A Portal for Inquiry

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A Portal for Inquiry

Educational Thought

A Portal for Inquiry


Saint Jerome in his Study
after Jan van Eyck, 1442
Detroit Institute of Arts

Thinking About

A Portal for Study
Looking Back to See Ahead

In Construction

EdThought is a a hub in the emerging network of intellect. Links on the navigation column at the left state our mission: EdThought is a portal for inquiry where the educator studies formative experience using intellect to strengthen the cultural commons. These links lead to the major nodes for the site, and each explains the node's conceptual function and links to the locus of our work.

A Portal for Inquiry

EdThought supports online work to broaden and deepen how students, scholars, and public persons understand formative experience. It is neither an organizational nor an informational site, but rather a collaborative means for advancing knowledge about formative experience through scholarship and criticism.

In historical time, the network of intellect is emerging very rapidly and educators need to discover and develop its salient characteristics and patterns of use. As a portal for inquiry, EdThought advances this goal.

Active Proximity Complements Physical Proximity

Digital networks are adding a new form of proximity to the ways physical proximity has traditionally supported intellectual work. Corporate, political, and academic elites, as well as teachers, students, and parents, all attend to the prospects of "distance learning" with much anticipation, both hopeful and foreboding. But so far the most significant adaptations from past practices have been the online course and the digital library. These provide a start, although both have characteristics and limitations arising from grouping people and activities closely together. Let's bracket concepts derived from the old regime and think about how EdThought can make good use of the Internet. How should we think about a portal for inquiry?

Both professional societies and academic departments use the principle of proximity, but in different ways. Professional societies periodically convene a broad representation of physically dispersed scholars to showcase work in the field,, but they are not particularly effective at providing ongoing support its intellectual development. Academic departments reverse the strengths and weaknesses: they are reasonably effective providing ongoing support. But even the grandest centers of strength can afford to support only a few academic stars working with a smattering of top students. We should think of a portal for inquiry such as EdThought as an effort to combine and strengthen aspects of what professional societies and academic departments. Thus, it can work to provide ongoing intellectual stimulation and collegial collaboration somewhat in the manner of an academic department to a self-selected cross-section of all the persons interested in its concerns in the mode of a professional society.

In synthesizing aspects of what professional societies and academic departments do, a portal for inquiry does not replace them, but complements them. The former both excel at addressing the material needs of scholars and scholarship, generating salaries ad facilitating promotion and tenure. A portal for inquiry can not and should not take on those concerns, for it needs to develop within the cultural commons where creative inquiry proceeds independent of material incentives. All people have a degree of leisure, many a considerable degree, and we might hypothesize that the obsessive pursuit of material goods in part arises, not from their intrinsic attraction, but in the absence of open, usable channels for culturally creative fulfillment.

People in the flush of mid-career, pursuing advancement, with the expenses of starting homes and educating children, may have limited energy for the cultural commons. But people in the flush of mid-career were once younger and they will be older, and those in both youth and maturity will able to make the cultural commons a major mode of self-expression. The network of intellect does not diminish interaction through physical proximity, but it cuts away distance and allows the development of proximity in collaborative activity, not in space but in action. As it does so, even those in the flush of mid-career may find work in the cultural commons beneficial, lowering the overhead incurred in productive work, expanding substantive resources, facilitating intellectual stimulation. These are goals an internet portal for inquiry can and should serve.

How Can Participants Use a Portal for Inquiry?

A look at how editors use Wikipedia helps one understand how participants can use a portal for inquiry built on the Mediawiki platform. The purposes pursued on Wikipedia and EdThought significantly overlap but differ in a key way: Wikipedia is an comprehensive encyclopedic project whereas EdThought is a project in a specific intellectual area dedicated to the advancement of learning.

As a comprehensive encyclopedic project, one of its guiding principles calls for "no original research, which prohibits the use of Wikipedia to publish personal views and original research of editors and defines Wikipedia's role as an encyclopedia of existing recognized knowledge." That principle differentiates the result, but it does not set apart the activities through which editors on Wikipedia implement their encyclopedic purpose from the activities scholars use in advancing knowledge. It does so no more than the activities of contributors to the great Encyclopédie of Diderot and d'Alembert set them apart from those of the philosophes. Quite the contrary, the overlap was almost complete. Basically, participants on EdThought can use the affordances of the Wikipedia project with the intent, not of making existing recognized knowledge about educational thinking more accessible, but with the intent of advancing the state of that knowledge.

This difference notwithstanding, Wikipedia's policies and guidelines set procedures for productive open-source intellectual cooperation and participants on a portal for inquiry should take them as a starting point. Wikipedia's policies and procedures are prolix, however, for contributors to the encyclopedia often have little academic experience and need things spelled out. What they spell out will already be standard practice for many participants on EdThought and will not need to labor through them. But knowing that they exist and being acquainted with them, recognizing their usefulness, not according to the letter of them but according to their spirit, may prove helpful should uncertainties or conflicts arise. Wikipedia's sprawling manual of style is also both valuable and important, akin to the style sheet of a major publishing house or newspaper, especially useful for EdThought because it promotes clarity and consistency for a large, online, intellectual collaboration on the Mediawiki platform.

Many potential participants on EdThought will be accustomed to informational websites that put forward only their substantive content and hide completely or largely the activity that created the content. A portal for inquiry is different in ways that one can explore by looking closely at how editors work on Wikipedia. Contributors on Wikipedia have a substantive presence there evident through their signed contributions to the Talk pages attached to every main page and through their User page, which each contributor gets on starting an account. These are important parts of the working environment; the locus of collaboration and tools for the construction of meaning. The cultural commons is far more open to all than the world of scholarship with its closed stacks and costly publications has ever been up to the present. And productive work in and for this cultural commons is itself becoming work in a much more open, public workplace.

And one more salient characteristic of Wikipedia is important: the output of work is continuous, always under revision, changing and expanding. And the output is not only the end product, the encyclopedia as such, but it is equally the tools and procedures that make the end product possible. The work is deeply recursive at multiple levels with work going into finding aids, software development, help and reference tools, and communications practices to promote cooperative effort at a distance. Recursive effort creates both the encyclopedia and the tools for the creation of the encyclopedia. As a portal for inquiry, EdThought will not only promote efforts to advance thinking about education, it will also develop, organize, and activate the intellectual resources needed to think creatively about education.

EdThought offers participants powerful, proven context for their intellectual work. What will come of it will unfold as the educator studies formative experience using intellect to strengthen the cultural commons.