and stacked far in the back of closets will have a public payoff as callow students learn the scholars' craft. Rather than ponder whether Wikipedia should serve as a source in such make-work, let us guide undergraduates in some real work, expecting them to assess and improve the general presentation of knowledge through Wikipedia itself. Wikipedia should not be the source for undergraduate writing assignments; it should be their outcome, the cooperative fruit of their labor, available to the world, informed by the thoughtful guidance of professors, interacting freely with the contributions of any and all others.
And then there is graduate education. In it, students need to master the current state of knowledge in their field and demonstrate that they can then make an original contribution to its advance. Most of what graduate students do in preparation for meeting these two requirements ends in a cul-de-sac. Truly strong students may benefit from writing their research papers, impressing their professors and finding a successful path to academic publication early on. Most try self-destructively to please the professor-at-hand, asking in passive mediocrity the inevitable questions — what are you looking for? how long should it be? etc. To such students, comments on the result define, not the field, but the idiosyncratic preferences of the particular professor doing the commenting. It would be far more bracing and fruitful for students to participate in producing an authoritative summation of their field in an open, self-correcting forum in which their responsibilities as working scholars were real and their contributions subject to immediate public reaction by peers. Wiki-ed aims to provide such an opportunity for graduate students engaged in the academic study of education.