Friday, June 11, 2004

A Throttle to Knowledge? Response to AKMA on "Links Pages"

[See update]

In a comment on a recent post, AKMA mentions a conference paper he gave recently:

Cards, Links and Research -- Teaching Technological Learners

The article deals with the question of the metadata that the researcher has traditionally been able to glean from getting books out of libraries -- looking at the call card, the condition of the book and so on. He laments the lack of such obvious metadata in the case of internet resources and makes a proposal for a possible solution, involving "vote links" and the "seeded search". His central concern is to address the need of encouraging students to develop their critical sensibility to internet resources, to teach them to find ways to distinguish between different resources. AKMA's paper is a stimulating read and his proposals for the future are pretty interesting. While sympathetic to AKMA's desire to find fresh ways of encouraging students to develop their ability to discern good internet resources, what I would like to respond to in this post is not AKMA's proposals for the future but his diagnosis of what is wrong with the current situation. I would like to dispute the key premise of AKMA's article, that the "links pages" like my own "entail certain definite pitfalls". First, let us focus on the reasons AKMA feels that their days are numbered:

(1) It is hard work for the maintainers of these pages -- they are "back-breakingly labor intensive". AKMA suspects that "links-pages will in a short while have to give way to the sheer brute accumulation of information."

(2) The solutions cannot be ever more narrowly-focused subject matter since creating such resources will likewise be massively labour intensive.

(3) The really big problems with the "links-page", though, are not practical but pedagogical. They invest too much authority in the "links-page maintainer" and restrict the flow of the student's attention:
A links page functions as a throttle to knowledge; even as it promotes awareness of responsible research on its topic, its job is to restrict the flow of attention. That runs diametrically against both the path of information technology and the course that human inquiry ought to take. Although knowledge constitutes much more than the mere accumulation of information, one essential ingredient in durable, flexible learning involves distinguishing sound from unsound information — a capacity that one can’t develop if one always encounters information that’s already been filtered.
I would like to respond to AKMA's exposition of the problems with "links pages", but first a terminological matter. By "links pages", AKMA means resources like my New Testament Gateway, Felix Just, S.J.'s Johannine Literature Web, Torrey Seland's Resource Pages for Biblical Studies, a page by Sheila McGinn for which he does not provide a URL (but see my previous link for her homepage) and the Wabash Center Internet Guide. I am not sure that the term "links page" is a helpful one for these sorts of sites. To be frank, the term is potentially disparaging given that these sites are more than simply pages of links. They are more usually described with terms like "gateways", "mega sites" or "super sites", to distinguish them from the simple "links page" where an individual simply lists a few links of interest, the kind of page that is often appended to an individual's homepage. In what follows, I will use the term "gateways" and "gateway resources" for these major sites and I hope that it will become clear why I regard the good gateway resource as far more than simply a "collection of more-or-less annotated links". With that terminological matter dealt with, let me move to the more substantive issues.

AKMA compliments the hard work, diligence and charity that goes into gateway resources. Given that a lot of work does indeed go into developing and maintaining a gateway, I appreciate AKMA's appreciation of that effort. But I would add that ideally the gateway resources are not simply consulted because of that diligence but also because of the perceived expertise of the authors of the gateways in question. In other words, the reason that I might be interested in what Felix Just, S. J. selects on Johannine Literature is because I respect his ability to discern higher quality resources. Further, while it is encouraging to have the hard work of developing such resources acknowledged, I would discourage anyone from worrying too much about the effort people like me put in to them. I can only speak for myself, but there is no need to worry about my social life, and I manage to keep my own site going not because I have a troop of student helpers (I don't), but because I enjoy doing it. As I have often said in the past, when I stop enjoying developing the NT Gateway is when I will stop doing it.

But on the work-load effort, AKMA's essential point is, if I understand him correctly, that given the huge current work-load, and given the ever-expanding internet, it is unlikely that gateway resources will be able to keep up. They will collapse under the pressure. But I think that what one has to ask here is whether the signs are that the gateways are buckling under the pressure or whether they are allowing and encouraging their own organic development to face the present and future challenges. My own optimistic outlook is that they are changing, adapting, evolving, in the face of the new pressures, and their evolution is enhancing their quality rather than detracting from it. The most obvious way in which this is happening is with the arrival of blogging. The reason many of us were interested when Torrey Seland began his Philo blog was that we already knew and respected Torrey from his Resource Pages for Biblical Studies, especially its Philo resources page, for which the blog was an obvious complement. When I began the New Testament Gateway in 1998, I could not have foreseen that blogging would in fact enhance all sorts of elements on the site. Let me illustrate. I have rolled several of the older features of the NT Gateway into the NT Gateway Weblog, in particular the Featured Links page, the Notices page and the Logbook. All of these were doing things that could be achieved more successfully in a blogging environment and with a little less effort and much more fun. Updating the NT Gateway and weblog is now much more enjoyable than it used to be, not less. Who is to say that in another five years time there will not be a similar boon to the managers of gateway resources, and which we will also think seriously about utilising?

The use of blogging as an enhancement of gateway resources helps in another important way. AKMA acknowledges that annotations in a gateway resource provide helpful metadata, but feels that "useful annotations are uncommon". Regardless of the relative use of the annotations on the gateway, the blog allows one to comment additionally, more expansively and less formally on the resources getting listed on the site. Moreover, comments features, related blogs and academic e-lists can and often do pick up on given resources on which one has blogged, so adding to the array of metadata on that resource. I might add that when blogging a resource, I often use my informal comments as the basis for the more formal annotation on the site. In summary, the synergy between gateway, its related blog, as well as other blogs and e-lists, greatly enhances the array of metadata generated by a particular resource. Far from the "links page" gradually becoming moribund, the ideal gateway opens up not only a world of quality resources but also a vast range of metadata to help scholars and students to pinpoint the best and most useful resources.

