Hi Kay, thank you for your thoughtful contribution. It’s a real pleasure to welcome you to the FOSIL Group community. Please do subscribe to our all forums to receive notifications of new posts. We also look forward to meeting you in Rome.
I found myself largely in agreement with most of what they said but it did remind me of something that has been in the back of my mind for a while. In all the comparisons with Wikipedia, we need to be very careful of statements like “Even the most strident critics eventually came around. Wikipedia gained recognition in campus libraries as a tertiary source”, which imply that Wikipdedia was always fine and once we all stopped being so hysterical about it and looked at what it actually was, we realised it was actually pretty good and started to integrate it into teaching and learning. That does ignore the fact that Wikipedia got a lot better over the years.
It’s worth winding back through the ‘history’ of some of the early articles to remind ourselves of this. Even in 2008 there were long articles on important topics with just a few references – as an example, I looked through the President of the United States article history (one of the Wikipedia features I do really like):
The article was first written in September 2001
It got its first dedicated ‘References’ section in November 2007 (there had been a variety of iterations of external links, notes, further reading,footnotes and notes and references sections before that but nothing substantial), but it was pretty sparse.
The first time a “this article needs more citations” banner appeared was on July 19th2008, at which point the 5,200 word article had just 19 citations (274 words per citation). By comparison today’s article has 195 citations for an article with around 10,600 words (54 words per citation).
As Fister and Head acknowledge, at a certain point scientists and academics also started to actively engage with Wikipedia to help to improve the articles.
My point is that Wikipedia has got a lot better (perhaps closer to the more traditional encyclopaedia), which is why we can now – with caveats and reservations – include it in teaching and learning to an extent that would not have been sensible for about the first ten years. It does still have serious limitations as anything other than a tertiary source. As its founder Jimmy Wales famously said in 2006“For God [sic] sake, you’re in college; don’t cite the encyclopedia.”. For younger students (for whom citing an encyclopaedia might be appropriate) the content is just not written at an age appropriate level. In making this guide to Britannica School for a Year 7 (11-12 year olds) group this week I was reminded just how flexible and accessible it is for different age groups (click the arrows to scroll through the slides). Wikipedia does have its place, but I’m not sure how often it is actually a student’s most useful first port of call – and never their last.
I agree with Kay 100%. There is little point handwringing about how awful AI is and that it should be banned in educational settings based on how it manifests right now. It is bound to change and get better and objections based purely on how often it is wrong (which at the moment seems to be quite a lot!) will fall away. Equally it would be crazy to jump in and embrace it fully and enthusiastically without criticism, and not just because in its current incarnation it is flawed.
Kay is right that our focus needs to be on the big questions. Under the surface, the rapid evolution and adoption of AI has very serious ethical, moral, social and legal issues (and some particular ones related to largely being a proprietary technology, where corporate vested interests are always going to be an issue) which we as Librarians are ideally equipped to wrestle with. It is also likely to change the educational landscape hugely, just as the growth of the internet did. I left school just as the internet was really getting started in the mid 1990s, and my experience of education was quite different from students’ experiences today – and changes have generally been for the better I think.
I do think that discussions of Wikipedia are a distraction here (and Fister and Head point out that social media was arguably a much bigger influence in society than Wikipedia was). Wikipedia did not cause massive educational shifts because the information it carried was already ‘out there’ on the internet, it was just an (arguably for some) more convenient package. AI has the potential to cause seismic shifts because, while it is still working with information which is publicly available (as far as we know) it has the ability to endlessly synthesise and repackage that information to suit different agendas and voices. It is designed to give us what we want, even if that involves making stuff up. And what we want is not always what we need.
The challenge is going to be that this shift is likely to happen very rapidly. Almost certainly more rapidly than the original impact of the internet on education, in part because the connectivity is already there. Most people have internet enabled devices, and the vast majority of schools in the developed world certainly do. AI is, on the surface, fairly intuitive so everyone can have a go – and children are notoriously good and enthusiastic adopters of new technologies but, as any Librarian teaching search skills and source evaluation will tell you, they are generally not nearly as good as they think they are.
So if we have big questions to address about how AI will impact education and how we need to adapt to prepare children for an increasingly AI integrated world (with all the many complex issues that brings), then we need to act quickly. This is a debate about education and society, not about one particular technology or manifestation of that, and Librarians need to push to get a seat at the table, both as educational leaders plan for the future of education, and as leaders more broadly plan and legislate for the future of society. We absolutely need to be part of those conversations in our schools, with leaders, teachers and students (neither as doomsayers or cheerleaders but as voices of reason!). But we need to think beyond that as well.
“AI is moving far too quickly for the government or parliament alone to provide the real-time advice schools need. We are thus announcing today our own cross-sector body composed of leading teachers in our schools, guided by a panel of independent digital and AI experts. The group will create a website led by heads of science or digital at 15 state and private schools. It will offer guidance on the latest developments in AI and what schools should use and avoid.”
It really struck me that Librarians are not mentioned at all here (school librarians in the UK are not viewed as specialist teachers, so would not be included in the phrase ‘leading teachers’ as they might be overseas), and we need to be pushing for a voice in projects like this. This is the task, and we need to set our sights high. We absolutely need to be part of those conversations in our schools, and I’ve heard some wonderful stories of school librarians using the opportunities provided by a new technology that has unsettled some in their schools to get out into classrooms to offer their expertise. But that is not enough. AI has some serious and disturbing implications (as well as exciting opportunities) for education and for society and we need to explore these fully, take an informed position and make our voices heard as educators AND information professionals before others shape the future for us, and we are left on the sidelines, trying to justify our place in the new educational landscape rather than being part of shaping it.