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. Our culture is shifting, Dede argues, not just from valuing the opinions of experts to the participatory culture of YouTube or Facebook, but from understanding knowledge as fixed and linear to a concentration on how knowledge is socially constructed. Dede writes that “the contrasts between Classical knowledge and Web 2.0 knowledge are continua rather than dichotomies . . . Still, an emerging shift to new types and ways of ‘knowing’ is apparent and has important implications for learning and education.”
Important implications indeed. Imagine the collective difficulty of the academy in following the momentum of digital culture. Web 2.0 epistemology wants to dethrone the experts? “No!” you can hear the academy 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 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.