Chapter two of Cathy Davidson and David Goldberg’s work introduces Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More to highlight how consumer buying has changed due to the online nature of shopping. Because consumers have more choices than they can absorb, sellers have created markets that are “precustomized” to their tastes. Like consumers, learners, Davidson and Goldberg continue, are exposed to an expansive number of choices and within virtual settings, are behaving in ways that are similar to the consumer. While I agree that the plethora of information presented to the student learner needs to filtered and designed to fulfill individualized needs, I hesitate to fully accept the notion that the university should mimic or model a business. I think studying the similarities between virtual learners and consumers is a worthy pursuit presenting fruitful and enlightening possibilities; however, I also believe we need to reevaluate our ethical systems and educational objectives, check ourselves, and consider what we stand for and what we value, before dive into “participatory” or digital learning. Indeed, Davidson and Goldeberg do a good job of a collecting varied opinions on the implications of digital learning, especially when they discuss issues concerning collaborative learning, open-source writing, intellectual property, and plagiarism.
In the humanities, as the authors argue, we do not see many collaborative projects or products because single-authored publishing results in not only rewards for faculty but also builds reputation. Because reputation is difficult to quantify, establishing a reward system for collaborative work becomes even more challenging. In other disciplines, such as the sciences, dividing and assigning work is more manageable since research comes in the form of field work or is conducted in laboratories. In the humanities, it seems that most research involves a rigorous examination of texts and their origins. Such a process makes collaboration difficult when most reading and writing begins at an individual level. However, this does not mean that collaboration is impossible or is even a better approach to conducting research. The subfield of pedagogy incorporates and encourages collaborative work perhaps more than any other subfield in the humanities. In part, this is due to the nature of research collected (fieldwork is possible because the object of study is the classroom and students) but also because there is a strong emphasis on community development: teachers view themselves as a community that shares, exchanges, and builds knowledge.
The idea of digital learning certainly interrogates the underlying values of traditional educational institutions, not just blurring lines between audience, writers, composers but also creating entirely new lines and rules. The implementation of anonymous contribution in scholarship is an idea that still makes me uncomfortable, because on some level, I might still be a traditionalist. Also, before we dive into it, we need to consider what we’re about. I appreciate that the beginning of The Future of Thinking does exactly that by first calling for an examination of the goals of a virtual institution. Wikipedia, as an online encyclopedia, has impacted learning far more than any encyclopedia that I know of but in order to establish itself as a serious “virtual institution,” it needs to consider what its aims, goals, and values are.