Your source for official open educational resources

Recently I’ve started a project for (gasp!) a traditional educational textbook publisher, writing most of a new student edition for a middle school textbook. Within pages and pages of instructions (and revised instructions) for the inclusion of sidebar material, questions, lesson reviews, primary sources, and so on, there is this:

Wikipedia, an encyclopedia that people can change to make accurate or more up-to-date, is also available online. It is a useful reference, but should never be used as a single source and should not be cited. However, there are footnotes and links that go with the articles that can be helpful in tracking down scholarly information on the topic you are researching. 

I’ve been curious about the undertones of this short cautionary note. Clearly the words are mostly positive: people change Wikipedia entries to make them “accurate” and “more up-to-date.” Wikipedia is “useful” and “helpful,” too. Its footnotes and links direct you to “scholarly information.”  However, Wikipedia should “not be cited” and “never be used as a single source.” Like many so-called scholarly resources, Wikipedia is peer reviewed. Literally, sometimes, thousands of people have agreed that the information contained about Thing X is accurate. That’s way more people than a scholarly journal relies upon when it vets articles for inclusion (perhaps three outside volunteer reviewers, with luck). What “scholarship” has that Wikipedia does not is an institutionalized history, external forces propping it up (think “publish or perish”), and sometimes a profit motive behind it (think of those conferences). Scholarly journals are officially sanctioned because…well, because we all sanction them.

My professor in my University of Manitoba “Open Educational Resources” course wondered whether the future of OERs would include “official” OERs. By that, I am assuming he means given the old okey-dokey by teachers, scholars, researchers, practitioners…or perhaps there will arise some sort of Council of Officially Blessed Resources for the Academy  (COBRA)? More acronyms and bureaucracy always lead to order and civil society. With officialism we can sleep more soundly knowing that an organization is  looking out for us. The squirrelier part of me wants to add “COBRA” to the Wikipedia page that lists all possible cobras as acronyms or snakes. I could perform an experiment to see how long it might take someone to stumble across the page and question the entry. To foment the illusion, I could also create a fake COBRA website complete with downloadable forms that ask respondents to “submit your Educational Resource with the accompanying 12-page form” and wait six weeks for “a decision from the committee of scholars in your subject area.” Using the web, I could insert photos of people in suits hovering over the round tables that hotels use when you tell them your meeting is “interactive.” Then I could get on Twitter and complain that COBRA rejected my educational resource, directing people to my anti-COBRA Facebook page where my friends would log in and demand that COBRA identify its rationale for acceptance of some OERs and not others.

With all this evidence, would anyone know it’s a mirage?

Last semester when I taught first-year composition, my students were surprised that I encouraged them to use Wikipedia; evidently, none of their other professors found it acceptable. But as I explained to them, using Wikipedia actually requires a little bit more of them as researchers and readers than does an article they find in a scholarly journal. They must actively verify whether the information on Wikipedia is worthwhile. How they accomplish that intellectual task is another opportunity to further their education and develop the skills they need to be actively engaged, questioning beings.

I suspect there may be some COBRA-type organizations springing up now or later, but it’s all rather silly. The only good reason I can think of for a body to sanction OERs is as a result of collectively organizing against those whose interest is vested in deminishing any online information source (say, for instance, textbook publishers) or those who want only their own version of what “education” means (say, Bill Gates, the Khan Academy, and so on). But a reactive position is never a strong one. The stronger position invites more and more people to create, redefine, criticize, question, and use OERs.