Reflections on Knowledge Democratization in the Pandemic Era

Karen Ross, Boston, Massachusetts

I have been thinking a lot about the concept of ‘democratizing knowledge’ in recent weeks. Suddenly, as opportunities to connect in person have faded to almost none, the spread of information via phone, email, and social media – not to mention virtual meeting platforms – seems to have exponentially increased. 

One result of this has been, in some ways, the ultimate democratization of knowledge about certain topics: child development and education, for example. I say this from my perspective as a parent: almost overnight, I have become my children’s educator… and special educator, and speech therapist, and occupational therapist, and physical therapist. With no training or experience, I have been transformed into all of these things.

From a knowledge democratization perspective – part of what this has done is illustrate to me the limitations of moving all the way along the continuum from traditional notions of ‘expertise’ to their counterpart. I think often about people saying to me, “You know your child better than anyone!” This is true (well, except for my spouse). But what I do not know is how to best help my child who needs academic, physical, and social supports. And yet – here I am, not only being provided with information from others about how to support her, but also being requested (not quite required) to provide information in return: about what we have done, how she has done, and what strategies we will be trying next.

As a researcher, I am committed to democratizing knowledge to account for the lived experiences, backgrounds, and expertise of co-researchers in all the contexts where I work. But as a parent, I *know* that my expertise about my child is limited in comparison with that of the many trained specialists who work with her on a regular basis. And I also realize how lucky I am that my child has access to these specialists, and that I have the capacity (while at home) to spend time working with them now. This stands in contrast with so many individuals who, for many reasons, do not have access to the kind of expertise currently being shared with me and who thus out of necessity are (or perhaps are not) developing their own kinds of expertise – expertise that may or may not then ‘count’ when schools re-open. In other words: even as knowledge is shared in an unprecedented manner, the ways and with whom it is shared continue to highlight, and exacerbate, structural inequalities.

Where am I going with this? Surely I am not abandoning the concept of knowledge democratization. Indeed, in the current context where so little face-to-face interaction is possible, expertise and knowledge from every corner is needed to enable understanding of individual and collective experiences. But what is all the more clear in this context is how necessary it is to account for the different forms of knowledge each person brings to the circle, or the project, or the teamwork to support a young learner. In other words: we need to recognize the possibilities and limitations each one of us has, even as we work to narrow the gap in whose knowledge counts.

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