Journal Articles

In Search of Certitude

2008, EDUCAUSE Review

Bradley C. Wheeler


When we ask questions, we want answers. We want accurate answers, and we want those answers now, at Internet speed. In short, we are in search of certitude for the answers to our questions. For college and university communities, the questions needing answers can be myriad: “Which was Shakespeare’s first play?” “How do I configure Window’s Vista to connect to the campus Virtual Private Network?” “Where is parking for the Friday Art Exhibit?” “Where is the source dataset for the metabolomics simulation in lab paper WP2008-12a?” “What is a good source for the W131 Introduction to Writing required references?” “When did the trustees formally vote on the new purchasing rules?” “How do I hide the online roster for my multi-section course?”

Certitude may imply absolute infallibility of an answer, but it also recognizes a continuum of reasonable confidence that can be attributed to an answer. Though the word certitude is defined as “total certainty,” the modern quest for certitude encompasses the second part of this definition: “or greater certainty than circumstances warrant.”1 Questions and answers have sought each other for millennia, most often with an information seeker asking a question of someone with presumed greater knowledge. The Internet has enabled instant access to answers, but it has also brought new uncertainties over the accuracy of the answers, over access to contradictory answers, and over persisting difficulties in finding timely answers for some topics. Circumstances dictate when an immediate answer that is “good enough” is more valuable than a precise answer tomorrow.

Colleges and universities—as communities of both knowledge creators and information consumers—value all levels of certitude, with a refined sense for matching a level of confidence to a particular need. Researchers and scholars pursue questions and generate rigorous evidence to advance human knowledge. Staff—in libraries, at IT support desks, and in student enrollment services—provide answers daily to thousands of questions across a range of circumstances. As the second decade of the public Internet reveals a desire for immediate access to greater certitude, CIOs and other campus leaders have an opportunity to rethink how questions find answers that are good enough or quick enough for the context of need.


Wheeler, B. (2008), "In Search of Certitude," EDUCAUSE Review, Vol. 43, No. 3, pp. 14-34.