I would also dispute the notion that gateway resources inevitably vest "a problematic authority" in the author of those resources. I can only speak of my own experience of maintaining a gateway site, but working on the NT Gateway is all about the business of engaging with peers, students and outside enthusiasts about what works and what does not work, what should go in and what should stay out. It is not just a question of the everyday, interactive process of looking out to see what others are recommending on the web, in blogs, in e-lists, but is also a question of listening and testing. The vast majority of resources listed on the New Testament Gateway appear there because I have been directly alerted to them. Sometimes this is by the authors of those resources but often it is by enthusiasts who have already tried and tested the resources they are suggesting I add. These are the unsung heroes of the gateway resource, those people who do not just enjoy an internet site in the privacy of their study but who want to share it with the world, and who know that a good way to do this is to get it onto a gateway.

In relation to this, I am not particularly enthusiastic about AKMA's terms "filtered links" and "filtered links approach". The term "filtered links" sounds tautological. Are not all links, by their very nature, filtered? That is what makes them "links" and not "sites". AKMA's objection is to an illusion; the argument is with a caricature of how a good gateway functions. AKMA configures the situation negatively -- he focuses solely on the gateway's restrictive purpose, on what it leaves out. It filters, it restricts, it throttles:
Filtered links not only hobble our students’ intellectual growth — they also militate against the trajectory of technological development, which tends toward the proliferation of information and alternatives. Filtering tries to build a bulwark against information flow — but at the cost of denial, of inflexibility, and of an antithetical approach to technological possibilities. Rather than devoting our energies to holding back the flood of information, we and our students need to learn from the technology how best to navigate, to negotiate, to discern among the myriad alternatives for research.
But why should we configure the purpose of gateway resources so negatively? The negative imagery is unhelpful because it does not describe the way authors view their gateway resources and, more importantly, the way their users see them. The term gateway is popular in this context because of the positive connotations of the implied imagery. Such sites are intended to open the gates and welcome the user to a world of knowledge, providing a way in not to a restricted zone with a rarefied atmosphere, but to a multitude of valuable resources, many of which themselves provide gateways to further valuable resources.

But of course the gateway resources select some sites and reject others. In this sense they do engage in the business of restricting the flow of certain information, and all strength to their arm for doing so. All academics are necessarily engaged in the process of distinguishing between materials on the basis of their quality. On the whole, the bibliographies at the end of our books are our selections of books and articles that we regard as worthy of attention, and on the whole we restrict ourselves to listing those and not others. It does not mean that we are not well aware that there are likely to be many others that we have not had the time or the good luck to come across. The point is that our bibliographies are restrictive but not prescriptive. They are not saying that this is all you should read, but that these are some resources that I have read and found worth engaging. So too the internet gateway. It is not prescriptive. The intention is not to limit the number of resources that anyone might want to look at, but to provide some helps to the user about good places to start, possible ways to navigate through a difficult topic, a range of different resources on a given theme.

I suspect that most users of gateway resources appreciate that while their authors are attempting to be as comprehensive as possible, the sites are never going to be exhaustive. And with this realisation comes appreciation of a key function of the gateway, that far from discouraging students to distinguish for themselves between good and bad internet resources, they actually help to educate them in how to do this. The student writing an essay on the Historical Jesus is not simply let loose to google in the dark until they have come up with a few scrag ends of dubious worth. The gateway gives them some starter resources, some hints, some pointers, a way to feel their way into the topic. It is just the same discipline as the age-old teaching tool, the Reading List. Even the brightest students benefit from being given a few good pointers on their essay question, pointers that ultimately help them to hone their own skills in looking more widely for materials on their own outside of the tutor's Reading List. Which of us has not been delighted when a bright student has supplemented the material on the reading lists with fine resources they have sought out themselves? I see just the same process taking place in the students' use of gateway resources.

Finally, I would like to comment on the future of gateway resources like my own. We had some discussion of this future on the biblio blogs back in January (see my post More on the future of the Megasites and the links to the other parts of the discussion there) and AKMA mentions one of the contributions to this discussion, from Torrey Seland. I hinted at the time, largely in agreement with Jim Davila, at something that more mature reflection confirms is the most valuable way ahead: to see the megasites as evolving, constantly embracing new, organic ways of responding to the new pressures and challenges. As I've commented in this post, blogging has been an unexpected but very welcome way of integrating many of the older elements of the NT Gateway into a format better suited for them, at the same time allowing and encouraging me to do many new things. I also feel that there is a great deal to be said for encouraging anyone who combines the requisite expertise with enthusiasm to develop particular areas of interest. As I commented on another occasion (Another idea on supersites), I would not begin to think of trying to emulate those with the requisite expertise who already have particular areas well covered, e.g. Steve Davies on the Gospel of Thomas or Torrey Seland on Philo or Jim Davila on Paleojudaica.

I am grateful to AKMA for his fascinating paper and in particular, I have been delighted to find myself stimulated to respond to his comments on the present and future of the "links pages". If I am in disagreement with his diagnosis of the problem with the gateway resources, it is not because I am not acutely aware of the need to think seriously about how they function at present and how they will develop in the future. In the end I could not agree more about the need to find innovative ways to encourage our students to develop the requisite critical sensibility to the vast multitude of different resources.

Update (Friday, 9.44 a.m.): Stephen Carlson posts an excellent response on Hypotyposeis.

Further update (Saturday, 11.32 a.m.): Torrey Seland comments and AKMA responds. Comments in due course.

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